Having spent 40 years in business, 20 of which I served as President and C.E.O. of Pacific Northern Rail Contractors Corp., now known as PNR Railworks, I learned some difficult lessons. One of the tough lessons I learned early in my career was to ensure that the people who directly reported to me would give me the ‘straight goods’.
This was important, even when, or especially when, things were not going well on a particular project, with an employee issue, or in relation to some other issue.
When problems arise that are important to the health of the organization, the collective wisdom resident in the management group was worth its weight in gold. However, one also has to be careful not to get caught up in insulated thinking. Independent and principled thinking as part of the decision-making remains critical. How did so many banks and corporations with very highly qualified management make such poor decisions that created some of the largest bankruptcies in history? I would contend that the origins can often be traced back to something called Groupthink. Symptoms of Groupthink have been documented in two books by Janis, Irving L. (1982). Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes and Victims of Groupthink. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Janis has documented eight symptoms of groupthink:
- Illusion of invulnerability –Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
- Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
- Beliefs in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
- Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of the “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
- Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
- Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
- Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
- Self-appointed ‘mind guards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.
Groupthink occurs when highly cohesive groups are under considerable pressure to make a quality decision. When pressures for unanimity seem overwhelming, members are less motivated to realistically appraise the alternative courses of action available to them. These group pressures lead to greater risk-taking and less rational thinking. Decisions shaped by groupthink have a low probability of achieving successful outcomes.
When it comes to decision-making, those who know me understand that I will push back from a rushed process in order to explore all reasonable options. I will pursue careful evaluation of the facts. If a particular course of action appears to be flawed or lacking sound principles, I will speak up. If elected, I can assure you that groupthink will be challenged, whether at the Council table or in our City’s administration.