“You cannot hinder someone’s free will, that’s the first law of the Universe, no matter what the decision” – E.A Buccianeri
The concept of choice and free will is something that can often be taken for granted as we believe that we live out relatively unhindered existences! We work hard in our glass palaces, then relax by basking in all of capitalism’s gifts. During the day, even if we are not the boss, we generally (in the Western World) believe that we have free choice, and that our opinions are important. But is this always the case?
This articles deconstructs the concepts of small groups and groupthink. It aims to start a dialogue and pose challenging questions on whether within a smaller group environment we are truly thinking for ourselves, or are heavily influenced by the dynamics, ethics and politics of a group. While compromises are often necessary, this article aims to dive deeper and examine how and why our free will can be (often subconsciously) shaped through small group environments. It cross references research on the negative effects of groupthink, and then presents some potential solutions to assist teams in not loosing sight of “the big picture.”
Before we begin we must first answer the question of what is a small group? On face-value, this seems as subjective as the old “how long is a piece of string” question. To a global conglomerate, small might be a geographic region, whereas to a small business this could be confined to a few staffers. For our purposes, we will use Pennington’s (2011, p4) definition that states a small group is “between two and up to 30 members.” Unlike a simple aggregate of people, a group needs to fulfill two underlying goals criteria – interaction and interdependence of group member and need and goal alignment of members towards a particular end state (PSY 533, 2017).
But aren’t all groups the same? What makes a small group so different? Penn State (2017) defines four main differences between smaller groups and their larger counterparts:
- Have either a problem-solving or a task-specific orientation
- Are generally more democratic
- Have set meeting places (digital or real)
- Are more cohesive
Now in terms of dynamics, this is where free will can sometimes be lost. “Initial input into the group’s affective experience involves the individual-level moods and emotions of group members” (Kelly & Barsade, 2001). However after this, due to the nature of the small group, things get complicated. While out of the scope for this article, a high level overview of how dynamics can be mapped is presented below
(Kelly & Barsade, 2001)
In order to attempt to explain how members of small groups might adopt the will of the group, rather than their own, we will explore each of the four small group characteristics in more depth to identify variables which could impact a person’s thinking and create groupthink.
Task Specificity – when a team of people is tasked with completing specific, or solving a specific problem, they can often overlook the great goals of an organization and their “hyper-focus…leads to mistakes or ethical quandaries” (Bennett, 2009). This can exacerbate itself even further when the small-group is a targeted or niche team, with predisposed skills and notions of success.Small groups must ensure that they periodically take unbiased examinations of their actions to that of the larger organization (PSY 533, 2017).
Democratic Process – Small groups generally have “fewer communication channels to monitor, and therefore can focus on high-quality relationships,” (PSY 533, 2017) which in turns makes them more democratic overall. While this is overall a very good characteristic that can breed successful outputs, in a democracy not everyone is happy at all times!
Meeting Places – If meeting places are not defined or respected, then the communication channels of the small group can break down. Also, other meeting areas outside of work such as bars could be leveraged, which in turn might breed temptations of vices and have a slew of negative consequences (PSY 533, 2017).
Cohesion – Much like democracy, at its surface a cohesive unit is a great thing – a cohesive unit trusts in one another and facilitates better discourse and outputs! But in terms of groupthink, cohesion is the single most important factor in small groups that can cause people to loose their free will.
Groupthink is a phenomenon in which, “as a result of in-group pressures, a group prematurely, and often erroneously, comes to a consensus over a key issue or strategy despite evidence that points to the existence of ill-debated alternative courses of action” (Ntayi, et al., 2010). Penn State (2017) confirms that the overly cohesive group does not want to upset the status quo, even if wrong choices are made in order to maintain it!
The table below outlines a typology linking the five characteristics present in small groups and self managing teams, to the groupthink antecedent conditions that Janis presented in initial studies (Moorhead, Neck & West, 1998):
To supplement this high-level summary of consequences, there has been countless research on the negative effects of groupthink and the general consensus is that it can breed serious problems. “Members attempt to maintain a shared, positive view of the functioning of the group in the face of a collective threat” and in turn “formulate poorer quality solutions than groups in the low-threat cell” (Turner, Pratkanis, Probasco & Leve, 1992).
As well as this, Heise’s (2013) research proves some subconsiouce side effects of this groupthink phenomena as a “monopolization of interaction by a few group members is an emergent,” and these members have direct and indirect influences on their peers. Even without a formal leader, power players aim to influence the group to their train of thought!
So what can we do to try and mitigate groupthink in our work environments, and ensure that group members are genuinely allowed to express their free will rather than be manipulated by their environments? Penn State (2017) lists the following precautions that we can be cognizant of and implement in our own small groups. These are all derived from Irving Janus’ (the pioneer of groupthink’s) research:
- Group leader should assign role of critical evaluator to each member.
- Leader should be impartial and not state preferences prior to discussion.
- Organization should set up independent groups to work on the same problem to compare possible solutions.
- Group should occasionally break into subgroups to work on the problem.
- Each group member should discuss group decisions with a trusted associate.
- Outside experts should be invited to group meetings to challenge group views.
- At least one member should be assigned the role of devil’s advocate.
- Group should survey rival group/competition’s warning signals.
- After preliminary decision, group should have a second-chance meeting.
To summarize – act small, think big. We need to ensure that we put the appropriate safeguards in place so that when using small groups, every individual member is allowed to maintain their free will and has a positive impact on the group.
Bennett (2009, March 15). Ready, aim…fail. Why setting goals can backfire. The Boston Globe, C1.
Bucchianeri, E. A. (2011). Brushstrokes of a Gadfly. New York City: Batalha.
Kelly, J. R., & Barsade, S. G. (2001). Mood and emotions in small groups and work teams.Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 86(1), 99-130. doi:10.1006/obhd.2001.2974
Heise, D. R. (2013). Modeling interactions in small groups. Social Psychology Quarterly, 76(1), 52-72. doi:10.1177/0190272512467654
Lowman, R. L. (2006). The ethical practice of psychology in organizations(2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association
Moorhead, G., Neck, C. P., & West, M. S. (1998). The tendency toward defective decision making within self-managing teams: The relevance of groupthink for the 21st century.Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 73(2), 327-351. doi:10.1006/obhd.1998.2765
Ntayi, J. M., Byabashaija, W., Eyaa, S., Ngoma, M., & Muliira, A. (2010). SOCIAL COHESION, GROUPTHINK AND ETHICAL BEHAVIOR OF PUBLIC PROCUREMENT OFFICERS. Journal of Public Procurement, 10(1), 68-92. Retrieved from http://ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/docview/518419679?accountid=13158
Pennington, D. C. (2014). The social psychology of behaviour in small groups. New York: Routledge.
PSY 533. (2017). Unit 05, Lesson 10: Crises. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1868786/pages/l10-overview?module_item_id=23063480
PSY 533. (2017). Unit 05, Lesson 11: Small Groups. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1868786/pages/l11-overview?module_item_id=23063491
Turner, M. E., Pratkanis, A. R., Probasco, P., & Leve, C. (1992). Threat, cohesion, and group effectiveness: Testing a social identity maintenance perspective on groupthink. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(5), 781-796. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1991