Group Decision Making
Rex C. Mitchell, Ph.D.

Group Effectiveness

o There are at least two basic dimensions to group effectiveness: (a) efficient attainment of the organizational goals that gave rise to the group, and (b) sufficient satisfaction of needs of the individuals that they will continue to maintain and develop the group.

o Some characteristics of an effective group are (you should consider these as working hypotheses, and test them as you work and gain further experience):

  1. Objectives are well understood and accepted by all members of the group.
  2. The group has the necessary skills to accomplish its work.
  3. Is large enough to accomplish the task, but no larger (and not so large as to distract from the work).
  4. Is operating under moderate (not too little or too much) stress.
  5. Is cohesive, with active but cooperative interaction among members.
  6. There is a lot of discussion with nearly everyone participating, but the discussion stays relevant to the task.
  7. Members listen to one another. Every idea or feeling is given a hearing.
  8. There are disagreements. Reasons for these are examined and they are dealt with rather than suppressed.
  9. Critique and feedback are frequent and frank, but constructive, and show little evidence of personal attack.
  10. Members feel free to express their feelings as well as their ideas - not only on the decision to be made, but also on the group's process.
  11. There is a good balance of inquiry and advocacy in the discussions.
  12. There is only a modest variance between public and private comments about the matters considered by the group
  13. Discussion is characterized by adequate completeness, preciseness, relevance, verifiability, and timeliness of information exchanged.
  14. The group uses various decision modes appropriately, with a large amount of consensus required for most important decisions.
  15. The group leader (if any) does not dominate, nor is there evidence of a power struggle while the group works to achieve its tasks.
  16. Assignments to members are clear and accepted.
  17. The group creates a way to monitor its progress and hold itself accountable, individually and jointly, for both results and its process.
  18. The group is "self-conscious" about its own operation (learns from its experience).

Decision-Making Groups

o Decision-making groups are only one of many types of groups

o There is a broad spectrum of roles for decision-making groups, ranging from full autonomy to decide through receiving announcement of a decision from above. There is no one best role, with the "best" role being contingent on factors of the boss, subordinates, and situation. Tannenbaum & Schmidt (1958, Harvard Business Review) presented what was clearly the first contingency framework for leader roles in group decision-making, and probably was the first published reference to a "contingency framework" dealing with organizations. They described a continuum of leadership behavior, ranging from completely leader-centered to completely subordinate-centered, with a range of manager roles between, e.g.: (a) manager makes decision and announces it, (b) manager "sells" decision, (c) manager presents ideas and invites questions, (d) manager presents tentative decision subject to change, (e) manager presents problem, gets suggestions, makes decision, (f) manager defines limits, asks group to make decision, (g) manager permits subordinates to decide within limits defined.

o Both individual and group decision making have value. Their relative advantages in a particular situation are contingent on many factors. Some frequent advantages of group decision making are:

  1. The quality of decisions may be "better" through: (a) availability of more information, (b) fewer errors in using information, (c) generating more ideas and alternatives, (d) keeping each other honest, (e) reducing effects of individual bias, (f) synergy, (g) possibly being more likely to accept risk (however, there is conflicting research on this last point).
  2. Helps understanding, acceptance, "ownership," and implementation (when key individuals in implementation are also part of the decision making group)
  3. Individuals involved can learn and develop from the experience.

o Some frequent disadvantages of group decision making are:

  1. Takes more time (at least to the point of choice)
  2. May raise expectations by participants
  3. May make decisions at variance with higher level bosses
  4. The quality of decisions may be "worse" through: (a) social pressure, (b) individual domination, (c) win-lose processes, (d) groupthink.


o "Groupthink" is a label coined by Janis (1972) for conditions that can develop in very poorly functioning groups in which there is deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures. Three preconditions increase the likelihood of groupthink, according to Janis: (a) the group is very cohesive, (b) the group becomes insulated from qualified outsiders, and (c) leaders promote their favored solution. Typical symptoms are:

  1. An illusion of invulnerability, excessive optimism
  2. Dismissal of opposing ideas, collective efforts to rationalize and discount warnings that might lead members to reconsider their assumptions
  3. A tendency to moralize, unquestioned belief in the group's inherent moral superiority, ignoring moral consequences of their decisions
  4. Stereotyping the opposition
  5. Pressure on members to conform
  6. Self-censorship of deviations from apparent group consensus
  7. A shared illusion of unanimity concerning judgments, including the assumption that silence means consent - with no attempts to test this
  8. Emergence of self-appointed mindguards - individuals in the group who "protect" the group from adverse information that might challenge their shared complacency about the effectiveness and morality of their decisions.

Janis coined the groupthink label after analyzing the Bay of Pigs disaster (an ill-fated invasion of Cuba in April 1961 by a small group of Cuban refugees - a mission started by President Eisenhower and reapproved for implementation by the Kennedy administration). The very ineffective (with our advantage of 20-20 hindsight) decision making by this group of some of the country's most experienced and capable public servants was in sharp contrast to the highly effective decision making by this same group in managing the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 (when U-2 photographs revealed Russian missiles and sites in Cuba, and Khruschev eventually backed down - after a tension-filled thirteen days during which many historians believe the world came closer to nuclear war than at any other time!)

There are, of course, many other visible examples of groupthink, for example, Admiral Kimmel's advisory group, in ignoring warnings of a forthcoming Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; President Johnson's advisory group in its decision to escalate the Vietnam War; and President Nixon's top decision-making group in the Watergate affair.

o There are many processes for reaching a decision in a group. One of the important (and more sophisticated) ones is decision by consensus. There is good support for the conclusion that consensus tends to result in higher quality decisions than other modes such as majority power (voting), minority power (persuasion and manipulation), and compromise. Consensus decision making requires more time and effort, but is worth this investment for important and precedent-setting decisions.

Consensus Decision Making

o Consensus is a decision process for making full use of available resources in the group, for resolving conflicts creatively, and for developing a solution that will be supported to a satisfactory degree by all group members (in contrast to producing a "we-they" polarized outcome in which 49% of the group are unhappy). Consensus can be difficult to reach, requires more time than many other methods of deciding an issue, and ordinarily would be the decision process primarily for more important decisions with long-term implications.

o There are various degrees of consensus - in practical situations, there will seldom be total accord. One way to categorize or select a degree of consensus is to consider a spectrum of questions about a decision-making outcome, and determine which of these levels all group members can answer "yes" to:

  1. Can you live with this decision/outcome?
  2. Is this OK with you?
  3. Can you support this?
  4. Does this please you (even excite you)?

o Some guidelines for achieving consensus, in addition to the general guidance of trying to operate with the characteristics of a highly effective group:

  1. Adopt the goal of combining the total resources of the group to make a high quality joint decision (in contrast to seeing who can "win" by having his/her points accepted by the group, and appearing smarter and/or more persuasive than others)
  2. Prepare well prior to the meeting, including obtaining, studying, and developing understanding of the relevant information; identifying major issues; thinking about some ways of framing the problem; even beginning to think about possible solutions (the trick is to think in depth about the decision, without getting locked into a single point of view, and to realize that the task is incomplete and that it can only be finished through collaboration with the other members of the group)
  3. In the group process, balance advocacy and inquiry. Present your position as lucidly and logically as possible; also listen to the other members' reactions and points, and consider them carefully. Recognize an obligation to present and advocate your tentative position, listen to the opinions and feelings of all other group members, inquire to sincerely learn about the opinions of others, and be ready to modify your own position on the basis of what is discussed in the group. Avoid arguing to "win" as an individual.
  4. Avoid conflict-reducing techniques such as majority voting, averages, coin-flips, bargaining, horse-trading, and compromising. When a dissenting member finally agrees, don't feel that he/she must be rewarded by having a "win" on some later point.
  5. Manage differences productively. Don't change your mind or give in simply to avoid conflict and to keep the peace. Realize that differences of opinion are helpful. Disagreements can help the group's decision because, with a wide range of information and opinions, there is a greater chance that the group will develop more excellent solutions. Be suspicious when agreement seems to come too quickly and easily. Test for unspoken concerns and reservations. Explore the logic and reasons for a tentative consensus decision, and be sure that everyone accepts the solutions for basically similar or at least complementary reasons. Monitor the process and interactions; when appropriate, initiate discussion of the process and what is going on.


Synergy is both a result and a symptom of an effective group. Synergy could be defined as "the combined action of two or more agents such that, acting jointly, they increase the effectiveness of one another and produce an outcome that is greater than the sum of their outcomes when acting independently," often summarized as "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts."

Synergy almost always occurs in effective groups, particularly when the members are seeking consensus. However, merely having a group of individuals meeting together to produce a decision or solution does not necessarily mean that synergy will result. For example, if members lack a common goal, or individuals try to compete or "win" by having their ideas accepted by the group, or members operate from a win-lose or zero-sum mentality, or members have poor interpersonal communications, it is certain that the group's outcome will be less effective or desirable than it could be.

Groups can obtain synergistic results when their process of working heightens sharing, contributing, and constructive competition (i.e., stimulation). Winning becomes a group effort rather than an individual quest. Conflict is managed effectively to make it an asset rather than something to be avoided. Members look for bridges between ideas, for ways to build on and improve ideas already presented. When group members ensure that they have a common, clearly understood goal, stay on the topic, share ideas and opinions openly and directly, listen effectively to each other, and manage the group process explicitly, they are more likely to achieve synergy. When operating by consensus, the possibility of synergy is increased because the group reaches substantial agreement, rather than splitting into majority and minority camps and wasting effort in arguing and competing.

Synergy in a group is analogous to energy to an individual. The potential synergy of a group is always is greater than the sum of the combined energies of its members. Whether this potential is realized to produce better results than the group's most competent member could have achieved alone depends on the group and its process. Effective teams not only use their energy effectively, they create new energy.

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Last modified June 10, 2008 Copyright 1984-2008 Rex Mitchell