Copyright ©1997-2005 American Society of Exercise Physiologists   All Rights Reserved.

        Professionalization of Exercise Physiologyonline    

         ISSN 1099-5862   Vol 8 No 9 September 2005 


Editor:   Tommy Boone, PhD, MPH, MA, FASEP, EPC
Too Much Conformity Leads to Groupthink and Failure
Tommy Boone, PhD, MPH, FASEP, EPC
Professor and Chair
Director, Exercise Physiology Laboratories
Department of Exercise Physiology
The College of St. Scholastica
Duluth, MN 55811

“We will either choose change or chase it.”  -- Jean B. Keffeler

 Obviously friends, groups, teams, and organizations can be important steps to satisfying relationships.  However, the relationships can be derailed when conflicts surface.  For example, most people recognize that a Board of Directors is in charge of resources and decision-making on behalf of the employees of an institution or members of an organization.  It is not a matter of power or status differences.  Rather, all teams, organizations, and businesses have CEOs and Boards that act as chief decision makers.  This is the case with the Chicago Bulls, CNN, and Procter and Gamble. 

Making the right decision is important.  Of course, decisions are made everyday at all levels of life.  Hence, the statements: “The light is now green.  We can drive on.”  “A young child sees a speeding car approach and, thus decides to jump out of the way.”  “The weather is taking on the look of rain, better get a rain cost.”   “A person has a headache and, thus asks for an aspirin.”  Most of the time decisions are made at the individual level without personality clashes and other conflicts.  No one has to tell a person to get his or her laptop computer out of the rain.  The right mix of circumstances acquired from experiences and commonsense says, “It’s time to move inside.”  It is the same with the CEO or the founders of an organization.  If it isn’t instinctual, then it is an acquired (or required) decision made on behalf of the membership.

In this sense, leadership isn’t all that difficult to define.  Ninety-nine percent of the time it is an act carried out for the benefit of all employees of a business or the members of an organization.  Okay, now, having set this piece up for what is to come, exactly what is the purpose of this article?  In a nutshell, when leaders require too much adherence to their values or goals, it is a problem.  Similarly, when members of an organization demand adherence to their way of thinking, it is a problem.  There are many reasons why but one, in particular, is the decreased objectivity in dealing with new ideas and possibilities.  This kind of conformity is bad for any business or organization that looks to its leaders and/or members for change, creativity, and new ideas.

Organizational (or group) conformity carried to its extreme leads to groupthink [1].  There are eight symptoms of groupthink [2]:

1.   Mindguarding. To maintain the status quo of the group, members enforce blind adherence by not allowing alternative views from being presented.  Maintaining group cohesiveness precludes the critical evaluation of thinking differently, such as: “Don’t let that ASEP organization become part of us or the way we think.”
Stereotyping.  Troublemakers, that’s all they are.  No one in his right mind would listen to them.  Again, in order to avoid upsetting the established solidarity (and/or comfort zone) of the organization, it is believed necessary to negatively stereotype anyone not a member of the established organization.  Why?  Because outsiders are believed to be a threat to the way in which they do their business.
3.   Self-Censorship.  Members of the organization who would like to speak out and share their feelings about the alternative views do not because they believe it is not the right thing to do.  How many times have we seen this repeat itself throughout history?  Failing to disagree with their colleagues or leaders out of a sense of loyalty simply isn’t appropriate behavior among adults.  Get some backbone [3].
4.   Rationalization.  Instead of getting some backbone, members rationalize their behavior and interaction with non-members.  They may argue that members of ASEP aren’t important.  After all, they aren’t with us so they aren’t for us and, thus we are against them (and it is the right thing to do) because we are important and they are not important.
5.   Direct Pressure.  Part of the reason members don’t speak out is the “pressure by other members to conform.”  No one wants to be the “one dissenting voice” even if it’s the right thing to do.  So, when pressured by colleagues, it is easier to speak negatively about non-members.  Of course, this doesn’t make it right.  History has many examples of its inappropriateness, which brings up the “three illusions."
6.  Illusion of Unanimity.  “I’m sure we are all in agreement about ASEP, right?”  The short answer is “no.”  But, no one is likely to step forward to point this out for fear of being laughed at or ridiculed.  It is only natural to expect the members to not agree about the value of the ASEP organization.  But, they falsely believe they are in agreement because it’s a psychological ingredient of the mindset that dictates group consensus.
Illusion of Morality.  Again, as part of the feeling of group solidarity, the members believe it is okay to be mean and/or negative to others (or those who are perceived as a threat).  They even believe their behavior is ethical and/or appropriate, when it is obvious that isn’t the case at all.  Hence, they believe that their actions aren’t bad (meaning, they are too good to do wrong things).  After all, they are the good ones!
8.   Illusion of Invulnerability.  “We are the best.”  “We were here first.”  This kind of thinking is evident of problems within the leadership.  Likewise, “The public knows we are credible.”  These statements suggest an attitude of invincibility.  Members become fixated on the notion that they all knowing and invincible.  Their exaggerated level of confidence often sets the stage for mistakes and risk taking that would usually be avoided.

Gatewood, Taylor, and Ferrell [4] pointed out in their Management textbook that groupthink can be prevented by:  (a) assigning the role of critical evaluation to everyone in the group; (b) appointing a specific individual to be a ‘devil’s advocate to challenge the group consensus; (c) breaking the group into smaller subgroups to discuss issues; (d) having the leader withhold his or her opinion about the issue; and (e) bringing in outside experts to challenge the group’s thinking.  The steps sound rather uncomplicated.  No doubt the reader has heard the expression, “I’ve got good news and bad news.”  The good news is that every effort for the right reason is always worth the effort regardless of the challenges required in the implementation of the steps.  The bad news is that the steps usually refer to a “group” and not an “organization” per se.  Thus, when it comes to preventing organizational groupthink, the challenges are significantly more complicated.

So, how difficult is it to get everyone in another organization to become a critical evaluator?  The answer is, “Very difficult.”  How about breaking the organization into smaller groups?  Also, this would be very difficult.  Okay, what about getting someone in the organization to play “devil’s advocate” on behalf of ASEP?  Now, that’s a possibility – but who would have the guts to stand alone among so many?  Do you think it is likely that the President or Vice-Presidents will withhold their opinion about ASEP?  No, this is not likely or they would not have been elected in the first place.  This brings up the last step:  “Bringing in an outside expert to challenge the leaders.”  This is not a likely possibility either.  In short, the only step that appears remotely possible is the person with some backbone!  This is a one in five possibility, and the “one” is only about 25% viable.  With these odds, it is a sure bet that the conformity within the organization will stay in strong.

What now?  All is not lost.  Remember, people far smarter than I am have said repeatedly that, “The old establishment must die off before the new establishment can take hold” [5].  While this is probably true, it is certainly a long time in coming.  Some of my colleagues believe it is too long.  The truth is this:  Time is on the side of the ASEP organization.  The leaders have not failed in responding to the students’ job concerns and professional issues.  No longer under the wing and direction of sports medicine, exercise physiologists are now thinking as “entrepreneurs” in order to meet the challenges of other healthcare competitors.  Fortunately, aside from the groupthink issues and the conformity that has all but forgotten the customers, the students, the ASEP leaders sensed a need for a new organization to restructure exercise physiology.  Everything about exercise physiology is now different, including but not limited to, the markets it will target, the products and practice it will sell and promote, and its overall strategic orientation to other healthcare professionals.      

The conditions of an organization versus that of a profession (such as exercise physiology) are very similar when it comes to understanding how the change process works.  For example, the Kurt Lewin model of change [4] consists of three phases that keeps something stable (e.g., an attitude, behavior, or a way of thinking).  As along as the “restraining forces” are more powerful than the “driving forces,” things stay pretty as they have been.  Forces that push for change are the disruptive forces.  These forces “unfreeze” the attitudes and behaviors of the status quo.  With regard to the view of exercise physiology housed within sports medicine, the disruptive force is the founding of ASEP in 1997.  The new organization has set exercise physiologists free from the restraining forces of sports medicine.  Other factors that have influenced the unfreezing include all aspects of the professional infrastructure of the ASEP organization (code of ethics, certification, accreditation, standards, and so forth). 

Presently, it is clear that exercise physiology is in a “moving” period that entails a transition from sports medicine to exercise physiology per se.  The behaviors of sports medicine that embraced exercise science are undergoing change resulting from new thinking, professional values, and responsibilities.  It will be a decade of transition before exercise physiologists get on board and adjust to the ASEP strategies and structures that support their professional development and exercise physiology as a healthcare career.  Many still don’t understand the reason for change and implications for students.  But, once they get integrated into the change process, they will help with the implementation of change.  Then, as in a blink of the eye, exercise physiology will “refreeze” to stabilize the new 21st century healthcare profession at a new state of professional expectation and performance.  Much of this will be reinforced through the sustained development of policies, behaviors, and procedures on behalf of exercise physiologists. A sense of being in control will help minimize resistance and sustain commitment to ensure that the refreeze is successful.  

In sum, now that the change is underway and many “everyday” problems have been solved, it is important to sustain the ASEP momentum through constant reinforcement of all the ASEP policies, procedures, and perspectives.  It is equally important to learn new ways and behaviors of supporting each other within the context of the organization.  This is why it is so important to keep an open-mind.  ONLY with an open mind will exercise physiologists welcome new ideas and possibilities.  Is there concern that ASEP leaders will make mistakes?  Why not, they are human after all.  Will the members have reservations about certain decisions?  Yes, of course.  Will there be disagreement on different issues?  Why not?  No one or group is infallible.  But, the ASEP leaders believe in each other, believe in what they doing is right, and they have gotten the best advice they can get from colleagues, friends, and family.  It is now a matter of openness, caring, objectivity, staying the course, and hard work.

 “When the chord changes, you should change.” – Joe Pass



  1. Janis, I. (1971). Groupthink. Psychology Today. 5:43-46, 74-76.
  2. Boone, T. (2002).  Exercise Physiology of the Future: Thinking Out of the Box.  Professionalization of Exercise Physiologyonline. 5:11 [Online].
  3. Boone, T. (2004).  Show Some Backbone!  Professionalization of Exercise Physiologyonline. 7:11 [Online].
  4. Gatewood, R.D., Taylor, R.R., and Ferrell, O.C. (1995). Management: Comprehension, Analysis, and Application. Chicago, IL: Austen Press.
  5. Boone, T. (2003). Strategic Management and Decision Making in the American Society of Exercise Physiologists. Professionalization of Exercise Physiologyonline. 6:5 [Online]. 


Disclaimer:  The statements and opinions contained in the articles of Professionalization of Exercise Physiologyonline are solely those of the individual authors and contributors and not of the American Society of Exercise Physiologists.

Copyright ©1997-2005 
American Society of Exercise Physiologists. All Rights Reserved.
All materials posted on this site are subject to copyrights owned by the American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP). Reproduction, retransmission, or republication (in whole or in part) of any document or information found on this site is expressly prohibited, unless otherwise agreed to by ASEP and expressly granted in writing to consent to reproduce, retransmit, or republish the material. All other rights reserved.