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No One Is Immune from Groupthink

By: Cynthia Barton Rabe

Groupthink is one of the greatest threats to innovation that any organization faces. The issue is that groupthink turns otherwise brilliant, independent-minded people into herd animals. As difficult as it may be to believe, it happens to the best and brightest of us with alarming regularity.

Consider these two cases. The first is the landmark study conducted regarding the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961. It illustrates the basic nature and dangers of group think and was cited extensively in research by Irving Janus, the Yale social psychologist who coined the term in 1972. The second case centers on the more recent Enron collapse in 2001. In both cases, a key takeaway is that even highly respected and successful individuals can be sucked into groupthink behavior. Critically, note that there is a nearly 40-year time span between the two cases.

Groupthink is tenacious. Even with all our management smarts, it still haunts us.

What makes up groupthink?

1. Conformity pressure on the minority
2. Self-censorship
3. Illusion of unanimity
4. Shared mindset/stereotypes
5. Unquestioned belief in the inherent morality of the group
6. Collective rationalization of group’s decisions
7. Illusion of invulnerability
8. Protection of the group from negative information

In the Bay of Pigs example, every one of these groupthink attributes was present. The majority exerted enormous pressure on th minority to conform to their point of view, and the minority reacted by increasingly censoring their opinions. In the end, this gave Kennedy and the majority the illusion of unanimity where none, in fact, existed.

In addition, the majority who favored the CIA’s plan all had a shared mindset. Although they had no hard supporting evidence, these advisors believed that the citizens of Cuba wanted Fidel Castro to be overthrown. Apparently, they believed so strongly in the inherent morality of the U.S. efforts that they were able to rationalize their decision to move forward as the only “virtuous” course of action. And, as the coup de grace, their feelings of moral superiority led them to feed a sense of invulnerability; as if the United States were already destined to win this battle.

Unfortunately, victory wasn’t preordained. All members of the invasion force were either killed or captured. In part, this was because the citizens of Cuba did not support the invasion and, in fact, took up arms against the invaders. Additionally, the advisors hadn’t bothered to dig deeply enough into the CIA’s plan to understand that the escape route for the invasion force was through an impassable swamp. Our forces were trapped—destined from the outset not to win but to lose.

After studying this case, Janis figured that if such an elite group as Kennedy’s advisors could be negatively affected by groupthink, then the rest of us could too—and the last four decades have proven him right.

You may look at these high-profile examples from government and boards of directors and wonder what they have to do with your business. After all, most management mistakes don’t result in such spectacular failures. But between 2000 and 2003 there were over 149,000 companies in the United States that filed for bankruptcy protection. I wonder what role selective information-gathering, collective rationalization, or just the plain old close-mindedness of groupthink might have played in these less publicized (but to the people involved, just as excruciating) downfalls?

Before you decide whether groupthink might be affecting your business, ask yourself whether you can think of a time in the past year when you have been less aggressive in stating your opinion, or less vocal in outlining your point of view than you otherwise might have been, because you knew your opinion was at odds with that of the rest of the group you work with.

In speeches I’ve given on this topic, 95% of the audience typically raises its hands in response to this question. In honesty, I have to wonder whether the other 5% are still employed. Most people learn before kindergarten that sometimes you just have to keep your mouth shut. And maybe that’s why groupthink is so tough to overcome. The behavior that spawns it is self-preserving from an individual standpoint. It’s only lethal to the collective. .

Excerpted, with permission of the publisher, from AMACOM. Written by Cynthia Barton Rabe. Copyright 2012, Cynthia Barton Rabe. Published by American Management Association. For more information, www.amacombooks.org

About the Author(s)

Cynthia Barton Rabe left her position as an Innovation Strategist for Intel Corporation in early 2006 to found Zero-G, LLC, an innovation and strategy consulting firm. Contact at cindy@zerogravitthinker.com.