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Improving Group Dynamics Using Psychology

Author: Steffi Kim


In today’s highly interconnected world, collaboration and group work are becoming more prevalent than ever. But from brainstorming ideas to dividing up tasks, group work introduces a whole new dimension of challenges. Why do some groups fail, while others succeed? How do panels of experts sometimes reach such poor decisions?


This article will briefly explore four common psychological phenomena, and provide solutions to boost group productivity and success in all spheres of life.


Groupthink


Groupthink is when a group exhibits bad decision-making due to intense pressure to conform and suppress dissenting opinions. Early on, the group becomes bent on a particular course of action, usually dictated by a leader, and ignores any facts or evidence suggesting a different approach. The group becomes insulated and closed off from outside opinions, creating echo chambers and a facade of unanimity. Groupthink can become dangerous when ethical considerations or broader consequences are ignored, and the group fails to acknowledge risks or create a contingency plan. When electing his 2008 Security Defense Team, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, specifically mentioned how he wanted to avoid groupthink. Groupthink stems from the well-intentioned desire to maintain harmony and agreement, and is more prevalent in groups with a strong “us against the world” mindset. To avoid groupthink, encouraging debate and avoiding rushed conclusions are key. Designating a “devil’s advocate” to raise concerns, or having the low-ranking members speak first so they don’t have to contradict the leader, are also ways to combat this phenomenon.


The Abilene Paradox


The Abilene Paradox occurs when a group collectively comes to a decision that none of the individual members actually agree with. The problem is not agreement—all the members agree on a point, yet the group itself moves in the opposite direction. For instance, a company leader proposes a new initiative because she thinks that that’s what everyone else wants to hear. The employees all secretly harbour doubts but speak highly of it to others because they believe that everyone else supports it. The result? A failed initiative that no one actually wanted, and a waste of time and resources. The Abilene Paradox is surprisingly common and can be due to action anxiety, where people imagine what great disasters could occur if they speak their mind, and use this as an excuse for inaction. Although similar to groupthink, the Abilene Paradox is fundamentally different. In groupthink, individuals self-censor and change their own beliefs to align with the group, whereas, in the Abilene Paradox, individuals are aware that they personally disagree. To avoid this trap, group members must consider the real risk of inaction and remaining silent.


Group Polarisation


Group Polarisation refers to the likelihood of a group taking more extreme stances than the initial opinions of its members. When surrounded by like-minded individuals, people are more likely to deepen their own commitment to a cause, in part due to a desire to be socially accepted. As group discussion goes on, hearing confirming arguments made by other group members reinforces and strengthens an individual’s own beliefs. Over time, as groups self-segregate and discuss amongst themselves, the differences between groups become more and more exaggerated, known as the Accentuation Effect. Liberal groups become more liberal, intellectual groups become more intellectual, and conservative groups become more conservative. Group polarisation has crucial political and societal implications, and groups with diverse opinions and healthy disagreement are less susceptible.


Social Loafing


In every group, there are usually a few people who don’t pull their own weight. Social Loafing is the psychological term used to describe individuals who put in less effort in group settings than they would on their own. Studies have shown that when asked to shout and clap as loud as they could, when told they were in a group, the noise each individual produced was three times less than the loudest sound when they were alone. The same pattern holds for tug-of-war, where the collective effort of teams was half the sum of the individual efforts. When individual effort is not measured, responsibility is dispersed amongst the group, with no individual held accountable. Monitoring individual progress and making individual actions distinguishable reduces social loafing. Social loafing also decreases if the group has a challenging goal, and incentives to work hard. Individuals heighten their own efforts when they view other team members as incompetent, and forming smaller groups where members feel indispensable is an effective way to reduce freeriding.



References:

“Groupthink.” Psychology Today. Accessed June 15, 2024. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/groupthink.

Harvey, Jerry B. “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement.” Organizational Dynamics 17, no. 1 (June 1988): 17–43. https://doi.org/10.1016/0090-2616(88)90028-9.

Hoffman, Riley. “Social Loafing in Psychology: Definition, Examples & Theory.” Simply Psychology, September 7, 2023. https://www.simplypsychology.org/social-loafing.html.

Myers, David G. Social Psychology, 2012. https://diasmumpuni.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/david_g-_myers_social_psychology_10th_editionbookfi.pdf.


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