GroupThink – The Virus That Brings The Mighty To Its Knees

“Groupthink” was first used in 1952 by William White in Fortune[i] magazine to describe faulty group decision-making caused by an autocratic team culture that rewards conformity and discourages disagreement.

Whether it’s a rush into a poor investment, a poorly conceived economic strategy, or the launching of war, groupthink has wreaked major collatoral damage worldwide.  Among the many high-profile disasters, the crash of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 was a direct result of groupthinkAccording to NBC News space analyst James Oberg: “engineers who had qualms about the O-rings were bullied or bamboozled into acquiescence.”[ii]

In some cases, like the Challenger disaster, pressure to conform is observable and even openly discussed and acknowledged inside the organization.  But in most cases, groupthink overtakes healthy debate unnoticed. Most people are unaware of contributing to or being part of groupthink.  It’s like a “Trojan Horse” virus that becomes apparent only by looking back at a disastrous decision that seemed sensible at the time.

*For a more detailed discussion, read “Leveraging Connecting Style Diversity” in Connect for Success or Handbook for Early Career Success.

In referring to the decisions leading up to the banking crisis in 2007, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman asked in a September 2009 New York Times article, “How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?”[iii] What he describes is essentially a faulty decision making process caused by overrepresentation of Analyticals. The disastrous decision to deregulate markets was based on the shared but faulty consensus of the economics profession who, as stated by Krugman:

“…went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth.”  They fell “in love with the old, idealized vision of an economy in which rational individuals interact in perfect markets.”

When any workgroup, no matter how brilliant, is dominated by one Connecting Style and confuses its collective truth with THE truth, it is at high risk of failing. In this case the “truth,” as defined by these Analyticals, was an assumption that markets would respond predictably based on mathematical models, and human decisions would be driven by rationality and reason. Krugman’s observation is a great example of the insidious but clear impact of style imbalance:

“Unfortunately, this romanticized and sanitized vision of the economy led most economists to ignore all the things that can go wrong. They turned a blind eye to the limitations of human rationality that often lead to bubbles and busts; to the problems of institutions that run amok; to the imperfections of markets — especially financial markets — that can cause the economy’s operating system to undergo sudden, unpredictable crashes; and to the dangers created when regulators don’t believe in regulation.”

It’s not surprising based on what the Connecting Style Model teaches us, why this picture includes everything in the Analyticals’ comfort zone — a rational, predictable, and neat world best expressed through mathematical models.  Everything they missed just happens to be what they are least comfortable dealing with — messy, emotional, irrational and unpredictable realities, and “all aspects of the truth that, if they understood them, would have resulted in recommendations to regulate markets. Decisions that would have resulted in a very different outcome for the world economy,” said Krugman.

Energizers feel very comfortable with, and much more likely to identify and understand, the messy, ambiguous, emotional and irrational realities that Analyticals and, to some extent, Drivers don’t readily process.

But the folks whose perspective of reality would have been most valuable to the Economics profession also happen to occupy the quadrant opposite of Analyticals.  The habits and qualities that most irritate Analyticals are essentially the defining characteristics of the Energizer, which may explain why the two realities never found each other.  The people who are most critical to successful decisions are likely to be those whose styles are most frustrating and annoying for most of the people in a workgroup!  The more diversity, the greater risk of conflict. But even with that conflict, the benefits outweigh the risks.

If the behavior in the same-style Connect For Success workshop exercises is any indication, Drivers and Analyticals express less interest in reaching across to Energizers and Supportives for their input than the other way around.  Of course, these two independent task-oriented styles are least likely to ask for directions when lost, let alone reach out to invite different perspectives.  Drivers have the most confidence and describe themselves as seeing the world in black and white. This translates into a tendency to dismiss and devalue other perspectives and shut down debate.    The equally independent but more naturally curious Analyticals want to consider all the evidence but have a strong bias against bringing in “touchy-feely” people who might muddy the waters and process.  Supportives are most willing to break up their monopoly to include people from other styles and worlds, even at the risk of losing the harmonious and effective team culture they  create and enjoy.  Their challenge is in feeling confident that they can keep more forceful Drivers from dominating. But they do like working with task-oriented people and are well suited to fit in with strong personalities.  Energizers are open to working across style as well, but do not want to incorporate super-serious people with no sense of humor who threaten to kill the excitement, passion and fun.

A Recipe For Groupthink

  1. Take a workgroup of well-meaning, talented people who share similar background and style
  2. Place in organization with a world-class brand in an uncertain and volatile market
  3. Bake under pressure to deliver short-term results
  4. Remove job security and, voilà! — Groupthink!

Eight Groupthink Symptoms (Irving Janis, 1977)[i]

  1. Illusions of invulnerability
  2. Rationalizing warnings that challenge the group’s assumptions
  3. Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group
  4. Stereotyping and attacking those who are opposed to the group
  5. Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”
  6. Self-censorship of ideas that challenge consensus
  7. Illusions of unanimity — silence is viewed as agreement
  8. Mind-guards — shield the group from dissenting information

THE HEDGE AGAINST GROUPTHINK?   STYLE DIVERSITY  As long as a team is populated by a diverse mix of styles and experience, and they feel safe to contribute, Groupthink can never gel.



[i] Kamau, C. & Harorimana, D., “Does knowledge sharing and withholding of information in organizational committees affect quality of group decision making?” Proceedings of the 9th European Conference on Knowledge Management, (Academic Publishing, 2008), 341-348.

 


[i] Safire, William, “Groupthink,” The New York Times, August 8, 2004.

[ii] James Oberg, “7 myths about the Challenger shuttle disaster,” January 27, 2006, (http://www.msnbc.com).

[iii] Paul Krugman, “How did they get it so wrong?” The New York Times, September 2, 2009.

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