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Patty Kleban: The Decision to Make a Decision

by on November 10, 2011 2:27 AM

In considering my topic for this week, I kept coming back to:

“What influences our decision making?” And, “Do we always do the right thing?”

Reading the news reports about the scandal at Penn State, the grand jury summary, the legal charges, and the commentary posted on the Internet, it’s easy to get swept up in the frenzy and the outrage surrounding it.

In all of the anger, it’s easy to forget that the lives of many people – especially children – have been irreparably damaged by this situation. Despite the call for heads-on-a-platter, it is important to remember that, in our country, people are innocent until proven guilty. 

However, as a parent, a faculty member and as someone who has worked professionally with children, I keep coming back to “What would I have done?”

While those of us outside of the decision-makers don’t know all of the information, we know that someone knew something and did or didn’t report it to someone else. 

What influenced those decisions?

The research on how we as individuals and how we as groups make decisions suggests that how we determine a plan of action in response to a problem is very complex. It involves factors such as information, time, biases, credibility, intuition, goal-setting and the environment or climate in which the decision is being made.

When individuals become part of a group that is forced to make either reflexive or strategic decisions, the process involves variables such as individual personalities, relationships within the group, power structure between members, expertise, and inter-personal conflict. Depending on any number of factors, we consider pros and cons, goals, alternative solutions and ultimately come to a final decision.

Sometimes those of us outside of the decision go “Huh?” As in, How the heck did those people come to that decision?


We talk about it in the leadership class that I teach. Groups can do amazing things under the direction of a great leader.  We use the word “synergy” to describe the process when a combined effort is greater or better than anything the individuals could do on their own.  The 1980 gold medal USA Olympic hockey team is frequently held out as an example of synergy.

The opposite of synergy?

When the dynamics of a group create such a situation that we end up being involved in decisions or activities that we would never participate in alone. The negative impacts of groups can bring us down to the lowest common denominator. Peer pressure. Pressure to conform or go along. Groupthink.   

Almost all of us have been part of a group decision that perhaps conflicted with our individual value system because of the influence of that invisible vapor called a “group.” It can cause us to go along with the crowd rather than stand up for what we know is right.

Psychologist Irving Janus identified groupthink as a group decision-making process that results when groups are highly cohesive, isolated from diverging opinions and under some form of pressure – either external to the group or self-imposed.  In groupthink, the individual group member’s decision-making skills and values are put on the back burner in favor of prioritizing the illusion of unanimity and the sense of “we.”  Groups that have a strong sense of morality, feelings of invulnerability and that are closed to outsiders (i.e., through a shared secret or shared history) tend to fall into faulty decision-making.


The antidote to groupthink is disagreement, operating in a climate where people don’t feel pressured to go along and a strong leader who will encourage the sharing of diverging opinions to come to a quality decision.

It’s frequent fodder for parenting lectures. Stand up if you see your friends bullying. Walk away when drugs or alcohol become the group activity. Find the balance between being a tattletale and reporting things that you see a friend doing that you know is wrong.

It doesn’t get any easier as we become adults.

We know what the person or group is doing is wrong but there are risks in standing up.   What will the others think of me? What will happen to me if I’m the person who stands up?   Will the group reject me? 

What are the costs – personally, professionally, financially – in taking a stand?

On the other hand, what does it say about me if I go along? A friend of mine who works with kids is famous for his quote: “If you aren’t going to stand up, you may as well go along with whatever it is because not standing up is the same thing.”


I bump into it with students who cheat.  Going through the process of reporting a student who has plagiarized or cheated is a hassle for faculty.  It involves paperwork, confrontation with the student and sometimes, calls from parents. Just last week, I found a student had copied a significant portion of his paper from the Internet. For a brief period of time, I considered avoiding the headache and just giving him a stern warning and letting it go.

In the end, I figured that was just passing on my problem to the next class or instructor or boss for whom this student will likely take a short cut. What he did was wrong. His choices impact all of us. He compromised the academic integrity of other students and faculty.  I ended up going through the process. I couldn’t help but think that if I let it go, I would somehow be giving the behavior permission to continue. I also didn’t like what not doing the right thing said about me.

I’m not equating the sexual abuse of children with cheating on a paper but it’s clear that group dynamics can impact the decision making of any group.

Theoretically, we know the shoulda, woulda and couldas can be influenced by the group and other group members.  In practicality, it comes down to doing the right thing.

This scandal is tragic for everyone involved, but most of all for the children who allegedly have had their childhoods and innocence taken from them by someone who may have used their vulnerability to harm them. Careers, relationships, families, an organization that has done great things for kids and the Penn State reputation have all been damaged by bad decisions.

I'M A... 

Earlier this week, I was presenting at a national conference and, for the first time in my life, found myself wincing when I mentioned that I’m a Penn Stater.

Reading the out-of-town papers and watching the national news, the Penn State name is taking a hit. Bad decisions have impacted all of us. I reminded myself that this scandal does not define me, the students, other faculty, alumni or the incredible things that our university has done for the local and global communities.

With a little less volume and with great sadness, we still are -- Penn State.

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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