Groupthink and the Abilene Paradox

Everyone makes decisions and everyone makes decisions in groups. But we all have been part of groups that felt anything but productive: the end result was subpar, the process took a lot longer than if you had done it yourself, and the endless arguments and indecision caused you and everyone else on the team a lot of stress.

So how can we ensure that an effective group decision-making process is in place? How can we be certain that the decision we make as a group are the right ones?

Groupthink is when group members’ desire for harmony and unanimity overrides their motivation to realistically consider alternative courses of action. Not considering alternatives can have severe consequences as this additional information could have altered an idea or process to make it more effective. An example of Groupthink is with the company Theranos, where the entire board went along with Holmes’ ideas without looking for alternative solutions. Needless to say, they would have benefitted from those alternative options. Groupthink occurs because members of a group do not feel comfortable sharing their dissenting opinions due to high group cohesiveness, stressful situations, and a feeling that the group will always be successful.

The Abilene Paradox complements the Groupthink concept: with Groupthink it is a few members of a group that do not speak up, while with the Abilene Paradox the majority (or the entire group) remains silent. Furthermore, with Groupthink even the dissenting (and silent) member will usually feel good about the final decision, while with the Abilene Paradox members feel resentment. The reasons the Paradox occurs revolve around fears of separation and reprimand. The results are group projects that never go anywhere or fail, and separation from the group.

The good news is that both situations can be avoided by one main thing: creating an open environment in which dissenting opinions are encouraged, listened to, and incorporated. So next time you are in a group or meeting, pay attention to the number of dissenting opinions stated and how people respond to them. Reflect on how you respond to those opinions and if there is something you can do to increase the openness in your team or department.

lotte-small

-Lotte Mulder earned her Master’s of Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2013, where she focused on Leadership and Group Development. She’s currently working toward a PhD in Organizational Leadership. At ASCP, Lotte designs and facilitates the ASCP Leadership Institute, an online leadership certificate program. She has also built ASCP’s first patient ambassador program, called Patient Champions, which leverages patient stories as they relate to the value of the lab.


 

In pursuit of efficiency and continuous improvement, the pathologists, residents and technical staff at Makerere University, meet every Wednesday. They are also joined by colleagues from the Mulago National Referral Hospital under the Ministry of Health of Uganda.  The purpose of this meeting is to make decisions that pertain to teaching, operation of the histopathology service, and conducting research.

Since 2003, I have attended several of these meetings. However, the realization and achievement of goals has been poor and nearly zero in some instances. No prior agenda is sent out. During the meetings, counter-productive decisions are made. The generation of ideas, alternatives and creativity has dwindled meeting after meeting. Attendance and contribution to meetings are viewed as a waste of time and effort. This has led to low motivation, and attendance has hit an all-time low.

There is always somebody to blame for the failure in teaching, the inefficient biopsy service and the low research productivity at the end of each year. In the last team building workshop, the Mulago team did not show up despite an earlier commitment and receiving an invitation three weeks to time. In the first workshop, the executive director of Mulago did not show up even when he was scheduled to speak! We have had a share of failed projects and ventures; the FNA clinic and teaching of Cytotechnology have not gone well, establishment of the “pay for service” laboratory is struggling and embedding QA and QC systems in the histopathology laboratory has been a total failure. Lately, we lost the bid to the ASCP Cancer Diagnostics for the Africa telepathology project.

In summary, the department seems to be stuck in thick mud! What is in play here?  It is the groupthink and Abilene paradox; the making of irrational decisions and failure to manage group agreement respectively.  This is an expected natural occurrence in decision making involving groups.

The motivation for being on the ASCP leadership academy is my passion for change through leadership. That is what drives me. I love effective participation and being part of productive teams.

Following the completion of the two courses, I now clearly understand what has been happening in my department. I look back and easily recognize the symptoms of groupthink; the illusion of unanimity, self-censorship, mind guards, and shared stereotypes.

Recognition of the problem is half way to the solution. Techniques to avoid the problem are now known to me. The style of meetings in the department needs to be changed. The chair should avoid being too directive in order to ensure an open climate during discussions.  The chair should also assign a member the role of a critical evaluator and once in a while open up the meetings to important outsiders.

All the decisions to do the above had to be agreed upon by members during the weekly meetings. I now recognize and understand the play of the Abilene paradox here; that some members said “yes” when indeed they meant to say “no.” I look back and recognize action anxiety, fear of separation, real risk, negative fantasy, perceived risk and confusion of risk and certainty.

Looking at the 15 reasons as to why one ends on the road to Abilene, I can surely identify with each of them. This, I am sure, is shared by each of the staff members.

We need to avoid the trip to Abilene by making changes in the conduct of meetings. We should plan before the meetings, invite the right people, clearly state the decisions to be made, plan enough time for discussion, and set a climate of openness. During the meetings, vital questions should be asked. It takes a lot to plan but in the end, the returns are long term and a good on time invested.

What can be done differently now? Sharing the new knowledge learned during the course is the first step. The second step is to put into practice the techniques to avoid the group think and endless trips to Abilene. These must eventually become the new culture of practice and eventually spread across other university departments.

RL

-Robert Lukande is trained as an anatomical pathologist and is currently employed at the College of Health Sciences, Makerere University, Kampala Uganda. He is a teacher, research and consultant, and is passionate about changing the lives of others through leadership. He’s the current president of APESCA and is acting chair of the Department of Pathology.