Barriers to group effectiveness

What managers can do to ensure peak group performance of their staff

January 2017 — Simple and obvious behaviors distinguish effective groups from ineffective groups. They are obvious enough that managers tend to overlook them until they impede group performance or create significant conflict. Barriers to group effectiveness are caused by:

  • No clear sense of purpose; goals and objectives have not been clarified (often this can be attributed to ineffective management)
  • Formality surrounding and encumbering the group; the environment is void of humor, excitement, or fulfillment; members dread the workplace and any interaction with group members or the leader
  • Unequal member participation; certain members are stigmatized, ignored, or undervalued; weighted participation is necessary to gain diverse and quality input; decisions consistently made by the same group members generate tunnel vision and reduce creativity and innovation
  • Poor listening skills; team members’ inability to listen to each other creates errors and misunderstandings; the inability to listen effectively impacts all other points (goal attainment, environment, conflict, participation, communication, and roles); poor communication creates barriers
  • Lack of openness and healthy conflict; expression and idea exchange must be encouraged (it is counterproductive to view differing opinions as antagonistic)
  • Lack of trust and communication; fear of reprisal encourages members to conceal personal aspects about themselves and their work; the higher the level of trust, the greater the confidence level, which is necessary to take creative risks


A primary threat to group effectiveness is groupthink. Groupthink thrives on conformity and stems from low confidence and trust levels. It creates problems within cohesive in-groups, which in turn restricts moral judgment and puts too much emphasis on agreement and accord. Groupthink tends to override realistic appraisals of alternative courses of action.

Symptoms of groupthink include:

  • Rationalization
    • Protects “pet” assumptions
    • Groupthink victims ignore warnings and sometimes create elaborate rationalizations to discount negative feedback, which might cause group members to reconsider past (and safe) assumptions
  • Unquestioned beliefs in the group’s morality
    • Encourages the group to ignore fair suggestions
    • Groupthink victims tend to ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions
  • Stereotyped views of opponents
    • Results in underestimating opponents
    • Groupthink victims are convinced that genuine attempts to negotiate differences with opponents are unwarranted
    • Victims refuse to meet, regardless of the risk in not making the effort
  • An illusion of invulnerability
    • Blinds group members to clear warnings of danger and encourages excessive optimism
    • Provides group members a false reassurance about obvious dangers, which leads them to take extraordinary risks willingly
  • Peer pressure and self-appointed protectors against adverse information
    • Groupthink victims pressure members who express doubts about any of the group’s shared illusions or who question validity of arguments or policy alternatives supported by the majority, which, in turn, reinforces conforming to the group norm
  • Self-censorship and unanimity
    • Implies that silence equals agreement
    • Groupthink victims avoid deviating from the norm
    • Victims internalize grievances and tend to minimize the importance of their doubts
    • Members share an illusion of unanimity within the group regarding expressed opinions held by the majority
  • Mindguards
    • Self-appointed barriers to information that might encourage the leader or other members to break the shared confidence the group has regarding the effectiveness and morality of past decisions

Decision-making results obtained from groupthink situations usually:

  • Include few alternatives
  • Have little or no reexamination of preferred or rejected alternatives
  • Are a selective bias of new information, lacking any contingency plan

Overcoming Groupthink

Groupthink protects shortsighted and narrowly focused group norms that prevent openness, creative problem solving, decision making, and performance expansion. Strategies for overcoming groupthink include practicing impartiality, encouraging openness, requiring participation, and inviting outside opinions.

Managers who wish to control the effects of groupthink decisions might consider that groups with moderate cohesiveness produce better decisions than either low or highly cohesive groups. Although highly cohesive groups have more confidence in their decisions, when victimized by groupthink, these groups make the worst decisions.


Self-justification within the group is characterized by persistence and overconfidence in decisions. When decisions prove fallible, a strong tendency to save face and to justify the reasoning process is the result. Overconfidence results in unclear objectives defined by the group’s perception of, and assumptions about, an issue. During the decision/integration phase, group members who should be acting as liaisons between information gatherers and those responsible for implementing decisions may not make the necessary effort. Work is done with a “good enough to get by” attitude. As a result, information processing may be inaccurate due to perceptual bias or selective attention. The quality of the decision, then, is inflated, while rejected alternatives are deflated, illustrating the bias. This type of fail-safe groupthink can lead to risky choices with no available alternatives.

Social Loafing

Social loafing significantly impacts quality and production. Singularly, individuals who are social loafers are productive and motivated. But when they are put in groups or on teams, they bury themselves within the unit and allow other members to perform the bulk of the work. They believe other team members can do the work, rather than understand the reality that they need to contribute their talents and skills to help make the task easier and the outcome better.

Groups have values. Social loafing is linked to cultural and individual values rather than collective values. People in collective societies normally view themselves as part of a group. Their concern is not to let group members down and to strive for harmonious productivity. But groups with strong individual values encourage loafers, since members are more concerned with individual investment and achievement.

Social loafing most often occurs when individual roles and responsibilities are not clearly defined, are difficult to track, and performance is difficult to measure. This “fuzziness” allows an individual to fade quietly into the background, while others compensate for their absence. When members discover the loafer, they slow down their production and efforts as well. As a result, team effectiveness declines.

Social loafing may be prevented by clarifying each member’s roles and responsibilities, as well as tracking and publicizing each member’s accomplishments. Caution is advised, since overstressing individual accomplishments may undercut cohesiveness.

Group-Serving/Self-Serving Bias

A self-serving bias may be characterized by the tendency to take more personal responsibility for success than for failure. Groups tend to attribute success to internal factors, such as ability and hard work. They attribute their failures to uncontrollable external factors, such as the difficulty of the task, unproductive coworkers, or unsympathetic bosses. The group may approach a problem, complaining about lack of time or too much information to analyze. In the end, however, if the decision succeeds, emphasis will be put on the group members’ abilities, efforts, and the skill in collectively managing the difficult task as a team. Failure may produce internal criticisms of group members. Model awareness, communication, and data mining may aid the group.


Conformity to a group standard, whether correct or not, results when members are insecure about their behavior or ideas. Conformity is promoted among people in groups of three or more when:

  • People feel incompetent
  • The group is undivided and influential
  • No prior commitment has been made
  • Behavior will be observed
  • People have been socialized in a culture that encourages respect for social standards

The effects of conformity work two ways. Little is accomplished without deadlines, commitments, and standards. However, conformity also stifles input, creative analyses, and objective evaluations. Conformity encourages unanimity, which contributes to self-censorship. Group members tend not to dispute assumptions, explain mistakes, or disagree, for fear of reprisal. A totally conforming group indirectly restricts what information is accepted or rejected.

Diversity Influences within the Group

Managing a diverse group or team requires balancing approaches. On one hand, diversity offers:

  • More, and different, perspectives
  • A tendency toward increased creativity
  • Flexibility
  • Increased problem-solving capacity

On the other hand, diversity within groups adds to:

  • The problem of coordination
  • Miscommunications
  • Ambiguity or different interpretations of similar information presented to the group
  • Difficulty in reaching a single solution or agreeing on a specific course of action

This article is adapted from BOMI International’s course Managing the Organization, part of the RPA, FMA, and SMA designation programs. More information regarding this course or BOMI International’s new High-Performance Sustainable Buildings credential (BOMI-HP™) is available by calling 1-800-235-2664. Visit BOMI International’s website,