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Saturday, January 24, 1981

Groupthink can be Disasterous

Published: Financial Post, Toronto

In the past, a ruler would be very likely to execute a messenger if the message displeased the king. Today we are more subtle: displeasing messages get filtered out before they ever reach the ruler.
The Bay of Pigs, the decision to bomb North Vietnam, and now the Iranian adventure provide us with ample illustration of Groupthink. This magnificently Orwellian term was coined by psychologist Irving Janis to refer to a group's inability to tolerate dissent, to a situation in which getting agreement around a solution becomes more important than developing the best solution.
The decision by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to resign following the rejection of his advice by President Carter indicates that Groupthink still dominates the top American and, no doubt, Canadian policy making bodies. President Carter, like Presidents Kennedy and Johnson before him, is learning the hard way that tough action must be taken in order to prevent the domination of the forces of Groupthink.
What does Groupthink look like? How would we recognize it in our own decision-making groups? Janis and earlier Norman Maier have identified a number of symptoms that we should be on guard against.
It is often difficult, because of the Groupthink phenomenon, forus to recognize when these symptoms occur in our own groups-- after all we know better, we would never make the same mistakes. That illustrates the first and greatest problem: the group believes that it is right; that it is right both factually and morally, and consequently the scenario of the operation (Bay of Pigs, Iran) will unfold as planned. This sense of invulnerability and moral correctness leads to four things that affect the group as it engages in the process of making a decision. First there exists a sense of unanimity within the group; everyone agrees on a plan. Indications of this are a failure to generate more than one or two alternative courses of action, and an individual's unwillingness to express his or her reservations -- individuals are their own self-censors. They suppress and keep to themselves their doubts and reservations about the plan. Often, many people share these reservations and the group lacks a true unanimity. In addition, members of the group put subtle pressure on those whose questions slip through the guard of their own self-censoring. As Janis observes they do this by limiting the bounds of criticism to details of the plan rather than to its underlying assumptions and by isolating the dissenter into a slightly ridiculous role as in Lyndon Johnson's term for Bill Moyers: "Let's hear what Mr-Stop-the-Bombing has to say". Finally and most injuriously the group develops the MindGuards. These are the people who filter the information coming to the group. They make sure that outside information is suppressed or reinterpreted if it fails to support the cherished assumptions of the group. As a result of this process, the group makes its decision only upon information that is supportive of that decision. This builds up a self-fulfilling cycle of correctness. The illusion of rightness and unanimity is preserved; no disruptive questioning or information is admitted by the group.
These processes are pervasive in decision-making groups. One of the few ways of reducing their severity is to institutionalise dissent. Janis and Maier prescribe several mechanisms for doing this. They represent a re-establishment of the traditional American system of checks and balances in the political process.
A group should routinely make decisions in a two stage process. First, critical evaluation should be suspended and a wide variety of alternative courses of action generated; the final list should consist of the off-beat as well as the obvious. This can be done by having several subgroups or individuals brainstorm lists of alternatives which are then brought back to the policy making group. In addition, group members should be encouraged to discuss the issues with their fellow workers and subordinates so as to bring a wider range of alternatives to the group's attention.
Second, each alternative should be criticized in terms of its strengths and weaknesses, with equal time given to both aspects. Work should be done on integrating several flawed solutions into a better one. This can be done by the leader of the group formally assigning the responsibilities of criticizing the alternatives to each group member. This alone is not enough; the leader must accept with good grace and an open mind the criticisms made about his ideas and proposals. Without this, all criticism will degenerate to a few pro forma comments. It is also helpful to augment the group, from time to time, with outside members who can bring a wider range of criticisms to bear upon the alternatives under consideration. These criticisms are apt to be less inhibited that those of the group members as they will have not built up any ownership of the alternatives under discussion.
Finally, when the group is close to reaching a decision about the best alternative, the leader should appoint a Devil's Advocate for the two or three options that are under serious consideration. These individuals are to challenge the assumptions and expectations of the proponents of each alternative. At the last step -- once a decision has been taken -- the group should meet one more time to review doubts and challenge the correctness of the decision. We have all experienced what the French call "the bottom of the stairs" feeling when one remembers that critical comment that might have changed the course of a discussion. This 'last chance' meeting gives us the opportunity to make that comment. It is like those Viking chiefs who used to make their decisions twice over: once when drunk and once when sober. If the two agreed they would carry out the decision; if they differed they would think again.
These practices will not completely eliminate errors of judgement, nor will they guarantee success as even the best laid plans may go awry. These procedures will minimize the chance of failure due to overlooking possible alternatives or failing to consider the potential side-effects of the outcome selected. We should salute Secretary Vance who has shown his ability to resist Groupthink and encourage his successor to continue to fight for alternatives within the policy-making group.

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