The Ethical Dilemmas of Groupthink

13 10 2014

By Mark Ellis, Ph.D.




The purpose of this brief discussion is to examine ethical leadership within a group setting. Much of what has been previously discussed has been focused on the leader’s character and behaviors in a conventional organizational setting. As such, we will examine a few issues regarding common ethical dilemmas that may exist in smaller groups and are less prevalent in larger previously mentioned conventional organizations.

There has been a constant trend in various organizations toward smaller groups or the team environment (Whetten & Cameron, 2007). As such, team leadership skills and competencies have been required in order to facilitate followers in a group environment (Chen & Kyaw-Phyo, 2012). Whether the leader be transactional or transformational in their approach to leadership, research indicates that leading groups or teams call for particular competencies conducive to the group environment (2012).

According to Johnson (2011), groups meet for various purposes. Whether it be to coordinate activities, pass along information, clarify misunderstandings, or build relationships, Johnson focuses on the role of groups in making ethical decisions by addressing key issues, which differ substantially from the lone decision-maker (p.274). Further, Johnson also presents challenges to successful decision-making outcomes particularly in the area of groupthink (2011). Further, as posited by social psychologist Irving Janis, cohesion is the greatest obstacle faced by groups charged with making effective and ethical decisions. As such, Irving Janis developed the label “Groupthink” to describe groups that put unanimous agreement ahead of recent problem-solving (p. 280).


One of the many dangers of groupthink is the mentality of “going along to get along” at the expense of making appropriate ethical decisions so as to yield desirable ethical end results. It should be noted that a group or team assigned the task of decision-making, should examine all options and present ideas which may challenge the basic premise of the group.  While decision-making through a consensus approach is certainly a viable method, it is important to note that individuals within a group should not only challenge the process, but also challenge the basic premise of group decision.

In our organization, we encourage group and team members to play “devil’s advocate” and invite opposing viewpoints before arriving at a final decision. Can groupthink create ethical dilemmas? Of course it can. As noted by Johnson (2011) there have been devastating results when key leaders who are major decision-makers fail to address or even ignore potential dangers that have even changed the course of history (p. 280).

As noted by Johnson, although accountability on the part of individual members of various groups, it is important for leaders to help the group as a whole resist the destructive force of groupthink and false agreement (2011). I think we have all been a part of the team or group where we had been afraid to speak up. Much of this fear of speaking up is due to an anticipation of subtle or overt retaliation of a leader or even key members of the group. Nevertheless, groupthink is certainly a destructive force as it fails to consider alternatives, gather additional information, re-examine a course of action when it’s not working, carefully weigh the risks, work at contingency plans, or discuss important moral issues (Johnson, p. 280).

Whether we be organizational leaders, members of a given task force in a for-profit organization, or have been given the charge of influencing a group to make key decisions, we must create an atmosphere whereby members of the group are not afraid to speak up and voice their well-informed opinion. It is also important to keep in mind that the entire rationale behind the group is not to simply gain a consensus, but it is to pull together ideas and formulate various strategies to help bring about desired outcomes (Zhang, Lowry, Zhou, & Fu, 2007). The writer posits that insecure leaders are hesitant to receive any feedback from others. On the other hand, secure leaders are open to suggestions and appreciate and affirm the thoughts and ideas of others.


There is no doubt that many of us will be assigned a task to lead in a group setting. While it may be true that many of us will be leading larger organizations, we will still be faced with the challenge of smaller groups, which will have a direct impact on the direction of such larger organizations. As an ethical and competent leader, it is absolutely critical to create an ethical environment whereby members of a given group can voice their informed opinion, suggest alternatives, retrieve and present appropriate data, or even play “devil’s advocate” for the sake of challenging the group to think, and rethink their position on a decision which will have a direct impact on organizational outcomes.


Chen, J., & Kyaw-Phyo, L. (2012). User satisfaction with group decision making process and outcome. Journal of Computer Information Systems, 52(4), 30-39.

Johnson, Craig E. (2011). Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership (5th edit.) Los Angeles: Sage.

Whetten, D., & Cameron, K. (2007). Developing management skills (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River: NJ: Pearson-Prentice Hall.

Zhang, D. S., Lowry, P. B., Zhou, L., & Fu, X. L. (2007, Spring). The impact of individualism–collectivism, social presence, and group diversity on group decision making under majority influence. Journal of Management Information Systems, 23(4), 53-80.




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