BREAKING THE SILENCE: DIFFERENTIATING CRISES OF AGREEMENT

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<ul><li><p>SPAEF</p><p>BREAKING THE SILENCE: DIFFERENTIATING CRISES OF AGREEMENTAuthor(s): DAPHNE GOTTLIEB TARASSource: Public Administration Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 4 (WINTER, 1991), pp. 401-418Published by: SPAEFStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40861484 .Accessed: 15/06/2014 20:30</p><p>Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms &amp; Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p><p> .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.</p><p> .</p><p>SPAEF is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Public AdministrationQuarterly.</p><p>http://www.jstor.org </p><p>This content downloaded from 185.44.78.113 on Sun, 15 Jun 2014 20:30:46 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p>http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=spaefhttp://www.jstor.org/stable/40861484?origin=JSTOR-pdfhttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsphttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p></li><li><p>BREAKING THE SILENCE: </p><p>DIFFERENTIATING CRISES </p><p>OF AGREEMENT </p><p>DAPHNE GOTTLIEB TARAS University of Calgary </p><p>INTRODUCTION </p><p>When many or all individuals within a group privately express doubts about the group's decisions or processes while publicly supporting them and are aware that their reservations are shared by many or all other groups members, a crisis of agreement exists. What makes individuals reluctant to voice dissent even when they are aware of the negative ramifications of their silence? It is the purpose of this article to advance both the theoretical and practical treatments of crises of agreement. </p><p>Although the definition of crisis of agreement subsumes a wide range of group behaviors, this article will focus on only two specific variants-groupthink and Abiline. The two variants are distinguisha- ble because they invoke different individual member cognition; they have dramatically dissimilar consequences on group cohesion; they involve different levels of analysis; and, from a practical standpoint, each condition requires custom-tailored diagnostic strategies. </p><p>This article is organized into three sections. In the first, brief descriptions of Abilene and groupthink are offered and the two conditions are compared and contrasted. The second section enu- merates the conditions conducive to crises of agreement. The final section proposes that diagnosticians must be familiar with both conditions in order to be effective. Further, Abilene and groupthink seem to co-exist, a fact whose significance has never been explored in the OD literature. </p><p>This content downloaded from 185.44.78.113 on Sun, 15 Jun 2014 20:30:46 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p>http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p></li><li><p>(402) FAQ WINTER 1991 </p><p>DESCRIBING CRISES OF AGREEMENT </p><p>The Abilene paradox is based on the commonplace, even trivial, experience suffered by Jerry Harvey (1974, 1988), his wife, and in- laws. They each agreed to leave the relative comfort of a shaded porch where they had been playing dominoes and drinking lemon- ade, in order to take a miserably-long car ride in the scorching Texas sun for a substandard meal at a cafeteria in Abilene. Later each disgruntled family member revealed that his or her true preference had been to stay at home. </p><p>Abilene can be extrapolated to serious organizational crises. Harvey (1977:161) defines the paradox as "Organizations frequently tak[ing] actions in contradiction to the desires of any of their members and therefore defeating] the very purposes the organiza- tions are designed to achieve." The Abilene paradox is widely known in OD circles, but references to it are almost non-existent outside OD. </p><p>The conditions necessary to diagnose Abilene are clear. In general, group members as individuals are fully aware of the prob- lems facing the organization and of its poor responses. They admit, to themselves, to serious reservations. They often even agree, unknown to one another, about the solution required to solve the problem. Nonetheless, in collective situations such as group meet- ings, they withhold their private feelings and allow other group members to believe that decisions are unanimously supported. The group makes defective decisions, producing the paradox. Individuals suffer frustration, irritation, anger, and feelings of impotence. They assign blame, choosing as targets either themselves, the group, the task or the organization as a whole. The organization begins to expe- rience what Harvey calls "phoney conflict." More than likely, it also could plummet into a low-energy, low-motivation state best de- scribed as generalized malaise (Golembiewski, 1989). </p><p>The more famous variant of a crisis of agreement is described by Irving Janis (1972, 1982) in Groupthink. He offers mesmerizing accounts of defective group decision-making leading to fiascoes such as the failure to foresee the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Bay of Pigs invasion, Vietnam, and Watergate. The groupthink syndrome bears some superficial similarities to the Abilene paradox. The decision-making procedure is defective, with premature conver- gence on a single option and the closing-off of sources of alternative information and courses of action.1 Although the decisions are </p><p>This content downloaded from 185.44.78.113 on Sun, 15 Jun 2014 20:30:46 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p>http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p></li><li><p>FAQ WINTER 1991 (403) </p><p>poorly conceived, they are endorsed in both settings. Both groupthink and Abilene begin with an individual's attraction </p><p>to a group, so much so that he or she will express concurrence with a decision perceived to be the group's rather than voice dissent and suffer the real or imagined consequences. The expected negative consequences need not be based on reality. Indeed, catastrophic fantasies are as inhibitive to the individual as real threats. </p><p>Harvey goes no further than this stage of explanation. Janis, however, created a rich conceptual model, providing descriptions of the conditions that exacerbate the tendency towards defective deci- sion-making (Janis and Mann, 1977; Janis, 1982:244; Hirokawa, 1980, 1987, 1988). </p><p>Groupthinks's antecedent conditions are easily specified: the group is cohesive, insulated, homogeneous, and has neither a tradi- tion of impartial leadership nor norms requiring a systematic infor- mation search. Defective decisions are triggered by provocative situational contexts, comprised of high stress from external threats, low self-esteem of group members, and decisions that involve ques- tions of morality. Faced with an intolerably elevated degree of uncer- tainty, individuals seek greater affiliation with the group as a protec- tive device. This banding together produces overestimations of the group- that it is invulnerable, inherently moral or superior. </p><p>Recall the label "best and brightest" as it was applied to President Kennedy's inner circle. The group becomes closed-minded and develops defenses against both internal and external dissent. Person- al identifies are, to some extent, dependent on group affiliation (Raven, 1974). At this point, group members are prepared to make, and support, decisions they might not have made as individuals had they not been seduced by group membership. </p><p>Groupthink can be distinguished from Abilene on four different levels. First, the consciousness of participants must be examined. Abilene riders each knowingly lives a lie which he perceives as the communal truth whose absurdity is enormously and psychically oppressive. Groupthink situations lack this paradoxical element where individuals want to do one thing but willingly, though in despair, do the opposite. In groupthink, the situation is not absurd until after the fog lifts. Not surprisingly, the strongest support for Janis' model is culled from the reflections and recriminations of group participants in which hindsight is crystal clear. At the time they made defective decisions, however, they were often described as "euphoric," enjoying high morale and a heightened sense of efficacy. </p><p>This content downloaded from 185.44.78.113 on Sun, 15 Jun 2014 20:30:46 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p>http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p></li><li><p>(404) FAQ WINTER 1991 </p><p>To put it in simple, although somewhat extreme terms, groupthink makes people feel good about bad public decisions, while Abilene makes people feel bad about good private decisions withheld from the group. </p><p>Second, at the group or organizational level, Abilene engenders conflict and/or malaise, while groupthink creates esprit de corps, optimistic portrayals of the future, and loyalty to the organization. What differentiates descriptions of groupthink from Abilene is the lack of conflict after faulty decisions are made. </p><p>Third, the relevant unit of analysis differs in the two conditions. In groupthink, individual entities become submerged and the group as a whole becomes analogous to a single organism; it responds to stimuli in patterned ways, is self-correcting, and expends energy to maintain homeostasis. In groupthink, the group is "more than" the sum of its parts. In contrast, Abilene groups are "less than" the sum of their real parts. Individuals and their expectations dominate in Abilene. </p><p>This third distinction raises a troubling issue of morality and responsibility. Post mortems of Abilene illuminate the individual's inability to speak out and his or her awareness of the paradox miti- gates the capacity to deflect culpability. Abilene offers no recourse to absolution of guilt by seeking refuge in group dynamics. In group- think, however, the group is guilty of poor decision-making and, because group members have surrendered their separate identities, they are exonerated from individual responsibility. Janis (1982:243) suggests that </p><p>every executive who participates in group decisions is potentially suscep- tible to groupthink. Irrespective of the personality characteristics and other predispositions of the members who make up the policy-making group, the groupthink syndrome is expected to emerge whenever the situational conditions that are conducive to it are present. </p><p>In case after case, Janis mounts a brilliant line of defense for indi- viduals who are accused of contributing to defective decisions. Pressure towards conformity, he argues, is the main factor that leads individuals to make and own defective decisions. </p><p>Fourth, intervention strategies differ. As the logical outcome of the preoccupation with group-level forces, groupthink interventions have focused on group structures and processes (Janis, 1982; Sauser, 1988). Abilene, with its focus on the individual, suggests interven- </p><p>This content downloaded from 185.44.78.113 on Sun, 15 Jun 2014 20:30:46 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p>http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p></li><li><p>FAQ WINTER 1991 (405) </p><p>tions at the impersonal level-stressing disclosure, feedback, open- ness, and owning of privately-held views (Harvey, 1988, 1977; Harvey and Albertson, 1971; Golembiewski, 1989). </p><p>EXPLAINING CRISES OF AGREEMENT </p><p>No matter how frequently the phenomenon of silenced dissent arises in governmental or corporate settings, researchers have been unsuccessful in replicating the exact sequence of defective decision- making in laboratory conditions. Groupthink has been subjected to empirical investigation a few times but with mixed findings and only limited support for Janis' causal sequence (e.g., Moorhead and Montanari, 1986; Leana, 1985; Courtright, 1978; Flowers, 1977; overview in Posner- Weber, 1987). The historical cases Janis presents are engrossing and quite convincing, although he is careful to specify that only in highly specific circumstances is full-blown groupthink likely to occur (see also Tuchman, 1984). </p><p>Harvey made no attempt to describe any conditions that induce Abilene and his article is largely anecdotal and atheoretical. Yet reports of Abilene situations occur often enough that we know it is not an aberration, but a clear type of group dysfunction (Dyer, 1988; Golembiewski, 1978, 1979). Despite our rudimentary level of knowl- edge of exactly how the forces interact and shape group outcomes, we know that both conditions do occur. </p><p>Strong dynamics perpetuate crises of agreement. First and foremost, since retention of membership in the group is imperative, individuals remain silent because they dread separation from the group. In both conditions, when an individual's dissonance poses a danger to membership, a primal separation anxiety is activated and fear of abandonment, however irrational, takes hold (Janis, 1963; Harvey, 1977, 1988). If a person feels depersonalized or alienated within a large organization, he may react by clinging excessively to a group, seeking friendship, support, and affirmation (Golembiewski, 1989). </p><p>Interveners must appreciate that, despite all organizational assurances to the contrary, a person who contemplates breaking a silence and exposing a defective group decision faces actual danger. A "whistle-blower" is usually pressured by the group to conform or, failing that, is punished if possible. Even in groups that allow members to express doubts about decisions, research indicates that, after an initial burst of activity to elicit conformity, the amount of </p><p>This content downloaded from 185.44.78.113 on Sun, 15 Jun 2014 20:30:46 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p>http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p></li><li><p>(406) FAQ WINTER 1991 </p><p>communication directed to deviant members precipitously declined. If necessary, group members eject the deviant member or redefine the boundaries of the group in some way as to exclude the deviant member (Cartright and Zander, 1968:145-146). </p><p>A review of the literature on group dynamics yields a long list of conditions that likely contribute to the propensity to fall into a crisis of agreement, whether of the Abilene or groupthink type. Nine dis- tinct, though not necessarily mutually exclusive, conditions interact to produce crises of agreement. Researchers have not yet achieved a rigorous causal model explaining the interaction of the variables. Indeed, it is more likely that each individual has his or her own unique cognitive map, and attempts to draw a generic model are extremely difficult and ultimately might prove futile. </p><p>1. Initial cohesiveness of the group. Most theorists agree that group cohesiveness refers to the degree to which the members of the group desire to remain in the group, as discounted by the forces to leave that group.2 A cohesive group is highly attractive. Important subcomponents related to cohesiveness are the incentiv...</p></li></ul>