Team Leadership Toolkit

Team Development

Groupthink

‘How could we have been so stupid?’ asked President John F. Kennedy, after he and a group of close advisers had blundered into the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Stupidity was certainly not the explanation. The group who made the decision was one of the greatest collections of intellectual talent in the history of American government. Irving Janis describes the blunder as a result of ‘group-think'. Victims of Group-think by IL Janus)

Group-think occurs when too high a price is placed on the harmony and morale of the group, so that loyalty to the group’s previous policies, or to the group consensus, overrides the conscience of each member.

‘Concurrence-seeking’ drives out the realistic appraisal of alternatives. No bickering or conflict is allowed to spoil the cosy ‘we-feeling’ of the group. Thus it is that even the cleverest, most high-minded and well-intentioned of people can get into a blind spot. Janus identifies eight symptoms:

8 Symptoms of Group-Think by Janus

Invulnerability

Cohesive groups become over-optimistic and can take extraordinary risks without realising the dangers, mainly because there is no discordant warning voice.

Rationale

Cohesive groups are quick to find rationalisations to explain away evidence that does not fit their policies.

Morality

There is a tendency to be blind to the moral or ethical implications of a policy. ‘How could so many good men be wicked?’ is the feeling.

Stereotypes

Victims of group-think quickly get into the habit of stereotyping their enemies or other people and do not notice discordant evidence.

Pressure

If anyone starts to voice doubts the group exerts subtle pressures to keep them quiet: they are allowed to express doubts but not to press them.

Self-censorship

Members of the group are careful not to discuss their feelings or their doubts outside the group, in order not to disturb the group cosiness.

Unanimity

Unanimity is important so, once a decision has been reached, any divergent views are carefully screened out in people’s minds.

Mindguards

Victims of group-think set themselves up as bodyguards to the decision. ‘He needs all the support we can give him.’ The doctrine of collective responsibility is invoked to stifle dissent outside the group.

The result of group-think is that the group looks at too few alternatives, is insensitive to the risks in its favourite strategy, finds it hard to rethink a strategy that is failing and becomes very selective in the sort of facts it sees and asks for.

Group-think is unfortunately most rife at the top and centre of organisations where the need for ‘keeping things close’ seems more important. Such groups must actively encourage self-criticism, the search for more alternatives, the introduction of outside ideas and evaluation wherever possible, and a positive response to conflicting evidence. One way of avoiding group-think in the boardroom is the growing use of non-executive directors, for small groups can get too cohesive to be effective.

Kennedy learnt his lesson. The Missile Crisis was handled differently, with a more diffuse group, more outside ideas, more testing of alternatives and more sensitivity to conflicting data.