She sat at her first board meeting looking increasingly uncomfortable. Surrounding her were experienced directors, and by turn they patronised, mocked and marginalised her viewpoints. Just for moment she looked as if she might surrender her minority position to their arguments – and then thankfully, the role play at the Institute of Directors’ course ended.
Everybody – from acting boardroom bullies and sycophants to the principled – heaved sigh of relief. We had been acting out ?Groupthink’ and it was both instructive and unpleasant.
Groupthink arises when group’s desire for agreement somehow overrides its ability to realistically appraise alternative courses of action. On deeper levels it also accords with our need to conform – to embrace compatibility rather than its awkward cousin, independence. There is comforting cohesiveness and belonging in the little word ?we’ – and an absence of both in dissent.
In group situations many of us slip into Groupthink and it is special concern in boardrooms. There the ideal is that all alternatives should be considered, as members bring divergent thinking to the issues confronting them. But boards are simply committees of shareholders and despite their diversity, are as prone to Groupthink as any other team. The phenomenon of Groupthink was discovered in 1971 by Yale University psychologist Irving Janis who began tracing the history of major fiascos in decision-making, from Pearl Harbour to the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
“What struck Janis repeatedly was the inability of the groups in question to see beyond their narrow focus,” says the research accompanying Group think, CRM Films training video.
“… to rationally consider alternatives, and to foresee how their course of action would seriously threaten – and in some cases destroy – the groups’ very goals and principles. Also striking in each case, was the extreme stated desire among group members to ?please one another’, to be perceived as team players, and to retain their membership in the group.”
Janis identified eight symptoms which might serve as early warning that Groupthink was present. Subsequent research showed that the greater these symptoms, the higher the probability of Groupthink.
Typical Groupthink symptoms:
? The illusion of invulnerability. feeling of power and authority is important to decision-making group like board. The danger is that the level of confidence implicit in their position may be so high that they believe any decision they make will be successful.
? Rationalisation – explaining away objections to given decision or plan, often on the basis that what has worked in the past ensures future success.
? Stereotypes of ?out-groups’ like media, who might be critical. Result: increased isolation.
? Self-censorship – sometimes occurs because some directors might think their ideas are unworthy; equally often because they are sublimated to group loyalty, or team spirit.
? Pressure: direct pressure is applied to those with dissenting views, sometimes with the result that members are conditioned not to believe such views. To do so might put them at odds with the group.
? Illusion of unanimity. Eventually all the rationalisations and psychological pressures have their effect and group coalesces around decision.
Years later Janis added other conditions conducive to Groupthink: highly insulated group with restricted access to outside feedback; stressful decision-making context such as one brought on by monetary restraints; external pressure, or history of recent setbacks. Many of these relate directly to board environments and imply need for ongoing self-monitoring and training. But according to Wellington human resources consultant Karen Martyn, many boards are reluctant to do either.
“The reason they resist development is that there seems to be an accepted view that board members are all knowing – that they don’t need development,” she says.
“I think directors need to realise that they are as human and as susceptible to error and Groupthink as any other humans.”
Martyn, regular speaker at IoD courses, believes many boards simply do not want to spend time or money on the development they would routinely endorse for management. Groupthink can however be countered by healthy antibodies. The chair locates the thought-homogeniser and attacks it by creating an atmosphere of openness. Then he or she allows it to be destroyed by diversity, dissent and vigorous debate which ideally, should flourish in this environment.
Sometimes external interventions help and an independent evaluator can be used to examine assumptions. This sometimes helps prevent boards from becoming isolated. The research draws distinction between effective teamwork and Groupthink – one cherishes individuality as part of the ?we’; the other subordinates it – sometimes at huge cost.
As usual, poet isolated the essence of both argument and the challenge long before the advent of managerialism. Lord Byron wrote: “I may stand alone, but would not change my free thoughts for throne.”
Sources: ?Group Think’ by CRM Films; ?Twelve Angry Men: teams that don’t quit’, narrated by Dr Margaret J. Wheatley, by Advanced Knowledge, both distributed with guides by Training Point.Net, Auckland.