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Why dissent is vital to effective decision-making.

In government, in corporate boardrooms, every day across the landpeople gather in groups to make decisions.
More often than we would like these decisions turn out to be wrong,sometimes very badly wrong.
Governments waste billions, corporations go bankrupt and people suffer.
So why do groups sometimes make such awful decisions?
Group decision-making can go wrong in a number ofpredictable ways, but one of the most common is groupthink.
Groupthink is a well-known psychological phenomenon, but lesswell-known are the techniques for fighting it.
Understanding how groupthink occurs and what can be done to fightit is vital for effective decision-making in groups, and consequentlyvital for well-run society and profitable businesses.


Groupthink emerges because groups are often very similar in backgroundand values.
Groups also usually like—or at least have a healthy respect for—eachother.
Because of this, when trying to make a decision, a consensus emergesand any evidence to the contrary is automatically rejected, ridiculedeven.
Individual members of the group don’t want to rock the boat because itmight damage personal relationships.
The groupthink pioneer was psychologist Irving Janis.
He analysed the decisions made by three US presidents (Kennedy,Johnson and Nixon) to extend the war in Vietnam.
Groupthink, he argued, explained why they had become locked intheir course of action, unable to explore alternatives.
Subsequent psychological research has backed up Janis’ arguments.
Experiments show that people are quick to adopt the majorityposition and, crucially, they ignore all the potential alternativesand all the conflicting evidence.
(Nemeth& Kwan, 1987)

Manufacturing dissent

Fighting back against groupthink, Janis argued, is all about vigilantdecision-making.
What this means in practice is trying to make the group aware ofproblems with the consensus and offer alternatives.
To do this someone in the group has to be critical.

Encouraging critical thinking is not easy, but it is possible:

  • Devil’s advocate:
    Someone in the group, but not usually the leader, is assigned therole of trying to spot holes in the decision-making process.
    This approach was tested by Hirt & Markman who encouraged experimentalparticipants to generate multiple solutions.
    The results showed that these participants demonstrated lowersusceptibility to group bias.
    Hirtand Markman (1995)
  • The power of authentic dissent:
    Unfortunately for the devil’s advocate, they can easily be ignoredbecause people don’t take them seriously.
    Better, then, is someone who really believes in their criticisms.
    The following research found that when compared with a devil’sadvocate, authentic dissenters were more likely to provide a greaterquantity and quality of effective solutions.
    Nemeth et al. (2001)
  • Nurturing authentic dissent:
    Group leaders play a crucial role in encouraging (or crushing) dissent.
    The following research analysed the decisions made by a panelinvestigating new medical technologies.
    Vinokur et al.(1985)
    The best outcomes were associated with a facilitative chairpersonwho encouraged participation from the group rather than one who wastoo directive.

These techniques for eradicating group-think, then, revolve aroundencouraging dissent.
In the interests of making a good decision, someone has to becritical otherwise mistakes are easily made.
This may seem relatively obvious but there are all sorts of reasonswhy dissent is never expressed.
Nemeth& Goncalo, 2004

  • Organisations often recruit on the basis of who will fit in andnot rock the boat.
    The stereotypical yes-man often emerges, perhaps unconsciously, asperfect for the job.
  • Group cohesiveness is highly valued for productivity (‘are you ateam-player?’): groups who are always bickering are perceived asgetting less work done.
  • Disagreement and the expression of conflicting opinions makespeople uncomfortable and they try to suppress it, partly becausedissent is easily misinterpreted as disrespect or even a personalattack.
  • Dissenters are often labelled as trouble-makers and targeted foreither conversion to the consensus or outright expulsion from thegroup.

As a result dissenters in groups are likely to be an endangered species.
To be effective dissenters must tread a fine line, avoiding pointlessconfrontation or personal attacks; instead presenting minorityviewpoints in an even-handed, well-modulated and authenticfashion.
For their part the majority has to fight its instinct to crushdissenters and recognise the risk they are taking in being critical ofthe majority opinion.
Although the majority consensus may well be right, it can be moresecure in its decision if dissent is encouraged and all the optionsare explored.

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