August 10, 2010
Have you ever gone along just to get along? It can be a wise course. Sometimes it is foolish with very dangerous consequences. Irving Janus, a research psychologist, developed the theory of groupthink: a mode of thinking by people deeply involved in a cohesive in-group when strivings for consensus override any motivation to consider other alternatives realistically.
Janus believed the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco (the failed invasion of Cuba to overthrow Castro) resulted from groupthink. The horrific 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster is also blamed on groupthink because NASA contractor Morton Thiokol’s engineers’ warnings about launching in the cold weather were ignored. The unimaginable horror of that bad decision replayed over and over on our television, and I can still see the fireball in my mind’s eye.
Dr. Janis described eight symptoms of groupthink.
- Illusions of invulnerability create excessive optimism and encourage risk-taking.
- Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group's assumptions.
- Unquestioned belief in the group's morality causes members to ignore the consequences of their actions.
- Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, disfigured, impotent, or stupid.
- Direct pressure to conform is placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of "disloyalty."
- Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
- Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.
- Mind guards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.
Later researchers posited that groupthink is more common than even the late Dr. Janus believed. Have you made a bad decision in your organization because of groupthink?
The challenge for a leader is to balance the passion for a consuming, internalized, deeply-held personal vision that requires supreme self-confidence to achieve with the courage to listen in case he or she might simply be wrong. I remember reading a Wall Street Journal article many years ago about a dynamic CEO who eventually ran his high-flying company into the ground. He referred to his bosses as “the board of directed.”
One of the antidotes for groupthink is to seek an outside, independent look at yourself. We all see ourselves differently than others see us. Seeking a contrary view to ensure reaching the best decision is not for the weak of heart; it takes a strong constitution and healthy self-esteem. Where does a CEO, division manager, or owner of a small business go for a healthy antidote to groupthink? Some, not wishing to relinquish legal control, form advisory boards. One viable alternative is to join a CEO peer group. This group of leaders from non-competing companies meets regularly to discuss real issues. It is a sounding board, a fresh perspective, an outside look from people who understand.
This type of diverse assembly—not having a dog in the hunt—won’t develop groupthink and let you get away with a false consensus!