Groupthink, Oscars and Old Soldiers

Irving Janis is credited with coining the term Groupthink. He wasn’t promoting it as a good way to behave, by the way. Janis observed that when we are in decision making groups, the pressure to maintain a consensus results in reduced critical thinking.  Selective bias starts to show in the way the group reacts to factual information, mass media, experts and outside critics. When caught up in the throes of Groupthink, a team or committee might spend very little time, if any, deliberating the obstacles to their plan and therefore they can fail to work out contingency plans. The more amiable the in-group, the more likely it is that Groupthink will occur. This can lead to irrational and dehumanising actions directed against out-groups. Dissent is rare and difficult because of self-censorship.

Consensus and unity are highly valued in groups. This is how we have survived and in many workplace groups, the ‘good team player’ label is often attached to someone who just goes along. And it is not unusual for the person who stands firm against a decision, or asks the hard questions, to be told they are not a team player.  

Jim Carrey has been angry about Groupthink lately, although he didn’t use the term. He was angry because millions of people watched one man assault another man after a bad joke, and then watched the audience giving the assailant a standing ovation a short time later.  I wonder how many of those people at the Oscars now wish they had remained seated? It is easy to say, I just didn’t think. It is harder to say, I lacked the courage.  It is hard to sit out a standing ovation. We’ve all been in those situations where you feel obliged to stand and clap or else you appear to be a curmudgeon. But an assault is an assault. Did anyone in that audience really believe it was OK or even admirable to leave your seat and hit a person on stage? In fact, this is a group that can be counted on for a never ending stream of platitudes about issues around peace and violence. So what were they thinking? Irving Janis would probably say, they weren’t.  

I followed a story in my local area about the Life Care Network Committee. This particular group was tasked to oversee 30 nursing homes being run by the well-known veteran’s charity, the Returned Solider’s League. Just as the fund was heading for financial collapse in 2007, the Committee voted to pay itself $2.3 million dollars in consulting fees. It was illegal for such directors to be paid any consulting fees without permission from the Fair Trading Minister, and no such permission was ever likely to be granted, since the committee members had no particular expertise with which to call themselves consultants. Months after these payments were made, the trust ceased to be viable.

The problem was not just consulting fees either. There were other examples of having hands in the till. One of the group leaders leased an apartment for personal use. They held well-catered meetings and trips away.

The overall mission of the Returned Soldiers’ League (or RSL) in Australia is the care and welfare of returned service men and women. Therefore, the mission of the people serving on a sub-committee for nursing homes, should have been obvious to a ten year old. How did they forget this?  

I wish I had a picture of the faces as the hands went up during that vote for $2.3 million in consulting fees, or the approval on the apartment. Would the expressions look troubled or would they be blank? Did anyone feel squeamish and go home to their partners that night saying, ‘I think I’ve just one the wrong thing.’

When did they develop a sense of entitlement, or did they arrive at the committee with it firmly in place?  Did the Treasurer feel able to explain that the money simply wasn’t there to justify these payments? I would rarely think Minutes of meetings were interesting reading, but I think these ones may be.

How does this kind of thing happen? Well, there was no advertising for these Committee roles. Mates helped mates on to board positions. This sets up a classic in-group. Janis would probably tell us that the resulting Groupthink was almost inevitable.

 Unfortunately the ultimate losers were people who could barely speak or act for themselves; the old soldiers sitting in the nursing homes. Another group that paid the immediate price of this greed and stupidity, were the employees who attended to these patients. They would have been economizing wherever possible, only to find out that money was going into board members pockets.  

I read these sorts of stories with a mixture of sadness and anger and the lack of judgment in helping oneself to funds that are clearly not there for your personal benefit.   

We should be able to trust large institutions to manage with integrity. When a charity stuffs up like this, it damages the prospects for everyone who needs to raise money. When politicians milk expenses, thumbing their nose at the taxpayers they are supposed to be serving,  we have a right to demand that money back.  Our faith in human beings to do the right thing is gradually eroded. Jim Carrey is right to be angry for the same reason. He was one of the first to call out the Hollywood crowd as ‘spineless’, risking his own prospects for future employment.  Something we can all do, is to be a bit more like Jim Carrey, and call it out when we see it, even when it comes with risk. There are some teams you just don’t want to belong to.

Governance is simply about doing the right things. Good chairs and leaders need to understand Groupthink and value the dissenting voice. It might just be the person looking out for the integrity of your institution.   


5 thoughts on “Groupthink, Oscars and Old Soldiers”

  1. Groupthink is a very interesting animal. I use to ‘teach it’ in my leadership classes at Halliburton in the 1990s. The classic examples are (1) The Watergate break in – those guys knew they were breaking the law but convinced themselves they were above it; and (2) The Challenger Disaster – those engineers and scientists knew it was too cold for those O-rings, but they convinced themselves to go ahead. Great read as always, thanks for sharing. Frank

  2. Good one Cheryl. Worth reading, but ultimately depressing as yet another example of human greed.
    It needs air-time: stir the troops, make people angry… and (possibly) reflective.

  3. The “old boys network” supporting and protecting each other certainly is a concern when it promotes GroupThink. Apart from suppressing critical thinking and resulting in poor decision-making, GroupThink also has the other negative effect of limiting the creation of fresh ideas.
    This is the link to an old piece from The New Yorker which looks at debunking the brainstorming myth.
    It makes a convincing observation that a collision of a diversity of deep knowledge is much preferred in producing revolutionary new ideas over the ineffectual collection of shallow knowledge we have come to associate with a typical “brainstorming” session.

  4. Cheryl- another great post
    Once upon time people did work for community organisations as volunteers to make our communities better or help those less fortunate than ourselves, not for personal profit…those were the days. I’m so old school!

  5. An interesting angle to apply to the question of how the committee members could possibly have thought it was OK to use the funds in this way. If personally any of them did have second thoughts, maybe being the ‘lone wolf’ with a dissenting voice was too fraught to consider. With the prevalence now of social media, ‘virtual groupthink’ is a scary thought.

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