Pitfalls to Avoid in Group Work

Pitfalls to Avoid in Group Work
William J. Frey
University of PR - Mayaguez
Your tasks
• Exercise 1
– Identify 3 to 5 value goals for your group for this semester.
– Outline strategies that describe in detail how you are going
to realize these values.
• Exercise 2
– Describe briefly your understanding of the group pitfalls
outlined in this presentation
– Develop plans or strategies for avoiding them
– You plan should be specific enough to serve as a scientific
hypothesis; as the semester unfolds and challenges
emerge, you should be able to confirm or reject your
strategies in terms of whether they work, i.e., prevent or
minimize the pitfall
Scientific Method
• The scientific method has you establish the problem,
develop hypotheses to solve the problem, test these
hypotheses, and confirm or reject them on the basis of
the results.
• Your problem
– What procedures will realize your value goals?
– What strategies will prevent the three group pitfalls?
• Formulate your value procedures and pitfall prevention
strategies as scientific hypotheses that are testable in
the context of classroom experience
Your Task
• In your preliminary self-evaluations, describe your
procedures for realizing value through your group work.
Use the suggestions in the module to get started.
• In your preliminary self-evaluation, describe your strategies
for avoiding groupthink, group polarization, and going to
Abilene. Use the suggestions provided in the module to get
• In the mid-semester audit, you will assess the effectiveness
of your procedures and strategies
– If they work, describe in detail how they work
– If they fail, reformulate them. Then test the new versions as
• Groupthink = “a situation in which groups come to
agreement at the expense of critical thinking.”
Harris, Pritchard, Rabins. Engineering Ethics: Concepts and Cases, 112-113.
Irving Janis. Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, 2nd Ed. (Boston,
Houghton Mifflin, 1982).
• Eight signs of groupthink (quoted from Harris et al):
– “(1) an illusion of invulnerability, (2) a strong ‘we feeling’ that
views outsiders as adversaries or enemies, (3) rationalizations
that tend to shift responsibility to others, (4) an illusion of
morality that assumes the inherent morality of the group, (5) a
tendency of individual members toward self-censorship, (6) an
illusion of unanimity, construing silence of a group member as
consent, (7) an application of direct pressure on those who
show signs of disagreement, and (8) mindguarding, protecting
the group from dissenting views.” Quoted with some omissions
from Harris et al 113.
To avoid groupthink…
• "The leader of a policy-forming group should assign the role of critical
evaluator to each member, encouraging the group to give high priority to
airing objections and doubts."
• "The leaders in an organization's hierarchy, when assigning a policyplanning mission to a group, should be impartial instead of stating
preferences and expectations at the outset."
• "Throughout the period when the feasibility and effectiveness of policy
alternatives are being surveyed, the policy-making group should from time
to time divide into two or more subgroups to meet separately...."
• “One or more outside experts or qualified colleagues within the
organization who are not core members of the policy-making group should
be invited to each meeting ...and should be encouraged to challenge the
views of the core members."
• "At every meeting devoted to evaluating policy alternatives, at least one
member should be assigned the role of devil's advocate.“
Janis, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, 2nd Ed., 262-271
Group Polarization
• A lot of people in Puerto Rico oppose the Via Verde, a proposed gas
pipeline from Ponce to San Juan via Arecibo.
– There are good arguments for this
– But those opposing have characterized the Via Verde as a fraud and a
– This is an example of polarization.
• Weston: “Our moral values often diverge….We need to decide how to go
on when we ourselves feel divided, and we need to be able to go on
together when our values diverge.
• One problem is that we often exaggerate our divergences, making them
much worse than they might be. We polarize values.
• Group polarization occurs when members exaggerate non-agreement
(brought about by different values or different views of given values) and
convert it into disagreement and opposition.
Signs of Group Polarization
• One side is right, the other wrong
• One side is good, the other evil.
• One side propounds the truth, the other is mired
in falsity
• One side proceeds morally, the other by means of
force, fraud, deception, or manipulation
Why is group polarization an
unsuccessful strategy
• By presenting non-agreement as opposition, group
polarization converts it into a zero sum game: one side
(hopefully ours) must win, the other must lose.
• This rules out full integration (solution where
everybody wins) and partial integration (compromises
where each party gives a bit) as solution routes.
• All conflicts are framed as trade offs where the views of
one’s side are pitted in a competition against those of
the other. The victory of one side is the defeat of the
Successful strategies for Compromise
Negotiate Interests, not Positions.
Expanding the Pie.
One party agrees to reduce its aspirations on a particular thing. The other party agrees to compensate the
first for the costs created by the reduction.
Each party lowers their aspirations on items that are of less interest to them and trade off a concession on a
less important item for a concession on a more important item.
One side makes a concession to the other but is compensated in another round by a corresponding
concession from the other players. (I lose this time, but I can call the shots in the next round.)
Many times constraints bounding a situation can be pushed back through negotiation or innovation.
Nonspecific Compensation.
It is usually easier to integrate basic interests than specific positions. Reframing non-agreements this way
unlocks integrations and compromises.
Finding a higher order interest on which both parties agree, and then constructing a solution that serves
that agreed-upon interest.
Taken from Good Computing. Textbook manuscript developed by Chuck Huff, William Frey, and Jose Cruz.
Your responsibility
• Always aim first for a value-integrative, win/win
• If this doesn’t work look for ways to compromise.
Use the ideas suggested on the previous slide.
• Only as a last resort should you trade off interests
or proposals. And this should be done with the
commitment that the loser stays in the game and
will prevail in the next no-win situation.
Going to Abilene
• The story of a family who would all rather have stayed at
home on a hot, summer Texas day.
• Instead, they wound up traveling 100 miles to and from
Abilene to have lunch at a cafeteria none of them liked.
• When they returned, they realized that none of them
wanted to go to Abilene.
• Because of faulty communication, the group wound up
doing what nobody wanted to do.
• Each conceded because he or she mistakenly thought
everybody else wanted to do this.
• Going to Abilene consists of making unnecessary
compromises or concessions because of a breakdown in
group communication.
Strategies for Avoiding Abilene
• At the end of the group decision-making process, carry
out an anonymous survey asking participants if
anything was left out that they were reluctant to put
before the group.
• Or conduct this anonymous survey individually before
discussion begins. After the discussion concludes,
consult the survey and see if there are any “hidden
profiles.” (Unexpressed interests or ideas.)
• Designate one member a devil’s advocate who is
responsible for criticizing the group’s decision, no
matter what. Choose someone creative who can view
a situation from different frames.
What groups can do well
• They introduce creativity
– Different members frame a given situation differently
• They assemble dispersed knowledge and expertise
• They can generate mutual support and solidarity
• But this assumes a basis of trust and reasonableness as well
as carefully developed procedures of open communication
• Good communication is the best remedy to the three
pitfalls of group work: groupthink, group polarization, and
going to Abilene

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