Irving Janis is credited with the term ‘Groupthink,’ but he wasn’t promoting it as a good idea. Janis observed that when we are in decision making groups, the pressure to maintain a consensus results in less critical thinking. Selective bias starts to show in the way the group reacts to factual information, mass media, experts and outside critics. The group 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 and cosy 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 many groups and indeed, workplaces, the ‘good team player’ label is often attached to someone who just goes along. It is also to be told you’re not a team player, if you ask the hard questions.
I’ve been thinking about Groupthink lately because I’ve been following a story about a Committee within the Returned Soldiers League in New South Wales, Australia. The Life Care Network Committee was tasked to oversee 30 nursing homes being run by the well-known veteran’s charity. Just as the nursing home trust 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 Minster, 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 mission of the Returned Soldiers’ League (or RSL) in Australia, in case you’re wondering, is the care and welfare of returned service men and women. The mission of the people serving on a sub-committee for nursing homes, would be obvious to a ten year old.
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 inevitable.
I read this story with a mixture of sadness and anger. Frauds and stories about noses in the trough are never very funny to read about, but I also have questions that I can’t put aside. Did they think it was OK to help themselves to the organisation’s funds in other ways, such as in claiming personal expenses or holding well-catered meetings and trips away? ,When did they develop a sense of entitlement, or did they arrive at the committee with it firmly in place? What kind of atmosphere existed at meetings? Did anyone speak up about the terrible appearance, at least, of paying themselves? 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.
I wish I had a picture of the faces as the hands went up during that vote for $2.3 million in consulting fees. 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 done the wrong thing.’
The ultimate losers are the people who can barely speak or act for themselves; old soldiers sitting in the nursing homes. Another group that will pay the price of this greed and stupidity, are the employees who attend to these patients. They will have to make the dollars stretch even further. That can only be demoralising if they know where those dollars actually went.
We trust established institutions, like the RSL, to manage with integrity. Our enthusiasm for parting with our own money as a donation, is diminished. Our faith in human beings to do the right thing is gradually eroded. We all lose.
The cartoon is from James Stevenson and was first published in The New Yorker.