Groupthink in a Virtual Environment Work Teamadmin / December 20, 2018
The idea that a team may resort to making decisions in its own interest at the expense of the organization to which it forms a part, sounds incredible. Yet, there are situations that actually precipitate these eventualities.
In the case discussed in this paper, a situation arises where a specific team seems to decide to take advantage of its position to protect itself from the risk of breaking apart. The team prioritizes its cohesiveness above the company’s good. This paper explores various aspects of the case and determines the aspects that precipitated the situation, and how to correct it.
T.A. Sterns is a tax accounting firm that has a very good reputation among its clients because it offers excellent services. The services benefit heavily from four programmers who work as a team to develop tax analysis programs. The team leader’s crisis stems from the fact that he is dealing with a very independent and differentiated team compared to the rest of the company.
This team has special working conditions and remuneration packages. They all work from home using online support systems, and meet only occasionally. The team does very specialized tasks requiring a high degree of interdependence amongst them.
The team is in charge of producing tax analysis programs that contribute a lot towards the company’s work. The design of the programs take into account the need for flexibility to allow for quick incorporation of new laws and changes in the tax system to ensure that the output is credible. This requires an ongoing effort to track and include changes.
The programs benefit from their diverse experience as lawyers and tax accountants, with a strong interest in programming. They all work from different locations, with each enjoying the flexible task based working model that their job encapsulates. This situation sets the stage for the crisis under scrutiny.
The team has developed a new way of getting work done, that potentially may require fewer of them to do the work they currently do, but they are not willing to put any of them out of work. The four members report to Dave, who is the workgroup manager. He accidentally finds out about what is happening.
T.A. Sterns utilizes different modes of work for its different classes of employees. Its programmers use virtual workstations that make it possible for them to work from different locations while connected by email, conferencing software, and telephone. The offsite teams comprise the virtual environment work teams.
The one under review has four members, who report to a manager Dave Regan. Dave’s role is to monitor the work produced by the work team and ensures that their work performance meets company’s needs and specifications. Tom reports to the management on the team’s performance.
The work team has its own team leader- Tom Andrews. Tom has the most experience and takes care of the training of new team members and ensuring that the team delivers on its targets. He is the primary liaison with Stearns. Tom’s team reports to him. The team uses several methods to get the job done.
They arrange for teleconferencing, they make calls and they use email as modes of sharing out the work they have. Over and above the official functions, they also use these modes to carry on informal chatter. They plan to meet for recreational purposes, for instance, at Tom’s ranch, when they are not working on a project. Once a month they all meet together for lunch.
The team therefore has its formal structures revolving around Dave and Tom, but in addition, they have an informal one that has space for informal interaction and social support. These two work structures work seamlessly because they use the same systems. The interaction between a formal work environment that gets the job done, and an informal one that allows for space for recreation, provides the team with a relaxed job environment.
Description of the Situation
In general, the team works by taking whatever assignment brought to them and estimating the time required to get the job done. Key among these requirements is the time required to complete an assignment. It determines how many team members should be committed to it. This puts the team in a situation where they must find ways of doing their work fast and save on time. This is how Cy, started experimenting with macros to see how best to reduce the time it takes to complete an assignment.
Cy developed a particular set of macros that he tried out. The macros actually contributed to a substantial saving of time. The macros achieved this improving the speed of introduction of changes into existing programs. CY tried it on an ongoing project and realized they actually saved time.
Tom, though initially skeptical, tried to work with the macros. To his surprise, he realized that they were working well and actually saved time. The potential to save many hours was a very attractive proposition to their work, and meant that they had more time to spend on recreational activities.
The most beneficial aspect of the macros was the time reduction on project time by decreasing the time required to introduce changes to existing projects.
In addition, by using shortcuts, the macros made the program less bulky and easy to use, increasing the efficiency of the resultant program. Such an initiative, if reported to the management, would have attracted a financial reward for Cy because it meant the company would spend less in producing programs. This option was open to Cy. By forfeiting it, he precipitated the crisis under consideration.
Pinpointing the Problem
This new method of working on programs presented a number of consequences, some positive, and some negative. The positive consequences for the group was that they could be able to save a lot of time on future projects, potentially freeing up more time for recreational activities , which they seemed to enjoy. For the company, it provided them with an opportunity to reduce the size of the work team hence cut on costs. The company could redeploy the redundant member of the work team to more needy areas.
The consequences of these actions included interruption to the way of working that the team was accustomed. There was a real possibility that with the exposure of the new macro, they could lose the team life, as they knew it. They were not sure which among them could lose their job if the management knew about the macros potential.
This drove them to secrecy. On the other hand, the company’s reward policy did not provide sufficient incentive for Cy to come forth with this important development. He valued his team environment more than individual reward. He was very excited about his creation, but making it public proved to be a more serious threat to him than seeking recognition.
In the end analysis, we can say that the problem was the risk of breaking apart the team. The individuals in the team felt attached to one another and did not want a situation to arise where they could lose one of them. The incentives from the company failed to attract their imagination to put forward their suggestions to the existing rewards scheme because it did not address their most precious concerns. In a word, the group suffered from groupthink.
Why the Group is a Team
There are several characteristics that this group display which qualifies them to be a team. These characteristics include communication, leadership style, and sharing of resources. In addition, they care for each other’s personal needs. The key element that provides group cohesion for this team is communication.
They have a well-developed multi-modal form of communication that ensures smooth communication within the group. They meet regularly to discuss work related issues further enhancing communication within the group. They type of communications also varies, ranging from formal to informal. This is a strong sign that the group is a team
The team leadership is participative. This aspect defines teams. All of them have a say on how the group runs. The discussion they had where they swore to secrecy in as far as the new macros are concerned provides the evidence for this. Tom did not make a unilateral decision on the issues but discussed it with the rest of the members.
Another element that the group displays which makes it a team is the sharing of resources. By sharing the macros with Tom and the team members, Cy did not just hide something that had the potential to make their work easier. He made it available to all of them. Tom inviting the team to his ranch is also an example of the team sharing resources.
The final aspect of teamwork displayed by this group is when they cover for each other to allow them to deal with personal issues. Teams care about the well-being of each member even when they are away from the core business of the team. These elements increase team cohesion making it possible for the team to perform at enhanced levels.
Characteristics of the Team that Predispose it to Making Ineffective Decisions
The first characteristic that predisposes this team to making poor decisions is the fact that it has attained a high degree of team cohesion. The team has worked together for a number of years and they like it. As a unit, they feel close to one another, indeed like a second family. Their interaction shows that they have blurred the lines between pure work-based relationships and formal relations. This may be because they work in a virtual environment devoid of the formal structures that attend to people working in an office setting.
It is fun to be part of the group. They all have some sort of recreational activity some of which are similar. These activities remain assured as long as the team remains intact. They have the funny emails, the fishing, the skiing, and the support when someone is unable to fulfill their needs among others.
This kind of environment makes it hard for them to take any decisions that may rock the team’s boat. They would like to have these privileges for as long as possible.
The third reason for the group making bad decisions is that anything that threatens the life of the team threatens the whole life system associated with it. The decision they take robs the company of the potential of Cy’s idea to save time and money because of the risk it presents to the life of the team. There is a risk that one of them could end up laid-off. This risks the life of the team, so they decide against it.
The main thing is that the group exists at a certain level of awareness and it feels that it needs all its members to be able to operate effectively.
Its cohesiveness has more meaning to its members than the organization that provided for its creation in the first place. The propensity to make bad decisions stems from this heightened state of allegiance to the group and a strong desire to remain in it, compared to company goals.
Characteristics of Groupthink Manifested in the Work Team
Irving (1982) identified eight elements of groupthink. The group has a false impression of insusceptibility. This makes them prone to taking extreme risks. In this case, the entire group decided to swear to secrecy while applying the new methods, which showed up anyway. They felt they could keep their macros effort secret. The second element they showed is rationalization.
They were able to find a good reason why they should not bring the attention of the management to the new method of getting the job done. They thought it would lead to a job loss for one of them. They also showed Moral aggrandizement by doing this. They felt that by keeping the macros secret, they would protect their jobs.
The fourth element of groupthink that they displayed was the use of Stereotypes when referring to people who were not members of their group. They called people who had to work regular hours as “face timers” while calling themselves, “free agents”. This shows that they viewed themselves as elitist and different from the rest. The fifth element of groupthink that Irving (1982) identified is pressure on nonconformists to remain in the track.
Once Tom and Cy agreed that the best way forwards with the macros was to keep it secret, they went to Marge and Megan and swore them to secrecy. The group also practiced internal censorship.
They did this when Cy begun to evaluate normal channels of reporting breakthroughs like the one he had, and decided that it was not worth it to come forward with it. He felt his allegiance lay with the group more than it did with the management.
Cy and Tom went on further to display the next characteristic of groupthink as identified by Irving (1982) when they were under the impression that everyone agreed with their position. Finally, the effort to swear group members to secrecy displayed the characteristic of guarding group from outside thinking that characterizes groupthink.
Dave’s Effectiveness as a Leader
Two issues come to mind in the evaluation of Dave as an effective team leader. These are the fact that he identified suspicious output from the group that he could not explain well, while the second on one is that he ignored the signs of groupthink that showed when the group started delivering different results.
First, it is understandable that the programming group needed to work in a stimulating environment that supported creativity. However, they seem to have developed into a semiautonomous unit that was under no regulation at all as long as they delivered results.
Dave was not part of the monthly lunch meetings or the regular contact the group members had. Whether by design or default, the working conditions predisposed the team to groupthink, and puts Dave in bad light as a group leader.
The first factor to consider in the conduct of Dave as a group leader is that while he did not keep track of the groups working practices, he noticed that there was a change in the quality of the output this group provided.
They were delivering higher quality work but in smaller volumes. He asked questions and kept an ear out to find out what was going on. This went on until he had a good idea of what was happening. On this count, he performed well as a group leader.
On the second factor, Dave ignored the signs of groupthink because of the superior work output the group was turning in. when he asked what was going on, he did not get sufficient responses, but rationalized that whatever it was it was good for the company because the group was producing better results. In this regard, Dave was not a good team leader
There is urgent need for corrective action in as far as groupthink is concerned. Dave must work in order to correct the situation, but at the same time, he must avoid spooking the group members because of their initial fears, and the consequences of groupthink. He can deal with it in the following three steps
The first thing that Dave must address is the concern that the group has about one of them losing their job if the management gets to understand the potential the macros have in reducing the time required to finish a job.
This group seems to have reached a high performance level and it may be beneficial for the company to retain it as it is. Some options for ensuring that no one in the group looses their job are by asking them to teach their methods to other workgroups and to take on more work as a group. This will mitigate their primary fear
Secondly, Dave needs to institute an external reporting mechanism that will take into account the individual goals and aspirations of the group members. This may come in the way of performance appraisals and personal work targets. The model used now, where all the reporting comes through Tom, promotes the atmosphere for groupthink.
The third step that Dave needs to take is to develop a report jointly with the team, detailing the potential of the macros developed by Cy to save the company money. In this report, the group may ask the management to retain them as a group because of the threshold of effectiveness they have attained, and they may propose to handle more work.
Irving, Janis L. Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. New York: Houghton and Mifflin, 1982.