Thursday, October 13, 2011

Questions To Challenge “Groupthink”

I’m sure a lot of meetings are not only much shorter but maybe even a lot more boring now that I’m retired from a nearly four-decade-long career managing community/destination marketing organizations (DMOs.)

People called me a lot of things during my career and couple of groups even blackballed me, but that I know of, no one ever labeled me as being disengaged or apathetic or dispassionate.  Growing up, I was strongly encouraged to have opinions but then always required to be able to defend them.  If I ever did try to just “go along” my parents would change sides on me.

Long before adolescence I was well-schooled as a “devil’s advocate.”  “Going along just to get along” was just never an option.

Meetings are always meant to be collaborative, otherwise a simple email would suffice.  But during my working years, I was always puzzled by how many people would arrive and depart without saying a word, other than socializing during the breaks or before and after the meeting.

Asked for input they would sit stone silent, whenever someone else did speak up, their heads merely pivoted back and forth as if watching a tennis match. Rarely did even an imperceptible nod of the head or glint in of the eye betray what they were thinking.  Asked to vote, they waited until it was clear which way the majority would go.

They were probably victims of abuse by overexposure to groups whose members are controlled from within through “groupthink,” where dissent was censored, criticism rejected or rationalized and opposing beliefs demonized.

Coined in the 1950s, “groupthink” is a condition that was thoroughly scrutinized and tested when I was in college by research psychologist Dr. Irving Janis, an expert in group dynamics, who passed away in 1990, months after I arrived in Durham for my final DMO assignment.

In my experience, successfully inoculating or recovering an organization or group from groupthink doesn’t require tolerating gadflies or interference from special interests during meetings or even interminably extending them through incessant recycling of discussions which were already resolved.

The best and simplest preventative is to adopt “information or data-based decision-making” or as Janis termed it, simply seeking “outside input.”  TED 2011 speaker, self-proclaimed “wrongoligist” and author of a blog entitled The Wrong Stuff – What It Means To Makes Mistakes, Kathryn Schultz writes that “groupthink” arises from what she calls “disagreement deficit” created by:

  • “disproportionate exposure to support for our beliefs
  • underexposure to the opposition
  • a tendency to discount opposition even if encountered and,
  • suppression of doubt or difference of opinion within”

Schultz goes on to explain in her book that “sometimes the suppression is subtle, or even self-imposed – just an instinctive shying away from anything that could disturb a group to which we are loyal, or disrupt the materials and psychological infrastructure of our lives...Self-censorship.”  She notes research showing “groupthink” can occur in groups as small as three members.

Groups often form around certainty of mission and unless informed by information/data-driven decision-making, they become dominated from within through actions referenced in a series of essays edited in 1936 by experimental psychologist Dr. Joseph Jastrow entitled The Story of Human Error.

They involve violence, though rarely physical.  Far more effective today is violence to reputation or friendships or principles or ethics, often involving exile or ostracizing.  As the saying goes, “who needs good ideas when you can all agree on a bad one.”

Here are a handful of questions to ask if you sense a meeting you’re attending is grid-locked by or in danger of groupthink:

  • How do you know that?
  • What information do you have to support that belief?
  • What would the opposition say to that?
  • Why would otherwise reasonable people believe differently?
  • Are we telling ourselves a story?
  • Can we invite other viewpoints to the next meeting?

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