The Appeal of the Group: How Groupthink Affects Implementing Change

by | Jan 25, 2019 | People

One of the most powerful forces that can inhibit the willingness and ability of people to change their behavior is the effect of groups. Humans are social creatures, and we want to be part of and identify with a group. It may be a church group, sports team, work team, book club or even a street gang. 

Groups develop patterns and habits that form their norms of behavior, otherwise known as groupthink. If someone violates these norms they will get pressure from the group to get back in line. That pressure can be direct and vocal, but it can also be subtle.

The first factory that I worked in was an automotive parts manufacturer in Michigan. When a new worker would come in, they’d work on the line for a while. If they were working at a fast pace, a colleague would pull them aside and say, “Hey, slow it down…you’re making us look bad.” If the worker persisted, the pressure would increase, often isolating the person. People wouldn’t talk to him or eat lunch with him. They might even spread vicious rumors about him. It was the rare person who had the will and strength to persevere through these pressures and there were two common outcomes: the new hire would quit or acquiesce.

The desire to be part of a group was demonstrated by an experiment conducted by Solomon Asch at Swarthmore College in 1951.   He assembled 50 male students who had volunteered as test subjects and he broke them down into groups of seven. The seven people were brought into a room where he projected onto the wall an image of three lines, two of which were the same length and a third that was noticeably shorter. The students were asked if the lines were the same lengths or different lengths. However, the deck was stacked. Six of the seven students were told to say that the lines looked the same and the 7th student was set up as the last one to answer. About a third of the test subjects felt the pressure to conform and gave an answer that was aligned with the rest of the people.

Think about the impact of this. 

The 7th student, the real subject, had no real reason to feel pressure. He would receive no negative impacts for an answer that went against the group and he didn’t have any emotional connection to the other subjects, yet he displayed the effects of groupthink. 

Group norms of behavior are often described as “culture.” They are the collective set of behaviors that are considered normal and accepted, and shifting these norms is extremely challenging. 

One large factory I worked in had a custom where the workers would stop work about 30 minutes before the end of the shift and then line up at the clock 15 minutes before the shift ended. This practice violated the company’s work rules, but countless efforts to get the workers to stay at their stations from bell-to-bell failed. The efforts to shift this behavior would usually start with one supervisor confronting the situation. When people would stop work early, he’d talk to them and tell them that the shift wasn’t over and ask them to get back to work. Through his own diligence, he’d get people to comply with it. But there was pressure. His workers asked, “Why do we have to work to the bell when nobody else does?” and “I beat my standard by 2:30—why do I need to work all the way to the end of the shift?” and on and on. 

The other supervisors and his boss weren’t helping much either. They’d talk among themselves and say, “Let’s see how he does. I think he’s playing with fire and he’s going to have a mutiny.” Eventually, some crisis would come along that would prevent the supervisor from overseeing the end-of-shift behavior and it would slide back to the old norm. It’s like a rocket trying to leave the orbit of the earth.  It takes tremendous energy to pull away from the gravitational pull and if the effort stops too early, the rocket plummets back to the ground. Norms of behavior operate the same way. It takes enormous energy to break free from the powerful force of group think in order to implement new practices. If the effort to move the group isn’t diligent and deliberate, it’ll crash and burn.