On January 28, 1986, at 11:30 a.m., many Americans were "glued to the tube" watching the takeoff of the Challenger on another NASA space shuttle launch. Suddenly, the unthinkable happened. Only 73 seconds into the flight, the spacecraft exploded and burst into flames. TV cameras captured this disaster as a right flash in the sky followed by a white trail of smoke.

From one perspective, the root cause of this catastrophe was an engineering flaw. The rocket seals did not hold up under freezing temperatures. But the engineers of the rocket booster had anticipated a potential seal problem under the weather conditions and warned against the launch. Unfortunately, the NASA executive who made the final "go" decision was shielded from the engineers' warnings. Frustrated by several launch delays, but emboldened by prior successes, a NASA management group decided to silence the engineers' warnings.

This group decision was perhaps the real root cause of the Challenger explosion. Social psychologists call this phenomenon "groupthink" a deterioration of mental effectiveness, practical considerations, and moral judgment as a result of various group process factors. These factors have been extensively studied in social psychology research. Let's review them and explore their relationship to safety management. After all, group decisions based on the right values, principles and methodology will increase a work culture's commitment to safety, and facilitate behavior change. But "groupthink" can obviously have disastrous effects on safety.

Group gambles

A number of decision-making studies in the 1960s showed that groups generally make riskier decisions than individuals. This is contrary to the common sense belief that groups tend to be more conservative than their individual members. More specifically, researchers asked subjects to:

1. Make a series of decisions individually on a questionnaire;

2. Form a group to discuss each choice on the questionnaire and arrive at a consensus; and

3. Complete the questionnaire again individually.

Not only were the group consensus decisions more risky than the average of the initial decisions; but after the group discussions, the individual choices became more risky. What's going on here? Actually, there are several dynamics being played out:

Group polarization: When group members discuss an issue that the majority favors or opposes, they become more certain and confident in their viewpoint. This exaggeration of individual opinion is called "group polarization," which can either work for or against safe decisions.

Diffused responsibility: Individual group members feel they cannot be held responsible for the failure of a group decision. The risk of failure is spread around. Think about it: How often does a group or team decide to bypass a safety procedure, perhaps to be more productive? If someone gets injured as a result, no one individual can be held responsible. The risk was a group decision.

Deindividuation: People lose their sense of self-awareness and individuality in the group context. As with group polarization, this can be positive or negative, depending on the values and principles of the group. When team members compromise to achieve goals consistent with their organization's purpose and mission statement, the effects of deindividuation are likely to be beneficial. But deindividuation can lead to abandoning fundamental individual constraints and to less careful or less safe decisions and behaviors.

Deindividuation is facilitated when group members wear uniforms and cut their hair in similar ways, as in prisons, cults, monasteries, and the military. In a study of obedience (see ISHN article, February, 1995), women at New York University who wore depersonalizing Ku Klux Klan-like hoods delivered twice as much electric shock to a victim than women who could be identified.

Work teams certainly don't experience this degree of deindividuation. But group meetings of all sorts often stifle individual contributions, and this can lead to a loss of self-consciousness and self-control for some people. Individuals may fail to speak up when they disagree. Silence is interpreted as consent and leads to an illusion of group unanimity. And, with the whole group on the same wavelength (even if risky), individuals feel protected and develop an illusion of invulnerability.

So here we have some of the factors that can lead groups to make riskier decisions than individuals. Social conformity and obedience also play roles. It's important to realize that these dysfunctions can occur in group meetings, and we should consider ways of overcoming them. Members of a group might be introduced to these concepts and then entertain ways to decrease their prominence.

For instance, a group facilitator who embraces diverse opinions, invites input and critiques of a developing solution, or assigns task forces to explore alternative action plans, will decrease the probability of "groupthink" and increase the likelihood of synergy. Also, when a group has a well-defined purpose and mission statement that is principle-centered and compatible with the organization's vision, the group process of polarization and deindividuation will lead to group commitment, loyalty, trust, and a win/win perspective.