Groupthink Revisited

There is an irony for those who lead within the walls of democracy. We hold the ideal of “people power,” where the people exist as the ideal decision making process in our heads, however as most of us know, this is not the way we prefer organizational decisions be made on a day to day basis. Any organizational leader will tell you, whether it’s a CEO or a Deputy Minister… we cannot afford the time to build a group consensus on every issue affecting the group.

I recently spoke with an organizational team that held responsibility over a one hundred million dollar project regarding a group decision that resulted in filing for litigation. The team leader stated, “I would have loved to have gone around and received permission from every departmental stakeholder, but when you’re bleeding $350,000 a day under the eye of the press and your board, you don’t have time.” From an outside perspective, it is too easy to argue against this statement. When you are the executive in charge, it’s too easy to argue for it. Organizations are meant to do things, accomplish tasks. Not just talk.


However, recent international events including the Columbia disaster and the never ending process of what to do with Iraq have clarified what happens when organizational leadership moves too far away from the democratic ideals of people-centered decision making.


Why do well intentioned people trying in all honesty and effort to accomplish organizational missions make terrible decisions? Because decision making is their job, and inevitably bad decisions are made. They must guide their group to accomplish its purpose. NASA has to land the shuttle. The Executive Branch of the United States Government has to disarm Iraq. Kenneth Lay has to report profits. It’s what organizations are supposed to do. It’s the organization’s purpose. When does this purpose and group competency turn against the organization? It’s time to revisit a concept that was popular in the late eighties.


Groupthink, where bad decision making behind closed doors by ‘the few’ adversely affect the many, is a scary part of group behavior. Why? Because the symptoms of it are a part of everyday organizational behavior. Groupthink happens in various forms, all the time. When a group gets together to accomplish a task within a finite amount of time, they must limit the arguments (dissent), believe they are moral, hold off competitors, and ultimately, create the illusion of unanimity within its stakeholders. There are many examples of groupthink that highlight the effects of closed door decision making, where leadership avoidance of outside information and communication for smooth decision making processes ended up in disastrous results. Closed door decision making produced the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and the destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Take a look at the major stories over the last few years… Enron,? The Ottawa Senators? Iraq? All of them, bad decisions by the few, negatively affecting the many through job loss, personal suffering, and yes… death.


Groups fail in their decision making processes when their goal centered process staves off competing priorities, limits group dissent and conflict, and creates a moral unanimity that disables communication and information systems. Without outside communication or information the decisions by the few become risky, over-optimistic in their ambition by consciously or unconsciously discounting their competition, cutting off communication with outside groups, and imposing confidentiality on all group processes. Cutting themselves off from other groups increases efficiency, but also decreases access to event altering information. Groupthink prevents real time access to the smoking gun email we find after the disaster, to outside criticism and differing opinions. Groupthink deafens the team to blaring outside and world opinion.


This is not simply an isolated behavior. This is human social behavior. We all do it, guard against it, and occasionally fail. Most of us are lucky enough to not be in the position to make the bad decisions that end up on the front page of the paper.


What is sound practice for private organizations should be mandatory in public agencies. Why has democracy and the democratic process worked in North America for 200 years despite of its enormous limitations in efficiency? Why has such a form of government been around for longer than most every other organizational type? We all know that the ideal of democracy is the most beautiful political theory of them all. But let’s face it, it doesn’t get any uglier than the process of democracy. We throw people with divergent interests and expertise (whether it’s from different departments or provinces) into a room to fight over resources and ask them to accomplish tasks in finite amounts of time. Whether it’s the parliament, the boardroom, or the coffee lounge… we all hate meetings.


Why does it succeed? Because the inefficiency of democratic process invites dissent and manages conflict. Inherent in the power of the people is a decision making process that prevents groupthink. Democracy is a forum for managing dissenting voice through conflict management. Faster decision making? No. Better long term decisions? Yes. Yes, governments have more time to make decisions than cash strapped private companies, but governments are built on the principle that they must change.


As humans and managers we’re never going to spend three hours building consensus on the next shipment of office coffee. The stakes aren’t high enough. Groupthink is a part of being human, we all participate in it. However, in the recent mourning of terrible events and future disasters it would be nice for organizational leaders to reflect upon the role of leadership, democratic systems, and to reflect upon the responsibility of balancing the two. What you do is important, but you’re remembered by how you did it.

                        author

Wesley S. Helms

Wesley Helms is a mediator, trainer, facilitator and designer of dispute resolution systems. By using his background in alternative dispute resolution, dispute analysis, and information systems, he has worked to streamline private sector, public sector, and international dispute resolution processes for issues ranging from privacy and financial services claims, to… MORE >

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