I. Groupthink Syndrome – A Decision Making Process
Decision-making is a dynamic process that people have to make every single day of their life. Whether you are a housewife at home or the President of United States of America, there will be a moment of your life where you have to make a decision. In the corporate world, every leader of the organization has to make a strategic decision with the management team and other distinguished members of the organisation. Precise decision-making is essential for any corporation for the successful business venture.
Decision makers will make a decision based on several “critical criteria which include assessment of the situation, identification of critical issues, and determination of a strategy and execution of strategy” (Fernandes, 2008:6). Many scholars have articulated how the decision-making process can lead to the organisation making either good or bad decision. One of a particular decision-making process that has been frequently debated and discussed is groupthink syndrome decision making which leads to many catastrophic events from wrong decision making by a group of highly intelligent, highly qualified individuals.
II. Groupthink Definition
Groupthink was popularised by Irving R. Janis, an American Physiologist when he researched a series of failed policy-making decisions by various American Presidents, from John F. Kennedy to Lyndon B. Johnson. Janis (1971) analysed how group individuals who had high self-esteem and were highly qualified succumbed to disastrous consequences following their flawed decision-making.
Groupthink refers to a group of people who are trying to agree with each other and rationalise on a point of contention of decision making, thus ignoring other relevant views that can make better decision-making process (Janis, 1971). Janis pointed out that groupthink members tend not to argue with each other and avoid any clash of ideas when it comes to the decision-making process.
This article will further outline Janis’ groupthink syndrome and how the syndrome still being widely used even though there are definite case studies detailed by Janis leading to disastrous consequences. Two case studies related to a groupthink decision-making syndrome will be discussed, which are:
· Space Shuttle Challenger accident in 1986. The space shuttle exploded seconds after the launch, killing seven astronauts, including a civilian astronaut. The explosion caused by faulty rocket propulsion component at a specified temperature. It is being widely covered by the media and forced the United States National Space Agencies (NASA) to stop the space shuttle programme for 2 years (History.com, 2010)
· Enron financial disaster. The collapses of the world biggest energy company in the world due to mismanagement and criminal breach of trust from Enron top executives. They commit financial fraudulent by falsifying financial position of the company. As a result, Enron filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and top executives were prosecuted with series of criminal charges. (CNN, 2017)
III. Symptoms of Groupthink
To understand how groupthink syndrome is affecting any organizations decision that that lead to catastrophic results, it is important to understand the details entailed in groupthink syndrome itself. Janis (1971) outlined eight groupthink symptoms that severely influenced the decision made by distinguished members of any organisations.
a. Illusion of invulnerability
Janis and Mann (1979) pointed out that groupthink members believe that they are optimistic about the decision-making process and the risk and danger associated with the decision can be neglected. The symptom of invulnerability can be illustrated further in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The NASA officials ignored the warning by the third party contractor hired to build the rocket propulsion system for the space shuttle. Initially, the contractor warned that the rocket propulsion system was defective in the specified weather condition. However, NASA officials, with a strong feeling of optimism, discounted the warning as they feel confident about the launching as there were no major problem associated with past 55 launches (Moorhead, Ference, Neck, 1991)
b. Collective Rationalisation
Another symptom that Janis (1971) pointed out that relates to invulnerability is the collective rationalization. Groupthink disregards warning associated with the preferred decision making and tries to reason with it. Groupthink members aim to find out the best way to counter the negative feedback, by trying to discredit alternative the points given by the members or people outside the group. Congressional hearing of Enron Collapse found out that board of directors and the management of Enron ignored several warnings associated their company’s shady business transaction (O’Connor, 2003). They interpreted the severe cautionary statement by the external auditors as just and ‘important’ but not ‘high risk,’ thus trying to reason that the risky deals were worth to proceed.
c. Illusion of Morality
Another symptom of groupthink is the illusion of morality. Janis (1971) explained that illusion of morality is a belief that whatever decision made, though that the consequences would somehow give unethical problems, are for the best of stakeholders interest. Groupthink members believe that they have high moral authority over others. In the case of Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, The rocket propulsion contractors warned about the defective part at a specific temperature and will not be responsible for consequences, However, NASA officials, pressured by the delay of the launch from various parties, opined the decision of the launching must be based on proof that its unsafe to launch rather than safety first policy (Griffin, 2012).
d. Shared Stereotype
The members of groupthink often discount people’s argument. The argument that were put forward to them are ‘weak or stupid’ (Janis, 1982:133). Any discussion with the person other than the groupthink members is irrelevant as they feel superior to others. This symptom called a shared stereotype. According to O’Connor (2003), Enron management had a tendency to embarrass others who were critical of them. They believe they were more intelligent than anyone else in the respective industry. For example, they discredited an analyst asking about them about Enron’s questionable business transactions. They publicly criticised the analyst for not knowing the energy industry well. In addition, there was evidence of coercion for those who are trying to give the different views and opinion towards Enron’s management (Cohan, 2002). Cohan elaborated, during a congressional hearing, Enron’s new president testified that any emloyees who were trying to dissent will get themselves assigned to a new role or denied financial perks.
e. Direct Pressure
Janis also added that members of groupthink dislike any dissenting views and try to pressure them as any dissenting opinion will impede the direction of the group (Janis and Mann 1979). The rocket propulsion contractors initially recommended that the launch of Challenger Space Shuttle to be delayed as a result of defective parts. However, NASA officials put tremendous pressure on the contractors to reverse the recommendation as it is against majority’s view. Eventually, the contractors agreed to reverse the recommendation and the launch of space shuttle proceeded. (Moorhead, Ference, Neck: 1952)
Members of groupthink always abstain from giving different views (Janis, 1971). Members believe that even though they have better ideas, they prefer not to speak up against the consensus of groupthink members as they might get reppurcussions for pointing out their views. As an example, the contractor of rocket propulsion of Space Shuttle Challenger initially wanted a postponement of the launch. They indicated that the temperature did not meet the requirements. However, instead of giving direct firm opinion about the objection, he provided an ambiguous and soft statement which the NASA officials believe it’s not severe enough to be considered (Griffin, 2012)
g. Mind guard
Groupthink members often try to guard themselves against information that will disrupt their cohesiveness while making the decision (Janis and Mann, 1979). Janis, (1971) also added that any information that is against the group’s dynamics and their direction will be blocked and filtered. They sometimes will look for someone that can maintain their guard from any members or outsiders who try to interfere or providing information that might affect the group. During the pre-launch meeting, NASA officials decided to stop a lengthy discussion on topic of defective propulsion system and restricted the opinion from one of the experts who were familiar with the rocket propulsion system (Griffin, 2012)
h. The illusion of Unanimity:
Lastly, Janis (1971) highlighted that members of groupthink pretend to agree on the decision made. They believe that they come to the point that any silence is a form of consensus and any decision and can be proceeded. For example, O’Connor (2003) implied that the board members of Enron agreed on two decision made even though they are aware of a potential million dollar loss in shady investment.
IV. Current Trend of Groupthink
After decades of analysis and recommendations by Janis in the 70s and 80s on how to avoid groupthink syndrome, people keep wondering why series of bad decisions that led to disasters like Enron and Challenger Space still prevalent. This section will explore arguments why the Groupthink Syndrome still exists.
a. Structure : Structure ‘Esprit de Corp’ and Superiority
Groupthink consists of members who are making crucial strategic decisions. According to Mintzberg (1980), the decision makers are on the top hierarchy of the organization, called strategic apex. Most of them are experts in their respective fields, either in technical fields such as engineering and physics or social science such as economics, accountants and business administration. They consist of general managers, chief executive officers and board members with vast experience in their related field, typically more than 15 years. According to O’Connor (2003), Enron board members average experience is 20 years. As a result, they created a sense of bonding and nurtured a friendship among themselves. On the positive side, it will develop a cohesiveness in decision making. However, O’Connor argues that their ‘esprit de corps’ will create an environment where members tend to abstain from critically challenge other members for the sake maintaining harmony within the group, thus hindering any critical thinking needed for the organization. As a result, they will develop self-censorship, mind guard and the illusion of unanimity described by Janis. The argument can be supported when Dimitroff, Schmidt, and Bond (2005) observed that NASA official, who have the same level of education, tend to create a sense of togetherness among themselves, thus creating isolation from outsiders and limiting alternative views
b. Leadership of Disaster
Looking back at the disaster which relates to symptoms of groupthink among member, it is worth to analyse on leadership characters of groupthink members and how it reflects on it. Leadership defined as ‘the ability to elicit extraordinary performance from ordinary people. Another definition is: leadership is the ability to get followers’ (Tracy, 2014:6). Based on this definition, let reflect upon the leadership style of leaders of groupthink and how they effect on their decision making that leads to the disaster. Heskett (2004), suggest that proper leaders always pay attention to different views and allow communication to flow between group members. Open-mindedness will enable a critical analysis of any decision-making group. In contrary, Heskett, argued that groupthink leaders do not allow the environment of discussion between members that is needed to make the right decision. He put a question mark whether the close mindedness of groupthink leaders is due to egoism and self-pride.
Leaders of groupthink have past accolades that can be proud of. Both leaders from NASA and Enron graduated from Top Universities such as Harvard or MIT before pursuing their respective careers. They are business executives that successfully climb the corporate ladder (O’Connor 2003). Over the years of successful career, these type of leaders develop a sense of pride and succumb themselves to egoism and narcissism. Narcissist leaders build a sense of self-pride and egoism within themselves. They usually will not listen to others and tend to ignore the rules and regulation (Heitler,2012). In addition, Heitler added that Narcissist leaders tend to be vengeful and sow hatred towards others who criticise them. They also absolve themselves of any mistake.
One of an example of narcissist leader is Jeffrey Skilling, the Chief Executive Officer of Enron. He was top Harvard Business School graduate and became the youngest partner of McKinsey Consulting Group (Biography.com, 2014). Under his helm, O’Connor, (2003) observe that he developed a culture egoism and narcissism which reap a groupthink syndrome of stereotyping. He served his self-interest and ‘holier than thou’ attitude. Others who are trying to question him considered as unworthy, and he is so vengeful towards those who criticise him. O’Connor pointed out during a meeting, Jeffrey Skilling referred to his subordinate as ‘an asshole’ when he tried to question about the financial position of Enron.
The show anger by Jeffrey Skilling shows lack of emotional intelligence that can happen in the leadership of Groupthink. According to George (2000), emotional intelligence is a vital trait of leadership in any organisation. George stated that leaders with good emotional intelligence not only try to care for themselves, but they are also trying to listen to other people’s emotion. In contrast to Jeffrey Skilling, by yelling at his subordinates reflects, he reflected a low level of emotional intelligence in himself.
V. The Culture of Obedience and Conformity
Asch (1956), based the study he conducted, suggested that a specific member of the experiment incline gave the wrong answer, against his own judgment, when the majority of participants of the experiment intentionally as directed, asked to choose a wrong answer. According to Ash, the test reflects the conformity of a member that succumb to the majority decision. The study supports the argument by Janis on Groupthink syndrome of illusion of unanimity.
Milgram (1974), also pointed out in his study that people tend to comply with orders given by other people who have power and influence and admiration as they believe that they have moral and legal right to issue such order. The experiment conducted by Milgram concluded even people with high moral value tend to ignore their own ethics when it comes to obeying the instruction from authority.
The culture of conformity and obedient can be seen in Enron as well as NASA. O’Connor (2003) noted that employees of Enron personified Jeffrey Skilling and the management team as their spiritual leaders that will lead the company to greatness, thus create a sense of loyalty. As a result, a culture of conformity and obedient among employees blossomed. On the other hand, NASA officials, after 55 successful launches without any significant hiccup, developed moral authority above others (Moorhead, Ference, Neck, 1991). Consequently, the culture of obedient must be observed by contractors of the rocket propulsion system. They just obey whatever decision made by NASA because of moral authority that NASA has on the launching and cannot be questioned.
Groupthink syndrome related disasters are expensive mistakes that can be learned and avoided. Heskett (2004) suggests that leadership is one of essential factor that can eliminate groupthink syndrome. Importantly, transformational leadership is one of type leadership that can be applied in any the organisation to avoid groupthink syndrome. Transformation leader defines as someone who has personal charm and having the ability to inspire and motivate people (Bass, 1990). Bass also pointed out that transformational leader always pays attention to their subordinates and encourage them to give their views. The attribute of transformational leaders can be described as follows:
a. Open Leadership
A person with open leadership is always trying to experience the roles of their associates by and understanding their job function, problems, and limitation. (Vargese, 2008). By understanding what their associates function, they will give them the freedom to choose and make the decision, thus encourage openness. As a result, creativity will flourish organisation will move towards the right direction.
b. Creating Devils Advocates
Janis (1971) suggests that leaders should allow dissenting view as ‘devil’s advocate’ that is needed to give check and balance. Devil’s advocate is ”a person who takes a position for the sake of fostering argument and conflict’ (Behl,2012: 5). The transformational leader will create a devil’s advocate in the group and allow dissenters to give their view. Studies have suggested that by implementing devil’s advocate in the group, it creates more open discussion thus avoiding groupthink syndrome (MacDougall and Baum, 1997).
a. Creativity and Innovation
Transformational leaders treat people as dynamic part of an active ecosystem of the organization (Agbor, 2008). They inspire the team and make them valuable contribution and sparks innovation. As result, it will create more ideas, thus avoiding groupthink syndrome
b. Lead By Consensus
Another trait transformational leadership is to decide by consensus. Tracy (2014), explains that a consensus is a process where a leader does not decide by himself and make the decision based on majority’s view. Transformational leader allows other members to state the opinion and agrees on the majority of the idea in the group. Consensus will give a better outcome of decision making when as everyone agrees with one decision after getting all members views (Fernandes , 2008).
Groupthink syndrome summarises the problems that still can occur in any organization today. However, there is a silver lining that people can learn from the past. As stated by Kolb (1984, cited by Baker, Jensen, and Kolb, 2005), people will undergo a learning cycle, which consists of series of conceptualization, observation and will improve base on the experience of learning. One of the great examples is President John F. Kennedy’s different approach on two critical policy-making decisions. Janis (1971) discussed how he gained a painful lesson from the policy-making errors on Bay of Pig Invasion caused by groupthink syndrome. He learned from it and avoided the groupthink syndrome on Cuban Missile Crisis, thus prevented a possible devastating nuclear war with the Soviet Union. However, only time will tell whether there will be another disaster from Groupthink Syndrome