Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Small Groups Make Bad Decisions

April 13, 1998

Are you a part of a volunteer board? A church board? A county commission? A member of a family business? A planning committee? A governmental body? An "ingroup" of teenagers?

Can a group be too close and work too well together? Can a leader be so well respected that the group follows blindly without enough consideration of other ideas? If there is little opposition, can too much discussion hurt rather than help?

In small town America, an additional challenge of life is meeting and dealing with fellow board members and the public in a variety of social situations. Opinions and decisions that are made can affect people you know and continually work with. The influence to conform to the majority is very strong in those circumstances.

Small groups of well-meaning people can make hasty, wrong-headed and hurtful decisions. Here’s how underlying group dynamics can have a negative effect on decisions:

1. It’s easy to go from the middle to an extreme. This happens when group members start with similar opinions. As persuasive arguments are made in favor of a position, other group members will adopt the more extreme views to be in line with the arguments being made.

First, taking an extreme position is more likely if most of the group members know each other's opinion before discussion begins. Secondly, the shift to a more extreme positions takes place when the group considers themselves to be an ingroup with highly similar backgrounds and opinions.

Solution: Refrain from talking about policy privately before the meeting. Start the meeting with dissenting opinions first. Let the most persuasive advocate speak last. Call a break after the last speaker's remarks so his or her remarks won't be ringing in the decision-makers ears when they are making a decision.

Add diversity and independent thinkers to the group so there is a broader range of discussion. Break up any in-group patterns in which the same people bear an inordinate amount of the work and influence. Have a regular rotation of officers.

Letting the in-group run things is easy when group members don't have specific responsibilities and accountability. Members participate well when they believe that their contributions are identifiable or think their own role is uniquely necessary for the group to succeed. They become stronger and more vocal when they are given tasks that are personally relevant and challenging.

2. Unanimous decisions can become too important. In groups that are cohesive, members allow their desire to be in agreement with fellow group members to override their feelings. The discussion of alternative courses of action is shut down prematurely.

Irrational decisions are made when group members worry about fitting in and being approved by their fellow group members. As a group they become less open-minded and feel they are invulnerable to mistakes.

Besides high group cohesiveness the members of the group may also have:

- similar backgrounds

- relative isolation from others

- the presence of a strong leader

- a lack of systematic procedures for making and reviewing decisions

- a newly developed crisis or stressful situation.

Solution: According to social psychologist, I.L. Janis, here are some good strategies to overcome the effects of too much group cohesiveness.

- Avoid isolation by bringing in people who aren't members of the group into the group discussion. Open the floor to visitors and guests to get a full range of opinions.

- The strong leader of a cohesive group can increase his or her impartiality by refraining from taking a strong position and encouraging criticism of his or her decisions.

- Establish a norm of critical review by appointing two groups to work independently on the same policy issue.

- Assign one member to be a "devil's advocate."

- Hold second chance meetings where a preliminary decision can be reconsidered.

3. It is hard to be in the minority. The majority is powerful by their sheer numbers. However, a large group can change their opinion based on the lead of one person. The minority position can hold sway by the style in which they approach their influence.

The minority position will have more credibility with the group if the proponent has been a group "insider." A group member needs to establish a track record for respecting group norms and conforming to group decisions. When it comes time to challenge the majority opinion, he or she will have credibility. However, if a member has adopted the role of being a contrarian, his or her opinion will be discounted.

Minority members can influence the majority if:

- their position has been consistent

- they are not considered rigid, biased or deviant in some way

- they don't waver in support of their opinion

- they aren't perceived as giving an opinion based on a vested interest

- they are joined by another member who supports their point of view.

Here is some important advice. If your group is too agreeable and works together well, be careful. You can do a lot of harm by not fully considering minority viewpoints.