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Communicating with faculty: a strategy for avoiding groupthink and escalation of commitment.


Communicating with, and gaining acceptance from, faculty can sometimes be challenging. Faculty members often have strongly held opinions about many issues. Further, tenure and promotion pressures may prevent junior faculty members from speaking freely and making a valuable contribution to a group decision. This challenge is even more difficult when the message to be communicated is central to the value system of the receiver (faculty). This paper presents the result of a successful communication strategy designed to gain acceptance of a new faculty evaluation system. This situation is representative of that described above. We discuss the relevant background literature and the strategy used to minimize groupthink and escalation of commitment issues often present in faculty decision-making. Although, the strategy presented here is specific to the situation at hand, we believe that it can be adapted for use in other situations involving institutional change such as changes to the tenure and promotion process, reorganization of a school, a move to more assessment activities, or a even new performance evaluation system.


A special task force, referred to herein as, the "faculty evaluation committee," was created within the School of Management at a regional campus of a Big Ten University. This faculty evaluation committee was given the directive to design and communicate an effective performance appraisal system. The committee consisted of three faculty members representing the areas of accounting, human resources, and marketing. The three members were selected to serve on the committee because the experience each would bring; additionally, they would represent the major areas of faculty with their varying needs and concerns. The committee's charge was to design a faculty evaluation process that reflected the value each tenure track or tenured faculty member contributed to the overall success and growth of the school. Other goals included: the development of a process that was perceived as fair and just by the faculty; the inclusion of accountability and feedback of the performance for each faculty member; and the development of a standardized evaluation form to rank faculty members.

The Current System

In the system which was currently in place, each faculty member was expected to submit an annual activity report outlining his or her goals and professional accomplishments. Although there was no standardized form, the annual report was expected to include: progress toward the accomplishment of professional goals from the previous years' annual report, teaching activities and evaluations, scholarship, university and community service, and projected goals for the upcoming year.

The annual report was then evaluated by a committee of three elected faculty members who evaluated the performance of each faculty member and submitted their recommendations to the school head for use in the merit pay allocation decision. This committee was purely advisory; however, and the school head was not obligated to heed the advice given. The faculty member received feedback regarding his or her performance via the next annual contract that reflected the new salary for the upcoming year. The faculty member then had to make inferences from the amount of the raise about his/her performance during the past year.

The current system provided no formal two-way communication between the school head or the evaluation committee and individual faculty members. The committee believed that the increased communications between the individual faculty member and the school head would increase the ability of the faculty member to understand the goals of the school as well as understand the "value added" of each faculty member in relation to the merit-based pay decision process.

The New System

The committee then turned its efforts to the creation and design of the evaluation instrument, and a process for conducting the faculty appraisals. The evaluation instrument that has been developed has two major components-the "Annual Agreement Regarding Duties and Responsibilities" and the "Annual Faculty Evaluation Form".

The Annual Agreement Regarding Duties and Responsibilities is essentially a contract between the faculty member and the school head which clearly sets forth the criteria that will be used to evaluate the performance of a faculty member and determine merit salary increases. This agreement would be discussed and agreed upon at the beginning of the evaluation period. The intent of this contract is to recognize the diverse interests and abilities of each faculty member as well as to allow the school head to accurately assess whether or not the various contracts with the faculty, in aggregate, meet the goals of the school. For example, a faculty member who has strong research interests may therefore choose to be evaluated primarily based upon the scholarly publications whereas another may have a strong interest in teaching and choose to be evaluated primarily on teaching. Minimum percentages were included within the agreement to ensure a proper mix of teaching, research, and service by each faculty member. The Annual Agreement allows the school head to clearly delineate the expectations of each faculty member's duties for the coming year.

The second document, the Annual Faculty Evaluation Form, focuses on the accountability of each faculty member. In essence, the evaluation form objectively evaluates the "value added" by each faculty member. Additionally, the form would provide an exchange of mutual expectations between a faculty member and the school head. This exchange of mutual expectations is a Management By Objectives (MBO)-like approach to a performance appraisal.

The evaluation requires reporting of accomplishments in the traditional areas of research, teaching, and service. Additionally, an evaluation of the time spent as a result of a release time for advising, administrative duties, or research would also be required. Further, a career development section was added to designate if a faculty member intended to apply for promotion, sabbatical leave, or international travel grant. The last section of the proposed faculty appraisal form contained the signatures of the participating faculty member and school head that a conference and review has taken place. Such signatures indicated only that a meeting had taken place and that the evaluations by the faculty member and the school head had been discussed. The signatures were not intended to indicate agreement with the evaluation.

Need for a Communication Strategy

After the two major instruments of the new evaluation system were developed, the committee needed to develop an appropriate communication strategy to gain acceptance of the new system. Typically, any proposed change is met with resistance until the benefits are clearly communicated and understood by the parties. The committee realized that the school head and faculty must have ownership of the process in order to "buy in" and support this change. Ownership can come only when faculty play an active role from the planning stage through the implementation stage for any change process to be successful (Diamond & Adam, 1993). The ownership of the proposed evaluation was critical due to the fact that all salary increases at the university are merit based and a rather sensitive matter to the faculty. This faculty evaluation system had to be perceived as fair by the faculty since merit increases would be connected with this process. The self-interest theory proposes that people want fair procedures because such fairness enables them to obtain desired extrinsic rewards (Ivancevich & Matteson, 2002). This clearly presented a communication challenge for the committee.


A number of areas of research are relevant as background for this communications challenge. A basic understanding of the communications process as well as an appreciation for how to best have a message accepted are important for the development of the communication strategy presented in this case.

The Communication Model

Communication is a process of conveying a message to others and requires six elements: a source, a message, a channel of communication, a receiver, and the process of encoding and decoding (Schramm, 1955). Communication also frequently contains feedback and noise (Berkowitz et al., 2000). Effective communication requires that the receiver's decoding process be consistent with the sender's encoding process. When this does not happen, communication errors occur. Communication errors can also occur because of three possible behaviors on the part of the receiver: selective attention, selective distortion, and selective retention (Kotler, 2000). An effective message must get past the thousands of stimuli that a receiver may encounter. It will be more easily received if it fits with the receiver's current belief system. Sometimes receivers add things to a message which are not really present or do not notice other things that are there. It is critical for the sender to strive for "simplicity, clarity, interest, and repetition to get the main points across" (Kotler, 2000).

Based on the commonly accepted model of communications (Schramm, 1955), there are a number steps to developing effective communications. First, the target audience must be identified and understood. Second, communications objectives must be established. Third, the message must be designed in light of the audience and the objectives. Fourth, the communications channels must be established. Will mass communication or one-on-one communication be used? Finally, communications efforts must be measured and evaluated in light of achieving the communications objectives.

These were all relevant to the committee in striving for acceptance of the new faculty evaluation system. Because it represented a dramatic change from the current system, the committee wanted to carefully choose the message and channel which had the highest chance of achieving the objective-understanding, and buy-in, of the new, and very different, faculty evaluation system.

Acceptance of Communications

Fiske and Hartley (1980) have identified situational characteristics that lead to increased acceptance of communications messages: First, communication is most effective when it focuses on unfamiliar, lightly felt peripheral issues (Fiske & Hartley, 1980). This was clearly not the case here and it created communication challenges. Second, communication effects are greatest when the message is in line with the receiver's existing opinions and beliefs. Evaluation of faculty for merit raises is an important issue central to the value system and self-esteem of most faculty members. The new system was in line with the faculty's pre-existing attitudes and beliefs about the current evaluation system. The current system was a "one-size-fits-all" system whereby all faculty were evaluated by the same set of criteria regardless of seniority, tenure status, interests, or abilities. The new system more clearly identified the value-added that each faculty member can bring to the unit and recognizes that value-added can take any number of forms.

Third, communication is believed to be effective when the source has credibility and expertise, and when the receiver can identify with the source (Fiske & Hartley, 1980). The committee members met these criteria and thus assisted in enhancing the effectiveness of the communication. The chair of the committee had considerable human resource experience in industry and was well respected for his knowledge and understanding of the issues. The other two members were long-time faculty members who established credibility with the faculty. The committee was made up of faculty at all professorial levels.

Fourth, the greater the monopoly of the communication source over the recipient, the greater the effect in favor of the change (Fiske & Hartley, 1980). The committee wanted to meet individually with each faculty member to maximize the opportunity for influence. Further, Kotler (2000) suggests that one-on-one personal communications may have the effect of making the buyer (faculty member) feel some obligation for having sat through and listened to the presentation.


This section will discuss several streams of research which are relevant to the study of group decision-making in organizations. Group behavior and group decision-making present unique challenges as was illustrated in this case. A group is defined as "two or more individuals who share a set of norms, values or beliefs and have certain implicitly or explicitly defined relationships to one another such that their behaviors are interdependent (Hawkins, Best & Coney, 2001).

Group Decision Making

Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. is quoted as having said "Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here ... Then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about." While appearing humorous at first, the quote illuminates some important fundamentals about group decision-making.

Russo and Shoemaker (1989) suggest that failure is inevitable in group decision-making if we assume "that with many smart people involved, good choices will follow automatically." They further suggest that groups "are likely to outperform individuals only to the extent that productive conflict arises among . . . members and such conflicts get resolved through balanced debate and careful intelligence-gathering." Group decision-making is a process which must be managed in order to produce the best possible outcome. Early on, divergence of opinions and dissent should be encouraged. Only, after data and well-considered arguments are heard, consensus should be the goal.


The notion of groupthink (Janus, 1982) has important implications here. Groupthink (Janus, 1982) is a "mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive group, when the members' desire for unanimity overrides their personal motivation to appraise alternative courses of action." This has been classically demonstrated in the experiments known as the Asch phenomenon (Asch, 1951). In these experiments, strangers would look to the opinions of others even in a simple task of judging which lines are the same length. Janus (1982) notes a number of symptoms of groupthink. One groupthink symptom is self-censorship of opinions by group members who "avoid speaking up against the majority opinion for fear of ridicule or because they do not want to waste the group's time" (Russo & Shoemaker, 1986). Another groupthink symptom is the existence of pressure which is exerted on people inside the group who disagree with the majority opinion. These two symptoms of groupthink have been known to occur in open faculty meetings.

Bazerman (1986) notes that as the group size increases, "uncertainty increases, and we are less likely to dissent." This has the usual outcome of reducing the possibility for creative, integrative solutions. Russo and Shoemaker (1986) concur when they state "two heads in theory are better than one, but people often influence each other in ways that prevent the full benefit of their independent ideas from being realized."

Such behavior could have had significant negative ramifications for the acceptance of the plan had it been presented initially at a regular faculty meeting. The committee needed to develop and design a strategy to maximize feedback and acceptance and to minimize groupthink effects such as those discussed above.

Escalation of Commitment

A number of characteristics of group behavior (Carnell, Jennings & Hearvrin, 1997) would have made this difficult to present to the group at large: desire to be a good group member, dominance of an individual, and escalation of commitment. In a large group, "the desire to be a good group member and to be accepted can actually reduce creative decisions instead of enhancing them" (Carnell et al., 1997). This is particularly true in faculty meetings where junior faculty have tenure issues confronting them and may not wish to make waves. The approach presented here allowed these faculty members, and others, to express their concerns and present their ideas relatively anonymously and without fear of recrimination. Second, in large groups, one individual often emerges "who effectively cuts off the debate and channels the rest of the group to his or her point of view" (Carnell et al., 1997). This again is common in faculty meetings and was effectively mitigated by the use of one-on-one meetings.

Escalation of commitment frequently occurs in large meetings whereby individuals become "committed to their pet solutions and then the goal becomes winning the argument rather than solving the problem" (Carnell et al., 1997). This is the classic problem with management-by-committee. It significantly reduces the efficiency of a discussion and reduces the possibility of true understanding and active problem solving. The goal of the committee was to reduce this possibility by allowing issues to be brought up and discussed and addressed initially at the individual meetings. Once consensus had been reached on key points, the remaining points could be discussed effectively in the context of the larger group. Moon, Colon, Humphrey, and Devers (2001) present data to support this strategy and suggest that "groups with individuals who reached prior individual decisions were found to be less willing to abandon projects than individuals were, while groups of individuals who evaluated their decisions exclusively in a group context abandoned projects more often than individuals."

Organizational Decision-Making Models

Lahti (1996) presents four decision-making models which can help in developing communication strategies. He suggests that once the group's decision-making model is identified, "the decision procedure can be analyzed to facilitate the improvement of the procedure ... and the procedure can be improved by anticipating potential problems and acting accordingly" (Lahti, 1996). The first model is the rational model based on an economic view of decision-making. It assumes complete and accurate information and that decision makers rationally evaluate pros and cons of alternatives and ultimately choose the alternative with the maximum utility. The second model is the political model which takes into account the preconceived notions that decision-makers bring to the table. Lahti (1996) suggests that in this case decision makers are motivated by and act on their own needs and perceptions and that this model involves a "cycle of bargaining among the decision-makers in order for each one to try to get his or her perspective to be the one of choice." Further, this means that each decision-maker tries to sway powerful people within the situation to adopt his/her viewpoint and influence the other decision-makers (Allison, 1971; Cheshire & Feroz, 1989; Lyles & Thomas, 1988; Schneider, Shawver & Martin, 1993).

The third model is the process model in which decision-making occurs in accordance with pre-established guidelines or upon standard operating procedures (Allison, 1971; Cheshire & Feroz, 1989). The last model is the garbage can model which tends to operate in organizations where the technologies are not clear, the involvement of the participants varies, and the choices are inconsistent and not well defined (Cohen, March & Olsen, 1972; Lovata, 1987; Schmid, Dodd & Tropman, 1987). In the case of decisions made by groups of faculty, the political and process models are most likely to apply.


The committee decided to use a two-step approach in order to effectively communicate and gain acceptance of the new evaluation system. The communication strategy was based upon the "participative involvement" model which assumes that commitment to the change is gained through participation in the decision making process (Sagen, 1972). The strategy was designed to minimize both groupthink and escalation of commitment as discussed above. The process also utilized an understanding of the elements in the communications model. The first step of the communication process was with the Head of the School. The second step was individual consultation with faculty members. For each of these parties, the communication strategy focused on the benefits each would realize under the proposed system. In essence, their involvement in the process would allow the School Head and the faculty to "buy in" to the new, and very different, faculty evaluation system.

After the committee had completed a draft of the two documents and a layout of the evaluation system, the committee first met with the School Head. The committee felt it was critical to secure the School Head's support if the proposed system was to be successfully implemented. The role of the chairperson (School Head) in bringing about a desired change is to provide the leadership to implement such a change (Tucker, 1984). During the meeting, the committee explained the proposed instruments and also the requirement of a significant amount of time needed from the School Head to conduct faculty evaluation discussions using these instruments. This meeting was successful because the School Head gave his full support of the new evaluation process and agreed to his expanded role. With support secured from the School Head, the committee now focused its attention on gaining acceptance from the faculty.

The second step of the communication strategy was a series of private, one-on-one meetings with all of the tenure-track and tenured faculty members. The committee divided up the faculty and contacted each individually to present the documents and the system. The goals of this step were to give each faculty member a voice, to give each faculty member time to read the documents thoroughly and think thorough the implications, to gather feedback that could be to revise the documents, and minimize conflict in the monthly faculty open meeting. The one-on-one meetings were designed to maximize feedback and acceptance and to minimize groupthink effects (Janus, 1982) and escalation of commitment (Carnell et al., 1997) which could have had significant negative ramifications for the acceptance of the plan had it been presented first at the regular faculty meeting.

The goal of the committee was to reduce this possibility by allowing issues to be brought up, discussed, and addressed initially at the individual meetings. For example, one important issue that was raised was whether or not minimum percentages of activity with respect to teaching, research, and service ought to be required of individual faculty members or whether those percentages ought to be applied only on a departmental basis. Once consensus had been reached on key points, the remaining points could be discussed effectively by the larger group in an open meeting. This strategy is consistent with Russo and Shoemaker's (1986) suggestions that groups "are likely to outperform individuals only to the extent that productive conflict arises among . . . members and such conflicts get resolved through balanced debate and careful intelligence-gathering." They suggest that early on, divergence of opinions and dissent should be encouraged and only, after data and well-considered arguments are heard, consensus should be the goal (Russo & Shoemaker, 1986). Each meeting took a similar form. After the initial interaction with a faculty member, the committee member explained the committee's charge and responsibilities. The new evaluation plan with the accompanying forms were then presented and explained. The next critical step was to listen to the reaction of each faculty member and to try to decipher his or her reaction to the plan. Inevitably, there were concerns and objections to the plan. Faculty members were most concerned about whether, and how, the plan would impact them personally. They wanted to understand the management-by-objectives approach to allocating points for effort, what was required of them, and any negative impact to their merit increase. They wanted to know about a timeline for implementation. These objections and concerns were expected. Bagozzi et al (1998) explain that objections seldom indicate a serious mistake by the salesperson (committee member), but rather that objections indicate that the customer (faculty member) is interested enough to respond. Further, objections are to be expected because of the natural imperfections in any communications system.

The last stage of the meetings involved a summary of the new evaluation plan and its merits, a discussion of issues raised by the faculty member, and a promise to investigate the concerns and make changes if possible. The faculty member was urged to carefully read the documents and consider any further questions and was invited to contact the committee member at any time with further questions or issues related to the proposed plan. It was important to provide additional mechanisms for feedback from the faculty. This was a complicated new system which represented a radical change from the current system. It would take time for a faculty member to understand the system and his/her place in the system.

The series of private, one-on-one meetings was the preliminary stage in the process of selling the new evaluation plan and set the foundation for the presentation of the plan at the next faculty meeting. As Sun Tzu noted in "The Art of War" (Sonshi, 2001) "the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought." By meeting one-on-one, the committee could learn about any weak points in the plan and prepare for the presentation to the larger group. The actual presentation of the new faculty evaluation system at the open faculty meeting was rather brief, lasting no more than ten minutes. Items and points which were well understood and which had widespread agreement were briefly discussed and used as selling points. Unanswered questions and issues common to many faculty members were then addressed. Ultimately, both the school head and the faculty members supported, and approved, the new evaluation system.


Faculty groups present typical, and at the same time unique, challenges for the mass communication of ideas. In this paper, we've presented the results of a strategy to communicate, and gain acceptance for, a new faculty evaluation system. The new system was significantly different from the current system, and the issue of evaluation was central to the value system of the faculty members. These conditions, along with the characteristics of faculty members which may lead to groupthink and escalation of commitment, made communication of the new system critical. The communication strategy presented was successful in gathering information, creating managed debate of opinions (without groupthink effects), and in closing the sale - that is, gaining acceptance of the new system from all involved. Although this strategy was designed for a particular communication situation, we believe that this situation is typical of any organizational change situation and that the strategy is generalizable to other communication situations that occur in higher education.


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Lori S. Feldman, Purdue University Calumet

John J. Lucas, Purdue University Calumet

Philip H. Empey, Purdue University Calumet
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Title Annotation:Manuscripts
Author:Feldman, Lori S.; Lucas, John J.; Empey, Philip H.
Publication:Academy of Educational Leadership Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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