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Anxiety and defective decision making: an elaboration of the groupthink model

Judith Chapman
School of Management, University of Western Sydney, Sydney, Australia
Purpose This article sets out to revisit Janis groupthink theory that holds that, when anxiety is present for a decision-making group, premature concurrence seeking emerges unless other mitigating factors are present. Research from selected segments of the decision making literature are introduced to explain the underlying causes of concurrence seeking. The result is an elaboration of the theory based on a synthesis of older and newer ideas, supporting Janis core thesis that anxiety triggers this phenomenon. Design/methodology/approach The paper is conceptual and draws on literature addressing the impact of emotions on decision-making behaviour; human responses to anxiety, including psychological defence modes and mechanisms; and groupthink research and writing. Findings The theoretical elaboration of the groupthink model centres on the idea that anxiety associated with a decision task triggers implicit motivations of anxiety reduction in groups, which are enacted through the activation of common defence mechanisms, thus resulting in the symptoms of defective decision making. A table that recasts the symptoms of groupthink as common defence mechanisms is provided. Research limitations/implications Suggestions are made for broadening the conceptual base of the groupthink model, including consideration of the research on negative and positive emotions. Practical implications The article distinguishes between poor decision making due to groupthink and other causes. Remedies for the emergence of groupthink include better approaches to recognising and surfacing anxiety and other negative emotions, so they can be managed constructively. Such remedies complement more conventional methods of improving group decision making. Originality/value The article focuses on the underlying causes of premature concurrence seeking, an aspect of the groupthink model that is not well understood. It builds on Janis explanation of anxiety as the main cause, by elaborating the linkages between the presence of anxiety, the symptoms of groupthink and the signs of defective decision making. In this, the article draws on research into the effects of negative emotions on decision-making behaviour and related theories. It synthesises several research streams to provide a more comprehensive explanation of concurrence seeking. Keywords Group thinking, Decision making, Psychology Paper type Conceptual paper

Anxiety and decision making

Received April 2006 Revised August 2006 Accepted September 2006

Concurrence seeking behaviour The groupthink model was proposed by Janis (1972, 1982) as an explanation for poor decision making processes and outcomes in groups. Using a small number of well-known policy making disasters, including the decision to invade Cuba during the Cold War, Janis associated certain contextual conditions with a concurrence seeking tendency. The term groupthink is appropriate only when the concurrence seeking emerges prematurely, thus curtailing thinking and discussion, and increasing the

Management Decision Vol. 44 No. 10, 2006 pp. 1391-1404 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 0025-1747 DOI 10.1108/00251740610715713

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This is Janis's conception See Figure 1

Overview of the literature

likelihood of poor decision outcomes (Longley and Pruitt, 1980). This phenomenon is not inevitable in decision making groups. Indeed, Janis (1972) and Neck and Moorhead (1992) described several cases where policy makers worked closely together to solve a complex dilemma while displaying few, if any, symptoms. The puzzle then, was this: why does a groupthink tendency happen in some problem solving situations and not in others? For Janis (1972) the answer was to be found in the characteristics of the context within which the decision was made. He theorised that groupthink only emerged when group members were faced with a decision task in a provocative situational context involving a moral dilemma or risks of material losses. Such contexts were stressful they made the decision makers anxious and fearful of not coping adequately. The stress was exacerbated in situations where the group had experienced previous failures (Janis, 1982). From Janiss perspective concurrence seeking was a form of striving for mutual support to help group members cope with the emotion, and this was only really possible for groups that were highly cohesive. In fact, he thought that cohesiveness was the most important factor in the emergence of a groupthink tendency. However, cohesiveness was not in itself sufcient to explain why groupthink occurred since not all groups succumbed to it. Apart from the provocative situational context, he proposed an additional set of structural antecedent conditions: a leader actively promoting his or her own solutions; homogeneity of group members; lack of methodical decision-making procedures; and insulation of the group from the opinions of other qualied associates. Janis did not think that all of these needed to be present. Over a period of several decades a considerable amount of research and writing has been generated with regard to the groupthink model. However, the results provide only partial validation of it (McCauley, 1998; Aldag and Fuller, 1993; McCauley, 1989), and little support for the central notion that groups need to be cohesive for premature concurrence-seeking to take hold (Aldag and Fuller, 1993; Park, 1990). Theorists and researchers have responded in two ways to these results. On the one hand, various modications to the chain of causality in the model have been proposed, and some new variables have been factored in (e.g. Neck and Moorhead, 1995). A different, but complementary response is to probe more deeply into, or re-evaluate the underlying theory about concurrence seeking, its causes and impact on decision making behaviour in groups. This aspect of the groupthink model is not well understood (Neck and Moorhead, 1995). This current paper is primarily of the latter kind: it revisits Janis (1972, 1982) theory of concurrence seeking, and reviews it in the light of selected segments of the decision making literature, including knowledge about the inuence of emotion on decision making that was not available until relatively recently. The result is an elaboration of Janiss theory based on a synthesis of older and newer ideas. This elaboration supports the core thesis that anxiety triggers premature concurrence seeking, while also explaining why cohesiveness is not a necessary condition for the concurrence seeking to occur. In brief, the explanation of concurrence seeking presented in this paper builds on the work of Janis (1972, 1982) while providing a different explanation for research results that on rst appearance, weaken the efcacy of the groupthink effect. The literature used for this elaboration of the groupthink model is from a wider range of theoretical streams than is usual. This is done deliberately, and in the view of the author is necessary to progress groupthink research and related management

practice. Fuller and Aldag (1998) and Paulus (1998) argued that the conceptual base of the model needed to be generally broadened in the light of the research results, while McCauley (1998) argued for a broader and more consistent use of research in group dynamics. In addition, Fuller and Aldag (1998) was concerned that groupthink studies had lionised the research on group decision making, and that articial boundaries were being drawn between premature concurrence seeking and other causes of poor decision making. This may have, he suggested, hampered progress on decision making in groups generally, as well as on the groupthink phenomenon itself, through the exclusion of potentially useful ideas from related research domains. Since a special 1998 issue of Organization Behavior and Human Decision Processes, relatively few papers have been published on groupthink, and fresh ideas are needed. This review and elaboration of the groupthink model therefore seems timely. The article proceeds with an overview of the existing model and the research results. It then turns to alternative explanations of concurrence seeking, followed by the proposed amendments to the original. The paper concludes with some implications for research and suggestions for management practice. The groupthink model Concurrence-seeking is a tendency towards convergence and mutual agreement in problem solving groups. Groupthink is the term used to describe a situation where concurrence seeking emerges before a problem or proposed solution has been sufciently analysed or evaluated. The full groupthink model proposes a causal link connecting the structural antecedent conditions, a concurrence-seeking tendency, symptoms of groupthink, indications of defective decision making, and a decision outcome marked by low probability of success. The model is depicted in Figure 1. The symptoms of groupthink were derived from case study observation undertaken by Janis himself and include collective rationalisation of information, self-censoring information that does not t current positions and placing pressure on group members with dissenting points of view. When these symptoms are present, the group is more likely to exhibit specic defects in the way it searches for and processes information about the problem at hand. The likelihood of poor decision outcomes increases in relation to the prevalence of these defects, summarised by Neck (1996, p. 6) as:
incomplete survey of alternatives; incomplete survey of objectives; failure to examine risks or the preferred choice; failure to reappraise initially rejected alternatives; poor information search, selective bias in processing the information at hand, and failure to work out contingency plans.

Anxiety and decision making


Structure of the article

The research and writing on groupthink is summarised in the two sections below. The rst looks at research on the variables and the chain of causality in the model, while the second turns to theories explaining premature concurrence seeking. Research on model variables and causality In testing the model, case study researchers typically look for the presence of antecedent conditions and symptoms of groupthink in real scenarios where defective decision making was evident. For example, Kramer (1998) used new evidence to revisit the Bay of Pigs asco; Moorhead et al. (1991) analysed the Challenger disaster; and Eaton (2001) looked at two cases from British corporate management, British Airways

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Figure 1. Janiss groupthink model

and Marks & Spencer. In general, researchers have found certain of the antecedent conditions in the presence of groupthink symptoms, but in various combinations. These results provide general support for the model: we can conclude that groupthink does occur from time to time, but the factors that trigger it are unclear or vary in their effects in different situations. Laboratory studies have generally tested for the presence and strength of linear relationships between selected antecedent conditions and symptoms of groupthink. Overall, the evidence provides only partial support for the model. Neck and Moorhead (1995) noted that most of the studies to that point had focused on the interactive effects of cohesiveness and the structural faults. Their review, and those of others (Aldag and Fuller, 1993; McCauley, 1989) indicated that the best predictors of groupthink were closed leadership style (the presence of a strong leader showing early support for a particular solution to the problem) and lack of methodical processes for making decisions. For example, Longley and Pruitt (1980) found that the presence of structural faults increased the tendency for early development of a norm towards a particular choice in cohesive groups, possibly explaining the symptoms of defective decision making. Consistent with this, research showed that the existence of norms regarding methodical procedures reduced the groupthink tendency (Callaway and Esser, 1984). Flowers (1977) and Leana (1985) each found that closed or directive leaders who discouraged diverse opinions and promoted their favoured solutions received fewer suggestions from their teams. Most damaging for the original formulation from the

accumulated evidence is the lack of support for the link between cohesiveness and symptoms of groupthink (Aldag and Fuller, 1993; Park, 1990). The provocative situational context (producing stress and anxiety) has received little attention from researchers, which is surprising, given its importance in the original model. Callaway et al. (1985) found support for the hypothesis that concurrence-seeking is a stress-reduction process that was not mitigated by the presence of decision making procedures while Turner (1992 cited in Esser, 1998) manipulated stress and found more rationalisation behaviour in information processing when levels of stress were higher. In other studies, the importance of stress and anxiety was asserted (e.g. Moorhead et al., 1991), but supporting studies were not reported. Neck and Moorhead (1992, 1995) were also interested in the idea of the provocative situational context, but suggested the inclusion of two additional variables: highly consequential decision and pressure due to time constraints. It seems therefore that stress and anxiety have been overlooked in the research. Hence, a central tenet of the groupthink model remains largely untested. Explanations of the causes of premature concurrence seeking An intriguing aspect of the groupthink debate is the possibility that concurrence seeking might have more than one cause, arising from different circumstances. Hart (1991) elded this possibility when he suggested that groupthink can be driven by two very different forces. Type 1 groupthink is associated with a pessimistic view about the capacity of the group to solve the presenting problem successfully or creatively. Symptoms of groupthink represent collective avoidance, a stress-induced defensive reaction to a potential failure. This is quite similar to the position taken by Janis himself, who pointed to stress and lack of self-esteem due to previous failures. Type 2 groupthink (Hart, 1991), on the other hand, is driven by an optimistic view of the potential of the group to solve the presenting problem. Symptoms of groupthink reect an overly optimistic attitude on the part of a group that is highly condent in its capacity to succeed. This view is closer to the position taken by Whyte (1998) and applied in an organisational setting by Koerber and Neck (2003). Whyte (1998), who noticed that decisions in the presence of groupthink often seemed foolhardy or overly risky, questioned Janiss view of concurrence seeking as a response to stress. He proposed that symptoms of groupthink are due to overcondence, or an excessive level of collective self-efcacy. This view draws on prospect theory (Kahnman and Tversky, 1979) and decision framing (Tversky and Kahnman, 1981). Under experimental conditions, people respond differently to problems that are framed in terms of perceived losses to those that are framed in terms of perceived gains: they tend to be risk averse in situations involving gains, but risk seeking when the same situation is described as leading to potential losses. Whyte (1998) thought that framing effects led to risk seeking in groups where perceptions of collective efcacy exceeded actual capacity, or in other words, when a strong can do attitude caused people to take excessive risks to avoid the possible loss of attractive outcomes. In Whytes (1998) proposed change to the groupthink model, high perceived collective efcacy replaces cohesiveness. Since his view was that overcondence and high self efcacy reduce or cancel out stress, he saw no need for provocative situational context to remain in the model.

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Hart 1991
Type 1 = optimistic

Type 2 = pessimistic

Whyte 1998

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A different explanation, based on group dynamics, was provided by McCauley (1998) drawing on Festingers (1950) theory of informal social inuence. In accordance with this theory, group consensus is important for the emergence of meaning and value, and the main purpose of persuasion and other forms of social pressure is to prevent disagreements that might undermine condence in the groups reason for being. Applying this idea, McCauley (1998) hypothesised that premature concurrence-seeking is triggered by norms privileging the preservation of friendly relations over frank appraisal of ideas and alternatives, and was not due to cohesive groups seeking an escape from uncertainty (McCauley, 1998, p. 159) as suggested by Janis. Where does the research leave us in terms of the underlying causes of concurrence seeking? The explanation for groupthink is undoubtedly complex and several alternatives have been proposed but none of these has been presented in any depth of detail. In relation to Janis theory we have the key insight that while stress and anxiety are experienced within individuals, they can be managed collectively by groups, thus producing a tendency towards premature concurrence seeking. However, Janis did not fully explain the processes through which the negative emotional states of stress and anxiety actually produce the symptoms of groupthink and the symptoms of defective decision making. Since 1972 some important discoveries have been made about the role of emotion in the decision making process. Some of this research is introduced below to show that negative emotional states such as stress and anxiety can impair decision making in ways that may shed light on the processes that occur during groupthink. Decision-making behaviour Anxiety is a stress-induced emotion that gures large in the groupthink model. It entails an unpleasant emotional state in anticipation of exposure to danger or threat. Although there is no agreed denition (Carlson and Hateld, 1992) anxiety is often depicted as a continuous feeling of low intensity, having much in common with fear, but with an orientation to future ills rather than immediate threat of harm (English and English, 1958). Anxiety can affect processes of decision making in several ways that are discussed below. First, it appears to have a detrimental effect on decision makers by affecting the ways in which they process information: information processing is generally poorer under negative affect. Second, anxiety may cause a tendency towards excessive risk taking in some situations. Third, it can deect attention away from the problem at hand: anxiety reduction operates as an implicit motivator where decision makers become more concerned with reducing the feelings of anxiety, than with nding the best solution to the presenting problem.

Anxiety has 3 effects on decision making

1 Anxiety and information processing

The interplay of reason and emotion has been noted by many researchers (e.g. Ashforth and Humphrey, 1995; Fineman, 1996; Damasio, 2000; Loewenstein et al., 2001; Sinclair and Ashkanasy, 2005). The research on negative emotion indicates that being in this state typically has a detrimental effect on the capacity of decision makers. Mittal and Ross (1998) concluded that people in a negative emotional state process information more systematically, while those in a positive state do it more strategically. Overall, the quality of decision making when in a positive mood state was better. Environmental uncertainty is one factor that stimulates stress and anxiety

(Garling et al., 1998). Apparently heightened levels of stress interfere with optimal human functioning, but how this happens is not entirely clear. It may be that stress creates an imbalance between environmental demands and an individuals resources to cope. Generally, people seek to reduce or minimise uncertainty and prefer environments that are more predictable and controllable (Evans and Cohen, 1987). Presumably, efforts to reduce uncertainty interfere in some way with, or limit the capacity for full cognitive functioning, for example, by increasing errors on cognitive tasks (Leon and Revelle, 1985). Janis and Mann (1977) proposed a decision conict theory concerning the effects of stress on information processing. This theory contends that decision makers under stress resort to hypervigilant strategies for information processing, manifested as a frantic search for solutions, a failure to consider all alternatives, disorganization and rapid shifting among possible solutions. Baradell and Klein (1993) found support for decision conict theory when they investigated the effects of anxiety on the quality of decision making performance. Exposure to naturally occurring life stressors, such as undesirable life events or daily hassles, produced autonomic reactions that individuals perceived as anxiety. These reactions demand the individuals attention, leaving him or her with less capacity to cope with the task at hand, ultimately resulting in impaired decision making.

Anxiety and decision making


2 Emotion and risk taking behaviour

Turning now to the research on risk taking, Mittal and Ross (1998) concluded that most studies show that people in a positive mood state tend to be risk averse and vice versa. Moreover, they tend to be relatively more risk averse when the decision is framed as a potential gain (e.g. buying a lottery ticket) and the choice situation is personally relevant. On the other hand, Mano (1992, 1994) found that people under negative affect are more likely to take risks than those in a neutral state. A theoretical explanation for the effects of emotion on risk taking in decision making is known as the mood maintenance hypothesis. This suggests that decision makers are motivated to manage their mood state (Isen and Patrick, 1983). Those in a positive mood state want to stay that way and are risk-averse, since failure might induce a mood change, while people under negative affect are motivated to feel better and are therefore prepared to take more risks (Kuvass and Kaufmann, 2004; Mittal and Ross, 1998). The results for risk taking are not conclusive however: different negative emotions may have different consequences and individual variations could be quite signicant. Mano elicited physiological arousal in his experiments, but people vary in the degree to which they are aware of their internal reactions to stress (called private body consciousness or PBC by Miller et al., 1981). Baradell and Klein (1993) found that this factor moderated the relationship between naturally occurring stressors and decision outcomes the decision making behaviour of people with higher levels of PBC were more susceptible to the effects of stress. Perrewe and Zellars (1999) also pointed to the degree of variety in the way that individuals interpret the environment as stressful. People do not necessarily read a situation in the same way, and their emotional responses are different.

3 Implicit motivation and anxiety reduction

When engaging in group decision making behaviour, those involved may be motivated by a range of factors. Making a good decision is just one possibility among several

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(McCauley, 1998). Other motivators in group situations include improving member satisfaction, gaining commitment to the decision, and diffusing responsibility for poor decisions (Aldag and Fuller, 1993). Some of these could complement sound decision making outcomes, but others might not. The literature on the effects of implicit emotion on decision making has a long history, although it is not always presented as such. Bion (1968), for example, theorised that the need to reafrm basic beliefs and assumptions could lead groups away from constructive solutions to their problems, while Asch (1956) demonstrated the inuence of a desire to conform. Indeed, decision making situations are full of drama arising from the interplay of overt and covert motivations, the baggage from past decisions and experiences, and micropolitical behaviour (Fuller and Aldag, 1998). The mood maintenance hypothesis (Isen and Patrick, 1983, discussed above) also suggests another way in which negative emotions can become an implicit source of motivation for risk taking behaviour. It is also known from the psychoanalytic literature that anxiety elicits a defensive response, although this is often at the cost of considerable self-deception and loss of contact with reality (Carlson and Hateld, 1992, p. 33). According to Rycroft (1968), the defensive response has three modes: controlling ones feelings or those of others, denying the reality of the threat, and seeking an escape from the situation. Specic defence mechanisms that work in with one or more of these modes include rationalisation, denial and repression. In relation to decision making situations where anxiety and stress are present, it could be suggested that decision makers deal simultaneously with the anxiety and the choice dilemma. It might be deduced that the anxiety reduction process, engaging the protective modes and defence mechanisms, is a distraction that lowers the chances of a sound choice being made. While it might seem counter intuitive that decision makers tend to be less vigilant when anxious, there is considerable research evidence to support it. Concurrence seeking: an elaboration From the above discussion, the decision making behaviour of individuals and groups is clearly affected by emotion. When under negative effect, people are less strategic in the way they gather and evaluate information and they are inclined towards riskier decisions. These tendencies are characterised in the groupthink model as the symptoms of defective decision making, including incomplete survey of alternatives, selective bias and failure to examine risks. Under negative effect also, decision makers divide their efforts between making the choice and managing their mood state, increasing the possibility of a poorer outcome. In the groupthink model concurrence seeking is elicited by stress and anxiety. It is consistent with the research evidence that the presence of these emotional states triggers implicit motivation for anxiety and stress reduction. While the emotion is not directly observable, the implicit motivation surfaces as the symptoms of groupthink, which are. The groupthink symptoms, including rationalisation, censorship, pressure on dissenters and mindguarding, provide indirect evidence that the anxiety reduction mechanism is in play. We can summarise the argument so far by suggesting that premature concurrence seeking occurs when decision makers respond more strongly to the implicit motivation of anxiety reduction than to motivations regarding full evaluation of information or search for alternatives.

Anxiety leads to these symptoms of groupthink

But what is the connection between the concurrence seeking and the symptoms of groupthink? In the writers view, if the underlying purpose of concurrence seeking is to defend the group against anxiety, then the symptoms of groupthink are manifestations of defensive modes and mechanisms that are instrumental in doing this. In other words, the defence modes and mechanisms are the missing link between the implicit motivation of anxiety reduction and observable decision making behaviour. The connections are illustrated in Table I. In this table Janiss eight symptoms of groupthink are recast in relation to the three defensive modes (Rycroft, 1968) of control, denial and escape. The column on the left categorises the eight symptoms of groupthink according to each mode. The central column suggests one or more corresponding defence mechanisms, while the last column provides a brief explanation of the purpose of each as a defence against anxiety. A sense of control is obtained through creating an illusion that the group is in command of the situation, that the facts are known and events are unfolding as they should. Denial is evident in self-censorship, pressure on dissenters and mindguarding. Escape is through a belief in the superior morality of the decision making group and in the stereotyping of outgroups. This spares the group from confronting the morally

Anxiety and decision making


Anxiety defence mode and groupthink symptoms Control Illusion of invulnerability Collective rationalisation Illusion of unanimity Denial Self-censorship Self-appointed mindguards

Defence mechanisms Control compensation Rationalisation Fantasy

Purpose as response to anxiety Keeping a tight rein on people/events. Covering weaknesses in one area by attending to areas of greater strength Convenient selection, manipulation and explanation of the facts to allay fears. Not seeing what one does not wish to see Mutual reassurance of support and agreement Doubts pushed out of conscious thought Feelings of concern or dread not acknowledged by self; others discouraged from expressing them as a means of protecting the group Others dissuaded from expressing doubts that might upset the status quo

Repression Denial control

Are any of these behaviours present in the case study?

Pressure on dissenters

Suppression control

Escape Belief in morality of the group Regression

Stereotyping of outgroups

Inability or refusal to question the moral position of the group or to acknowledge other values or positions as a means of avoiding value conict Projection displacement Rather than acknowledging own fears or responsibilities, attributing those to others, often in a derogatory manner that hints of outgroup inferiority or weakness

Table I. Anxiety defence modes and symptoms of groupthink

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Key nding

difcult dilemmas inherent in the situation, and helps to shift primary responsibility for them onto a more blameworthy group. When the defence mechanisms are drawn upon, decision makers begin to lose vital information and the capacity to evaluate their situation effectively. Critical details are rationalised away or pushed out of consciousness. Those with different points of view are turned upon or simply decide to keep quiet. The competition is underestimated and an unreal picture of the difculties ahead emerges. Consistent with Janis (1972, 1982) a greater prevalence of groupthink symptoms is associated with an increase in decision making defects, and a decreased likelihood of quality decision outcomes. But do groups succumbing to premature concurrence seeking need to be cohesive? According to the empirical research, the answer is no. Apparently, the presence of anxiety is sufcient in itself to trigger groupthink among people engaged on a common task, but this issue certainly merits more research. The position taken here is that concurrence seeking occurs in decision making contexts that provoke anxiety in decision makers, and are not mitigated by structural factors, in particular, impartial leadership and methodical decision making procedures. Conclusions Janis hypothesised that groupthink was caused by anxiety and stress arising from the decision making issue faced by a management group, but did not elaborate the processes through which these states had their effect. This paper has attempted to address this by drawing on the research into the impact of emotion and decision making and by drawing on psychoanalytic theory. Implications for research A considerable amount of research on the impact of negative emotions on decision making has accumulated over the past thirty years, and in general is consistent with Janiss view that anxiety is a possible cause of premature concurrence seeking. However, research on the effects of anxiety has involved individual research participants only, and there is a need for research into group patterns. For example, comparisons of groups working on consequential and non-consequential decision tasks would reveal any differences in the emergence of premature concurrence seeking and the presence of defensive modes or mechanisms. Case study researchers might consider investigating for the presence of negative emotions and exploring the links between symptoms of defective decision making and common defence mechanisms. This could be done by revisiting old cases or by exploring new ones. More generally, future research on decision making in groups should focus on broadening the conceptual base of both the groupthink model and other theories to include the latest ndings on the role of both negative and positive emotions. There is an expanding body of research ndings from the social and biological sciences, which is revolutionising our understanding of human behaviour and decision processes. As yet, little of this has ltered into the eld of management studies. Management applications Groupthink is a term that is not well understood, and is sometimes confused with other causes of poor decision making. However, as suggested below, it may be more commonplace than most people think, and have more devastating consequences than

are normally acknowledged. Managers need to understand the causes and consequences of concurrence seeking as a key step in reducing the human and economic costs of their mistakes. The causes of poor decision making. There are many reasons why managers sometimes make poor decisions, and premature concurrence seeking is but one of them. Understanding the underlying causes can be a confusing task, but for managers to learn from their mistakes, they need to do so. The term groupthink is almost universally recognised by managers, and in the view of this writer, is sometimes used inappropriately or is not well understood. Groupthink, as Janis intended the term, refers to premature concurrence seeking behaviour due to the presence of stress and anxiety. This is a problem because it results in defective information search and evaluation processes. It is also clear from the research that groups do not have to be cohesive for groupthink to emerge. More critical are a closed leadership style and lack of methodical decision making procedures. Confusion occurs because decisions made in bounded rationality (Simon, 1956) can also be marked by symptoms of defective decision making. It is commonplace that managers face the daily incumberances of time pressure, lack of pertinent information, poor knowledge of cause and effect relationships, and so on. The complexities of organisational life inevitably introduce uncertainty and risk. We could add a host of other factors including organisational politics and culture. To a large extent these factors are different from those contributing to groupthink, but it is likely that a tendency towards groupthink would be exacerbated in the presence of some of them. In reducing the incidence of groupthink it is therefore important, for example, to ensure that the culture supports employees who wish to express their concerns about safety, or that managers are not punished for sometimes making cautious decisions or crying wolf. Improving decision making in groups. Janis (1982) described groupthink as a temporary derangement that diminishes the capacity of groups to make sound decisions, and recommended several measures to prevent it from emerging. These measures included instituting impartial leadership and more systematic ways of evaluating choice alternatives. Aware managers are now equipped with a range of decision making tools and techniques, such as nominal group technique and brainstorming, to overcome structural barriers to full and open discussion. While these measures may be part of the solution, they do not address the underlying cause of the premature concurrence seeking, which is the stress and anxiety elicited by the decision task. As has been argued in this article, implicit motivation for anxiety reduction triggers defence mechanisms that potentially blind decision makers to the reality of their situation. Unless checked, the tendency to explain away, deny or repress critical information can descend upon all in the group, with devastating effect in some circumstances. The remedies include the ability to recognise negative emotions in ourselves and others, and a preparedness to discuss and deal with these states. In other words, managers need a special range of techniques for bringing potentially damaging emotions to the surface where they can be dealt with constructively. This is an interesting challenge, since management culture and writing tends to emphasise a rational approach to decision making (Harrison, 2000), where emotions have little part to play. Nonetheless, unless managers better understand how their emotions inuence their choice behaviour, potentially avoidable mistakes will continue to be made.

Anxiety and decision making


these structural factors do not mitigate anxiety as a trigger of groupthink

Part of their bounded rationality

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Janis (1972, 1982) referred to important and visible decisions in high level policy situations. He did not consider lower level operational contexts where the decision making process is less formal, where problems arise unexpectedly, or where key choice points are embedded in the everyday ow of workplace activity. Yet these situations too, are sometimes accompanied by pressures and stresses that can easily heighten levels of anxiety, and they happen frequently. For example, should the crew continue to y through bad weather, or should it turn around and return to base? Should the plant be shut down to investigate an unexplained oil leakage, or should production continue under pressure of meeting targets? Do contractors leave the building site until protective equipment is provided, or do they keep working? Although these dilemmas suggest actual choice points that the players recognise, in real situations they often pass without much discussion of the problem, or any denitive decision. In real life, potential choice points can slide into long moments of non-decision making where the opportunity to avert a serious risk is lost. The elaboration of groupthink theory discussed in this article provides an explanation for various failures in decision making: not recognising that an actual decision needs to be made; procrastination and delay; and actual decisions that are overly risky. The explanation is this: some of the defence mechanisms, e.g. repression and denial, can blind managers to the existence of a developing problem, while other defence mechanisms, e.g. rationalisation and projection, can cause them to underestimate the dangers or deect attention elsewhere. Whether by omission or commission, the result is the same: a crisis that was potentially avoidable. Better group leadership and methodical decision making procedures are part of the solution. Also important is developing a capacity for self-knowledge, reexive management practice and a rich array of communication skills.
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