Does your organisation suffer from Groupthink?

In most businesses, decisions are not made by a single individual.  They are made by a group achieving a consensus. In such situations, the psychological concept of Groupthink may come into play.

The American psychologist Irving Janis of Yale University define groupthink in terms of organisational decision-making.  He stated that groupthink was:

when concurrence-seeking behaviour is so dominant in a cohesive in-group that it overrides realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action”

He also believe that groupthink reduced independent critical thinking through a lack of mental efficiency, a lack of reality testing and a reduction in moral judgement.  All three of these factors could result as a result of group peer pressure.  Groupthink as a result could result in irrational and dysfunctional decision-making.

In a book of 1972, Janis gave examples of where he thought groupthink had played a part in poor decision-making.  A prominent example was the Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba.

The Bay of Pigs was an attempt by exiled Cubans to remove the communist government of Fidel Castro by force.  The exiles were given significant intelligence and training support by the US government.  This was initiated by the Eisenhower presidency and continued by the Kennedy administration.

The invasion of Cuba was a disaster.  Many of the Cuban exiles were killed or captured.  Janis points to the intelligence groupthink that had developed under Eisenhower.  There was an overriding opinion that the Cuban military was weak and in particular that the Cuban air force was not effectively operational.  This intelligence, like the claim that Saddam Hussein could launch weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes was inaccurate and poorly sourced.   The Kennedy administration made no attempt to question it despite it being gathered by their political opponents.

Other examples that have been highlighted since Janis’s group include the launch of the Sinclair C5, where Sir Clive Sinclair and his team ignored calls from many marketers not to promote the electric trike as a general mode of transport.  Margaret Thatcher’s insistence on the ‘poll tax’ has also been put down to groupthink and I suspect much of the case put by Brexit-supporting ministers may also, in future, be shown to be groupthink at play.

Two aspects which may exacerbate a groupthink culture are where decisions have to be made under significant time pressure and where the decisions to be made are highly complex and stressful.  Such pressures can lead to the overstatement of the positive consequences of a decision whilst negative aspects are either downplayed or ignored.

Janis sets out three forms of groupthink and gives symptoms that it may be operating.

Type One groupthink an over-estimation of a groups power and morality develops.  This can lead to excessive risk-taking and over-optimism.   A group’s morality may turn into an unquestionable belief that a particular group is right even when evidence points to the opposite position.  In short a ‘we’re right, you’re wrong’ attitude can develop.

Type Two groupthink is the development of closed-mindedness.  This can exhibit itself in a ‘We’ve always done it this way who are you to say different’ attitude.  Warnings that challenge a group’s position are rationalised or ignored.  Those that oppose the group can be described as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent or stupid.  I suffered because of such an attitude in my last job where serious concerns I had about the running of my service were described as ‘a minor piece of local difficulty’ which would be easily diffused.   It also appears evident when the Prime Minister Theresa May uses the word saboteurs to describe those with concerns about a hard Brexit.

Type Three groupthink involves the application of pressure by dominant individuals within a group.  The group in response self-censures. Less dominant members of the group don’t speak out or offer alternative courses of action.  Their silence is taken as approval.  Dominant group members use peer pressure to get others to conform to their way of thinking.  Those who disagree with the imposed consensus are seen in terms of betrayal or disloyalty.  A bullying culture can develop.

Much of the above is evidenced in William Golding’s novel, The Lord of the Flies.

A final effect of groupthink is the concept of ‘mindguards’.  These are self-appointed individuals who take it upon themselves to stop information reaching the group when it disproves the enforced group consensus.  Discussion of this information is discouraged.  So if information disagrees with the dominant consensus of the group it will not be tabled for discussion.

So how do you prevent groupthink?

Janis Lists several techniques to stop or limit the development of groupthink.  These are best shown by the Kennedy administration’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Stung by the fiasco that was the Bay of Pigs, JFK made several changes to the way his cabinet operated.  He got external experts to address his inner circle, even if those experts held opposing views to his own.  His team was allowed to question these experts.  Kennedy allowed his team to discuss issues with trusted individuals outside his inner team.  Again those external individuals could hold opposing views.  Kennedy split his team into sub-groups who worked on issues in parallel.  this broke down group consensus and allowed less dominant group members to have their say.  Kennedy allowed members of his team to have the ability to criticise each others views and on a decision by decision basis, different members were instructed to act as Devil’s advocate.  Kennedy also had the insight to absent himself from certain meetings so that his position as team leader didn’t improperly affect group decision-making.

Groupthink can be disastrous to companies and make for terrible decision-making.  It is best avoided using the techniques used by JFK and promoted by Irving Janis.