Effective leadership and the group

In the second of a series of 8 articles Dr Trevor Simper reviews the key aspects of psychology in leadership and groups. It is a brief tour de force of the decades of research which have gone into our understanding of group dynamics and leadership. He considers which decisions are best made by an individual versus those better served by a group.

Groups and effective leadership

Which groups do you belong to? A sports club as a fan or a player? A church? Perhaps you are a member of a profession- or a group of workers? Maybe even a group of leaders? We all belong to different groups and usually more than just one. We also belong to racial, cultural, and linguistic groups. We are also defined by the groups we belong to- and our opinion of others and their opinion of us is greatly influenced by our ‘in-group’ (IG) membership. Consideration of how we belong to IG memberships and how this relates to ‘out-group’ (OG) members can help transform the way we lead (our lives as well as our organisations). Here we will briefly take time to focus in on the effects of IG and OG positions and how we may lead more effectively considering the ‘group’.

Since time immemorial we have seen other tribes and initially dealt with them with mistrust and circumspection, do they carry ill-intent, diseases we are not used to,  etc?  And even today, we make some interesting group decisions- including viewing members of an OG as less diverse, more ‘samey’ whilst considering those people in our IG as diverse and different. We essentially under certain circumstances view people from an out-group as homogenous. Does this sound familiar? Think of a particular race, any race that is different to your own, are they less diverse than your own group? We talk often of the ‘nature’ of a group, especially nationalities and the way they are. Yet evidence suggests people have diverse personality characteristics and these have normative values which cross geography and nationality; that their nature is as diverse as any in-group to which we belong.

In the worst-case scenario, an OG is seen as less human than we are. Dehumanisation gives ground for people to treat someone as if they were less than human. This of course is magnified by political events involving a particular race/religion. For example, Nour Kteily and colleagues asked people (white Americans in one study) to consider the statement ‘people can vary in how human-like they seem. Some people seem highly evolved whereas others seem no different from lower animals’ using a scale from 0 to 100 with 100 equalling fully human, people scored Americans and Europeans as 100 Muslims, however, were scored lower and following attacks of terrorism, even lower still and despite attacks being carried out by single perpetrators, an effect was transferred to the whole Islamic population. The notion that some groups see other groups as less than human is not restricted to white Americans, however, with Hungarian’s views on the Roma people and Israeli views of Palestinians (and vice versa) showing the same trend.

Groups in decision making

Groups are of course also called on to make decisions all the time. Think of jurors sitting in a court, families deciding over which movie to watch at the cinema on a Friday night- both decisions have different levels of impact, but both are group decisions. Naturally the nature of the task in a group decision differs widely. Consider a group quiz where collective intelligence is used to derive an answer (which clearly can either be wrong or right) versus the development of a consensus opinion. For example, what type of car we should choose to be our company vehicle, which has no exact right or wrong answer. It would perhaps also be logical to assume that more than one person’s input is likely to produce more effective results than an individual decision i.e., two heads are better than one. But is that always the case?

When groups are called upon to create ‘group memory’ they may well be superior in remembering information when compared to an individual. Also, where tasks are to be carried out involving complex operations, such as devising a complex training programme. Different group members may take responsibility for remembering different roles and this is likely to be more effective than an individual attempting to take responsibility for remembering all tasks and details.

Another interesting example comes in the form of expert versus group decisions/knowledge. Surrowiecki (2004) discovered that when you take a situation like the popular TV show Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, where contestants have an ask the audience option or phone a friend, that single ‘experts’ were right 65% of the time versus the random crowd who were right 91% of the time.

Power distribution

Power distribution of the group may also profoundly affect the group’s decisions with some members having more sway than others (e.g., I am paying for the family movie and driving us all there) processes involved in group decision making may include the majority wins i.e. democratic voting or ‘truth wins’ as Davis (1973) suggested where discussion yields the ‘correct’ answer.

Does brainstorming work? 

Does brainstorming, the popular process of using a group to come up with ideas to solve a problem/ creatively design products, work? The answer is yes and no. In terms of coming up with a greater number of ideas a group probably outperforms an individual, however in relation to creativity the individual probably performs just as well as the group. Problems can also ensue when one group member puts forward ideas, they may block our own attempts to formulate ideas whilst we try to process theirs. We may also feel intimidated by others’ ideas or else doubtful of our own contribution (what if my idea is not up to scratch/as good as hers?) we may also be a passenger rather than a pilot… i.e., the collective input means some group members remain silent. As a corollary to this, members of groups can also be passengers in the sense of not pulling their weight- or what Hogg and Vaughan called ‘free-riders’.


A downside to group decisions includes the risk of groupthink. With in-group behaviour there is a clear tendency towards identifying with IG members and distancing ourselves from OG members. The early work in this area was conducted by social psychologist Irving Janis, who expressed the way in which the dynamics by which in-group behaviour and ‘groupthink’ (a phrase coined by George Orwell in his dystopian novel 1984 is manifested:

The more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a policy-making ingroup, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against outgroups

Janis’ seminal work, a book on groupthink, was published in 1972 and revised ten years later – in this work he attributed numerous political and military disasters to groupthink, including the Vietnam War and the Nazi invasion of Russia during WWII.

Janis also presented antecedents (those things which come before/lead up to an event) and these, for example, include excessive group cohesiveness. Imagine you are in a group and all members are of a similar disposition, background, and opinion. This lack of heterogeneity or difference may mean that a lack of different views and inputs will serve as an antecedent to groupthink. This is probably best remedied by involving a group of diverse personalities and people involved i.e., a mix of genders and roles within the organisation. This may mean a tougher negotiating process but less likelihood of groupthink.

Juries and group decisions

A fascinating phenomenon with group dynamics/decisions relates to comparing group and individual decisions and the ‘risky shift’. Let’s take a risky dichotomous decision, which has a risky (but rewarding) behaviour, versus a less risky (but less rewarding) alternative- who would be more likely to choose high risk/high reward and who low risk/low reward? 

Essentially there is a magnification or polarising effect of group decisions whereby group members who weakly support a course of action individually will become much more strongly convinced after group discussion- or alternatively an individual’s weak opposition to a course of action will become more strongly opposed. How might this affect jurors who begin thinking the accused is ‘maybe’ guilty at the outset of a trial?

Juries represent a fascinating example of group decision making with clear connections to group decisions made in other walks of life especially in ‘democratic’ business leadership. In the case of Jurors making decisions, we need to think carefully about the potential for groupthink and the possible dire consequences which might ensue. We have already learnt that IG members who are people making a decision which is about or focussed on someone who is: OG have a problem. Think of people of one race deciding over the guilt or innocence of someone who belongs to another race- If you are a black defendant being judged by an all-white jury, evidence suggests you are more likely to be convicted. Where the jury is white and a black man is accused of the murder of a Caucasian, in the United States the jury is twice as likely to convey the death sentence than they would on a white defendant. If you are a physically attractive defendant, you are also more likely to be found innocent (bias towards attractive individuals as innocent). Female jurors are more likely to find a rape defendant guilty and so on.  

Consider examples outside of jury service where we are making important decisions, for example a selection panel for appointing someone to a job. The kind of issues which might come into play here obviously include in-group/ outgroup membership and we are tasked then with ensuring again not over-representing one group and not another. What about the demographics of the panel/jury? Is there an equal representation of men and women or young and old of high-level posts as well as subordinate positions? Another bias is that less educated, lower socio-economic class jurors are more likely to return a guilty verdict.

Brokering between groups  

The nature of group leadership often determines that one group is led against another. Consider leaders in the context of politics, the military or union leaders. These can be clear cases of ‘us versus them’ where the inter-group relationship is often one of conflict and the great challenge of group leadership is not simply directing the group being led, but brokering between opposing factions. We can see the difficulty here. If I am the leader of group A, then group B sees me as outgroup, and yet my job is attempting a conciliatory position between A and B. Whose needs am I most likely to be perceived as serving by the members of group B? A classic case, seen often in mergers and acquisitions and an argument for why they often go wrong.

One of the most robust findings from research on intergroup behaviour is that groups define who we are, and therefore ingroups strive to be separate from and superior to relevant outgroups’ 

(Abrahams and Hogg, 2010).

Groups define who we are‘ how does this affect us when we watch our national team on television during international sporting competitions? We are, at this point, connected to one very large group embodied in the men and women wearing our national colours. Often, we know nothing about these individuals. There is, in essence, no reason we should support them over the Brazilian player they are in opposition to. Furthermore, for all we know (ordinarily) the player from another country (group) may be kinder, more deserving, harder working and overall a nicer individual than the one we are supporting. But this does not matter, as they are not in our IG!

A key factor here can be clarified by the work of Daniel Kahneman who taught us that very often we substitute difficult questions for easier ones, e.g. Which of these three political candidates will represent the needs and problems of the society in which we live? This is clearly often substituted for: Which one of these people is more ‘clean cut’/ looks like they might be an effective leader? We are faced with a continuous and overwhelming array of decisions. The last washing machine you bought is more likely influenced by having seen it at a friend’s house than a detailed observance of the machine’s historic performance/ electronic specifications, etc.

Group size and the recency effect in decision making

Other factors include the recency effect whereby the last information we received is likely to be paramount in our considerations, i.e. you remember more of what I deliver/say to you at the end of my lecture than you do at the beginning. Consider focus groups, a technique often used in marketing and product development, as well as in research. The central idea is to identify people’s opinion of a product or service or to gain an idea of people’s thoughts, opinions and ideas on an issue. A consistently curious finding is that in a small group, a facilitator/leader can keep 9 or so people ‘together’ in a conversation. However, at the critical point of having >10 people, sub-conversations begin with people talking behind their hand with their neighbour or otherwise abstain from contributing.

References/Further Reading

Boos, M., Pritz, J., Lange, S. and Belz, M., 2014. Leadership in moving human groups. PLoS computational biology, 10(4), p.e1003541.

Davis, J.H., 1973. Group decision and social interaction: A theory of social decision schemes.

Hogg, M.A., Van Knippenberg, D. and Rast III, D.E., 2012. Intergroup leadership in organizations: Leading across group and organizational boundaries. Academy of Management Review, 37(2), pp.232-255.

Janis, I.L., 1972. Victims of groupthink: a psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes

Kahneman, D. and Egan, P., 2011. Thinking, fast and slow (Vol. 1). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Orwell, G., 2009. Nineteen eighty-four. Everyman’s Library.

Stoner, J.A., 1968. Risky and cautious shifts in group decisions: The influence of widely held values. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 4(4), pp.442-459.

Surrowiecki, J. (2004) The wisdom of crowds: Why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies, and nations. New York: Doubleday.Vaughan, G M,, and Hogg, M. A.(2014)  Social Psychology (7th edition) Frenchs Forest: Pearson. Chapter 8: People in Groups.

Dr Trevor Simper
Motivational Interviewing

Trevor is an MI trainer, coach, researcher and University lecturer and delivers Motivational Interviewing Training in Perth, for beginner to advanced level MI practitioners via workshops and coaching .  If you would like to read more about Trevor and his workshops on Essemy click this link.

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