You are perhaps aware that in recent times most of the decisions in any large organisation are usually taken by a group of people (e.g., Board of Directors, Committees, Task-force, etc.) rather than by a single individual manager, however, brilliant, bright or powerful the manager may be. Perhaps from your own experience, you are also aware of some of the obvious advantages and disadvantages of group decision making like the one given below:
Looking at this kind of a balance-sheet on group decision making, you may well ask whether, on the whole, groups are superior to individuals as far as the decision making effectiveness is concerned. It is not possible to give a categorical answer without reference to the nature of the people, the nature of the group and the context in which the group is making a decision. However, what we know about the impact of the groups in decision making process has been summarised by Harrison (1975) in the following way:
- In establishing objectives, groups are typically superior to individuals in that they possess greater cumulative knowledge to bring to bear on problems.
- In identifying alternatives, individual efforts are important to ensure that different and perhaps unique solutions are identified from various functional areas that later can be considered by the group.
- In evaluating alternatives, group judgement is often superior to individual judgement because it brings into play a wider range of viewpoints.
- In choosing an alternative, involving group members often leads to greater acceptance of the final outcome.
- In implementing the choice, individual responsibility is generally superior to group responsibility, Regardless of whether decisions are made individually or collectively, individuals perform better in carrying out the decision than groups do.
As you can well see, groups do have some edge over individuals in certain stages of
the decision making process. For this reason, you have to ‘decide’ to what extent you should involve others (particularly, your subordinates in the work group) to participate in decisions affecting their jobs. In fact, you have to take a position on the continuum of degrees of participation in decision making (See Figure I).
Figure I: Continuum of Degrees of Participation in Decision Making
Based on a series of studies on managerial decisions making behaviour, Vroom and Yetton (1973) found evidence in support of the following propositions:
- Managers tend to be more participative when the quality of the decision is important.
- Managers tend to be more participative when subordinate acceptance of the decision is critical for its effective implementation.
- Managers tend to be more participative when they trust their subordinates to focus on organisational rather than personal goals and when conflict among subordinates is minimal.
- Managers tend to be less participative when they have all the necessary information to make a high quality decision.
- Managers tend to be less participative when the immediate problem is well structured or where there is a common solution that has been applied in similar situations in the past.
- Managers tend to be less participative when time is limited and immediate action is required.
At this juncture, it will be useful for you to be aware of two phenomena which have been observed in group decision making situations. Technically these two phenomena, which are sometimes experienced in a group decision situation, are referred to as ‘Risky shift phenomenon’ and ‘Groupthink’.
- Risky Shift Phenomenon
Contrary to the popular belief that groups are usually more conservative than individuals there is abundant evidence to support the proposition that groups make riskier decisions than individuals do. There are four possible reasons. First, risk takers are persuasive in getting more cautious companions to shift their position. Second, as members of a group familiarise themselves with the issues and arguments they seem to feel more confident about taking risks. Third, the responsibility for decision making can be diffused across members of the group. Fourth, there is the suggestion that in our culture people do not like to appear cautious in a public context.
Closely related to the risky-shift, but more serious, is the phenomenon known as ‘groupthink’. This phenomenon, first discussed by Janis (1971), refers to a mode of thinking in a group in which the seeking of concurrence among members becomes so dominant that it over-rides any realistic appraisal of alternative course of action. The concept emerged from Janis’ studies of high level policy decisions by government and business leaders. By analysing the decision process leading up to each action, Janis found numerous indications pointing to the development of group norms that improved morale at the expense of critical thinking. One of the most common norms was the tendency to remain loyal to the group by continuing to adhere to policies and decisions to which the group was already committed, even when the decisions proved to be in error.
Outcomes of groupthink: Groupthink can have several deleterious consequences on the quality of decision making. First, groups often limit their search for possible solutions to problems to one or two alternatives and avoid a comprehensive analysis of all possible alternatives. Second, groups often fail to re-examine their chosen course of action after new information or events suggest a change in course. Third, group members spend very little time considering whether there are any non-obvious advantages to alternative courses of action compared to the chosen course of action. Fourth, groups often make little or no attempt to seek out the advice of experts either inside or outside their own organisation. Fifth, members show positive interest in facts that support their preferred decision alternative and either ignore or show negative interest in facts that fail to support it. Finally, groups often ignore any consideration of possible roadblocks to their chosen decision and, as a result, fail to develop contingency plans for potential setbacks.
OVERCOMING BARRIERS TO EFFECTIVE DECISION MAKING
You have just examined different outcomes of a faulty group decision process under the phenomenon called groupthink. In fact, these “faults” are not exclusive to group decisions only. You will appreciate that in the early stages of any decision process, there is the likelihood that a variety of perceptual biases may interfere with problem analysis or the identification of possible solutions. Elbing (1978) has identified several roadblocks that can impede managerial effectiveness in arriving at the most suitable decision:
- The tendency to evaluate before one investigates. Early evaluation precludes inquiry into a fuller understanding of the situation.
- The tendency to equate new and old experiences. This often causes managers to look for what is similar rather than what is unique in a new problem.
- The tendency to use available solutions, rather than consider new or innovative ones.
- The tendency to deal with problems at face value, rather than ask questions that might illuminate reasons behind the more obvious aspects of the problem.
- The tendency to direct decisions toward a single goal. Most problems involve multiple goals that must be handled simultaneously.
- The tendency to confuse symptoms and problems.
- The tendency to overlook unsolvable problems and instead concentrate on simpler concerns.
- The tendency to respond automatically or to act before thinking.
Problems like these often cause managers to act in haste before the facts are known and often before the actual underlying problem is recognised or understood. Knowledge of these roadblocks will assist you in your attempts to analyse problem situations and make reasoned decisions.
In case you are a member or leader of any decision making group, you would like to overcome the emergence of a groupthink mentality in groups and organisations. Taking your cue from Janis you can now formulate several strategies to overcome the barriers:
- Group leaders can encourage each member to be a critical evaluator of various proposals.
- When groups are given a problem to solve, leaders can refrain from stating their own position and instead encourage open enquiry and impartial probing of a wide range of alternatives.
- The organisation can give the same problem to two different independent groups and compare the resulting solutions.
- Before the group reaches a final decision, members can be required to take a respite at intervals and seek advice from other wings of the organisation before returning to make a decision.
- Outside experts can be invited to group meetings and encouraged to challenge the views of group members.
- At every group meeting, one member could be appointed as a devil’s advocate to challenge the testimony of those advocating the majority position.
- When considering the feasibility and effectiveness of various alternatives, divide the group into two sections for independent discussions and compare results.
- After deciding on a preliminary consensus on the first choice for a course of action, schedule a second meeting during which members of the group express their residual doubts and rethink the entire issue prior to finalising the decision and initiating action.
In other words, if groups are aware of the problems of groupthink, several specific and relatively simple steps can be taken to minimise the likelihood of falling victim to this problem. As you already know, recognising the problem represents half the battle in the effort to make more effective decisions in organisational settings.