Groupthink, the Major Decision-Making Problem in Teams and Organizations: The Case of the Ghanaian President’s Office, Traditional and Religious Deliberations

This article deals with Groupthink and how it impacts team discussions and group decision-making. It also discusses strategies we can adopt during meetings to minimize or avoid the negative impacts of Groupthink in group decision-making. Groupthink is where a group of people often agree on issues at meetings or in public deliberations because of their common traits, religion, ethnicity, culture, traditions, and political affiliations. People with shared characteristics such as ethnicity, religious faith, and traditions do not often disagree with one another to protect their in-group interests. Individuals who tend to disagree in such groups are normally branded as troublemakers. My question is: have you been a dissenter in a group or been branded as a troublemaker in your meetings because you often disagree when almost everyone tends to agree? If your answer is yes, you are probably one of those who engender critical thinking, creativity, and innovation in the group.

Almost all scientific development or revolutions resulted from people disagreeing with the traditional ways of thinking or worldviews. Technology is where it is because of people breaking away from the status quo. Science has progressed because some people see things differently from the traditional ways of doing science. At a time, Aristotelian Cosmic Physics was the predominant view of the church that controlled theology and natural science. While that view became questionable, a troublemaker like Galileo boldly challenged this view openly. That view was challenged earlier by people like Copernicus, who contrary to the Aristotelian geocentric worldview saw the sun as the center of the universe. In 1616 Galileo went to Rome to appeal the banning of Copernican theory. He was summoned before the court of Cardinal Bellarmine and told not to hold or defend Copernicanism. Galileo, the troublemaker, paved the way for Newton and others who ushered us into all the science and technology we take for granted now.

People do not have to feel bad if their group members brand them as troublemakers, awkward, or differently the next time they happen to be the only dissenters in meetings, for persistent dissenters improve the quality of group decision-making even if the dissenters are wrong. According to Berkeley social psychologist Charlan Jeanne Nemeth, challenging the majority or consensus view stimulates thinking and imagination. Everyone benefits when someone presents a thoughtful, contrarian view in a meeting. In Nemeth’s view, a challenge to the consensus generates necessary consideration and debate, resulting in improved decision-making and a more creative solution.

Groupthink occurs within a group when the desire for harmony or conformity results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. It is a problem that affects all levels of decision-making in organizations. The problem with Groupthink might have caused Dr. Arthur Kennedy some years ago to publish his book, “Chasing the Elephant into the Bush,” after the 2008 elections. Kennedy thought all avenues to express his divergent views within the party about its operations were blocked.

Though he understood the political cost of his action, he did it to get his point across since he could not penetrate through his party’s groupthink mentality to express his views. He wanted his party to do a clear-eyed autopsy of the election, so they could know what went wrong and how to fix it. He wanted his party to initiate dialogical conversations where different views were put on the table, digested, analyzed, and synthesized to arrive at the best solution for their party’s problem, but he could not.

Such a postmortem could not be done with the groupthink mindset that characterized many groups in our country. Social psychologist Irving Janis describes Groupthink as “the phenomenon in which a cohesive group finds itself prematurely converging on a solution to a problem due to powerful pressures for conformity.”

Groupthink stifles candid dialogues and debates since it causes people to hold back their concerns about majority decisions or opinions. Groupthink usually happens when first, the group feels that it is invulnerable and cannot fail. Second, when the group rationalizes away discomforting data and discount warnings. Third, when people think that they are inherently better than their rivals. Four, when the group holds stereotyped views of the enemy, and also when people self-censor their views because they do not want to challenge the majority view.

What happens in groupthink decision-making is that groups scarcely discuss alternative views. People in groupthink decision-making do not critically assess the risks associated with the decisions that appear to have the majority support. Further, members of groupthink decision-making often do not seek outside counseling or opinions. One frightening thing about groupthink decision-making is that the group’s collection and analysis of conclusions from data are characterized by confirmation bias: seeking data that support their preconceived opinions instead of data that unearth their problems.

This problem confronts decision-makers daily, from the least to the great. One place where Groupthink has become the norm and is causing political and economic havoc is the Ghanaian president’s office. The Ghanaian president’s office is often staffed with family members and people ethnically affiliated with the president. This is not a unique problem to only Akuffo Addo’s government but was common in the preceding governments. The major public policy decision-makers in Mr. Rawlings’s government were the Ewes, the Asantes in the Kuffour’s government, and the Northerners in Mr. Mahamah’s government. It is for this reason that I sympathized with Dr. Bawumia. The guy is getting bad press as the leader of the country’s economic management team as the Ghanaian economy continues to deteriorate, yet we do not know how much influence he has on the team, given the dominance of the Akyem members at the high level of the decision-making process. How many of you strongly believe that Dr. Bawumiah, an economist and a Moslem, would advise the government to spend millions of dollars on building a Cathedral in such an economic crisis? Just think!

What makes matters worse is that often such people have ethnic and self-centered interests that take precedence over national interests. It is easier for like-minded people to quickly agree on the status solutions with little discussion or deliberation. Policies that may benefit the nation but have little benefit for the ethnic groups are put on the back burner. It is not that people in power do not know what is good for the country or the best things to do; instead, the fact is that they prefer policies that benefit their groups. Groupthink is also predominant in Ghanaian traditional rulers’ and religious leaders’ meetings. Who dares you to challenge the Asante king or a bishop of a church?

Usually, people in groupthink decision-making do not consider contingency plans because of their myopic and dogmatic views about their decisions. They do not also engage in rational decision-making or game theory, where they gauge or brainstorm all the tactical possibilities of their opponents and devise a plan to counter them. Research has shown that, generally, dissent stimulates broader thought, takes in more information, and, on balance, leads to better decisions and more creative solutions. Listening to only the majority views can be dangerous because disagreement and criticism engender innovation, persuasion, and error correction. Good decision-making requires divergent thinking, an unbiased search for information from all perspectives of the matter at stake, considering multiple alternatives, and weighing the benefits and costs.

Group decision-making requires careful and thoughtful deliberation, where participants can generate solutions to societal problems from various choices, ideas, and thoughts without prejudice. However, this is difficult to achieve in our society, where extreme cynicism by in-group members makes it difficult to accept the opposing group’s views, capabilities, and competence.

I believe no debriefing of our past actions can be meaningful without groups or parties removing the structural complexity in and around the group or party that acts as significant barriers to candid dialogues. Dissent leads to an interest in individual, group, and organizational creativity. In her book, “In Defense of Troublemaker,” Dr. Nemeth emphasized the power and value of dissent for the quality of decision-making and the creativity of solutions.

We can minimize the adverse effects of Groupthink in organizations or teams by recruiting diverse groups of people, encouraging conflict and debate at meetings, assigning the devil’s advocate role, gathering outside opinions, and allowing for independent evaluation. It is essential to devote time during meetings to challenge the status quo and seek new ways of doing things. Leaders must always play an impartial role and defer their opinion on issues to the last minute. Leaders and teams must overcome biases against novel ideas and promote organizational innovation and renewal. They need to encourage interdisciplinary groups to work together to integrate knowledge and develop new ideas.

Groupthink results in bad decisions because exclusion of dissenters stifles creativity and initiatives; it blinds decision makers to potential problems, and excessive deference to authority—dissension, disagreement, and speaking truth to power lead to integrative, holistic, and well-refined decisions. The dissent also causes decision-makers to examine all aspects of an issue, weighing every cost and benefit of decisions. Dissenters had brought scientific revolutions and promoted science and technology that had improved the living standards of all humans.

Source: Modern Ghana