(The following is an excerpt from my 2008 book The Psychology of Management. It explores the comfortable term “cohesion” in groups and teams and how it can turn into the dreaded psychological pheonomenon known as “groupthink.”)
Cohesion is the defining term of how efficiently teams are working together.
In a group setting, cohesion gives team members the feeling that they belong. It can be said that cohesion not only makes members feel like they are part of the group, but it also inspires members to want the team (and other members) to succeed. In doing so, team members acquire a camaraderie that inspires them to help each other and focus on their similarities rather than differences.
For people who work as part of a group or team, maintaining open lines of communication is of the utmost importance. Team members who are unable to communicate effectively will ultimately blame each other for group failures instead of working as a team to find solutions to team problems. The most effective way to establish a good working relationship among team members is to make sure to take the time to establish good communication when the group is formed.
In working with groups and teams, we must consider the basic human condition that some people have an internal locus of control and others have an external locus of control. Some people are introverts while others are extroverts. And, some people are simply disrespectful and very difficult to accommodate.
As this is the case, what eventually happens in many teams is that only a handful of members come to control the topics of discussion. We should consider that this can become a major problem because only the interests of the most outspoken members are discussed. It is also important to remember that it is often the unsociable and unruly who become the most outspoken. Even worse is the likelihood that the most outspoken members may not be the ones who are the most informed, or have the best ideas.
We generally tout “cohesion” as a promising concept in working in group and team setting. It builds unity and strong relationships and helps members come to respect and support each other. But, cohesion also has its adverse affects as it can stand in opposition to diversity. It can foster in-group biases that cause members to focus more on group uniformity than ethical decision-making. This condition, called groupthink, causes members to neglect to consider information that some members may find uncomfortable.
When groupthink occurs, the group begins accepting and reviewing only information that confirms previously held beliefs and members refuse to accept or consider disconfirming information that challenges group norms.
While cohesion builds the self-confidence of group members, it also increases the desire to reach consensus. Members begin to exert pressure on each other to conform. The forces pushing for cohesion and conformity become greater than those pushing for ethical decision-making. This gives members a distorted sense of unanimity. Research suggests that group members can begin to feel invincible, thus becoming close-minded and incapable of considering the positions of non-members.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects is to consider the political ramifications of these psychological forces. While we would think that members with low self-esteem are sure to be the first to succumb to these forces, it is actually those with high self-esteem who are the most susceptible. Those who have the most invested in their egos are the most likely to feel like they have “too much to lose.”
As we summarize this chapter on conflict, we should consider that as part of any team, it is important to remember that opposing teams are always likely to view each other as extremists. Because of conditions like groupthink, teams will often exaggerate the intentions and thoughts of opposing teams. This condition causes groups to unfairly judge their own in-group members as morally superior to members of other groups. On a national level we would call this ethnocentrism, at a group level it is called in-group bias.
Our final comments on power should include the very real perceptions by some authorities that power and influence in organizations has often been a point of contention. Much of the problem is that power often creates unnecessary distance between managers and subordinates. Command-and-control type leaders believe that managers should maintain sole possession of power in organizations because it is they alone who possess important information, foresight and ultimate knowledge of operations (of course, here we are talking about civilian organizations, as opposed to military organizations where command-and-control leadership is a necessity).
But prominent in many of today’s organizations is the recognition that this distance removes managers from very important cultural aspects of the organization. That is, it is the intricate cultural norms and behaviors of subordinates at the lowest levels of the organization that allow them to be the ones who truly understand “the way things are done around here.”