By Rose O. Sherman, EdD, RN, FAAN
I was recently speaking to a nurse leader who had moved from a large urban hospital to a small community hospital in his home town. He made the move to take care of his aging parents. The hospital is in a close knit community. Most of the professional staff graduated from the local community college and have known each other for years. The culture is warm and family oriented. A downside that he quickly identified was the phenomena of “group think” that he felt was blocking the implementation of any innovative new ideas. Group think can happen in any setting.
What is Group Think?
Group Think has been defined as psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people when the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an incorrect or flawed decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences. In situations where there is group think, loyalty to the group way of thinking pressures individuals to avoid raising controversial issues or alternative solutions. When this occurs, there is a loss of individual creativity and independent thinking. Much of the early research work in this area was done by Irving Janus, a Yale psychologist.
An often cited example of group think is the Challenger disaster. Before the launch, some engineers on the project raised concerns about the ability of the O-ring seals to withstand the launch temperatures and opposed the launch. They were pressured by the group to reconsider their position and reverse their initial no-go position which they did with disastrous results.
Although this is an extreme example, you can probably think of other examples in your own setting. A colleague recently told me about a strategic decision in her organization where there was groupthink about plans to build a free standing ER. There were a few in the group who felt that this was not a wise idea for very solid reasons including geography and the location of a highly regarded hospital within close proximity. Their ideas were quickly over-ruled and not carefully considered in a groupthink situation. Now the decision is turning out to be a very expensive failure for the organization.
How can Leaders Prevent Group Think?
So how can leaders prevent groupthink situations from evolving? Here is some advice from the experts:
- Establish group norms to encourage and promote divergent thinking.
- Actively seek and value diversity on teams to include age, cultural, educational and ideas.
- Encourage independent versus group thinking….ie always ask whether there is a different perspective on the issue.
- Value and welcome divergent thinking.
- Reward truth speakers.
- Don’t voice an opinion as the leader until you have sought the opinion of group members.
- Embrace conflict – don’t quell it in the interest of harmony.
- Insist on debating the opposite viewpoint of an issue — what if we are wrong? Assign a devils advocate. As a young debate team member, I learned the importance of learning to debate both sides of any issue.
- Ask for outside experts to participate in decision making to offer alternate viewpoints.
- Prior to making a major decision, go around the room and ask each member for the pros and cons of the decision.
As a nurse leader, it is important to remember that while groupthink can have some benefits. When working with a large number of people, it can allow the group to make decisions, complete tasks, and finish projects quickly and efficiently. However, this phenomenon also has costs as well that need to be considered.
Read to Lead
Janis, I. L. (November 1971). “Groupthink”. Psychology Today 5 (6): 43–46, 74–76.
Shirey, M. (2013). Group Think, Organizational Strategy and Change. Journal of Nursing Administration. 42(2), 67-71.
© emergingrnleader.com 2013