15 May 2019 19:01 IST

When teams make disastrous decisions

Psychologist Irving Janis found patterns in decision-making that resulted in spectacular failures

On January 28, 1986, seventy-three seconds after launch, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven astronauts on board. US forces invaded Iraq in 2003 to root out weapons of mass destruction. They found none. Enron’s market capitalisation on December 31, 2000 was over $60 billion but within a year, it had filed for bankruptcy. All these significant episodes might, on the surface, appear discrete. But studies show that a common thread runs through it all — groupthink.

A term that came into popular currency almost 50 years back, but still remains an actively researched area of decision-making. In the late 1960s, Irving Janis, a psychologist at Yale University, found some curious patterns of decision-making in small groups that resulted in spectacular failures. He focused on big historical events — Bay of Pigs crisis under the Presidency of John F Kennedy, the bombing of Pearl Harbour and escalation of the Vietnam War.

In all these events, Janis detected a mode of thinking among members of the group that privileged concurrence-seeking to a realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action; he named it groupthink. It was as though the groups desperately wanted to achieve concurrence even if it came at the expense of critical thinking by individual members. By carefully analysing the behaviour of group members, Janis identified multiple symptoms that indicate the presence of groupthink.

The illusions

For instance, Janis found that one of the classic symptoms was the illusion of invulnerability. The members of the group develop over-optimism that results in either disregarding vital information or makes them take extraordinary risks. In an article in Psychology Today, Janis takes the example of the senior decision-making team at Pearl Harbour which, when warned by US intelligence that it had lost radio contact with Japanese carriers, simply laughed off the matter. The inherent belief in the team was that Japan would dare not attack, given the might of the US navy stationed at Pearl Harbour. They were completely wrong. In a matter of hours, US lost more than 2,000 sailors, and scores of battleships were destroyed.

Similarly, another curious symptom of groupthink is self-censorship, where even the most intelligent and outspoken member of the group keeps silent about any misgivings or doubts. Janis says this was the case in the Bay of Pigs crisis (where John F Kennedy and his team curated a secret plan, that backfired badly, to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro).

Arthur Schlesinger Jr, a Harvard historian, was part of the team that planned for the invasion of Cuba. Though outspoken, Schlesinger Jr swallowed his doubts during crucial meetings. Janis, in his article, quotes Schlesinger Jr, who in his book A Thousand Days wrote, “In the months after the Bay of Pigs I bitterly reproached myself for having kept so silent during those crucial discussions in the cabinet room.” Such silence compounds groupthink. Members falsely assume that those who are silent are in agreement with the plan. This leads to what Janis refers to as another symptom of groupthink — the illusion of unanimity.

Leadership style

Thus, in describing these symptoms and more, Irving Janis had turned the spotlight on the mental inefficiencies that creep into group-decision making processes. Recent research has expanded on Janis’s work and offers various prescriptions that guard against groupthink. Primary among these various guidelines is the role of leadership.

Moorhead and others who studied the Challenger disaster and wrote about it in the journal Human Relations, suggest that leadership style is a critical ingredient for preventing groupthink. They recommend that leaders, rather than propose a solution which, in some cases, might not be contested and thus lead to groupthink, actively encourage group members to critically analyse alternatives. This, however is a difficult style to master, as the general and popular understanding of a leader is someone who rallies people around to his or her point of view. But if organisations have to safeguard themselves from the traps of groupthink, the leadership style would have to be nuanced.

Developing a style that encourages team members to counter ideas, even if it comes from the chief, might involve a redefinition, in the mind of the leader, on what it means to lead. That, probably, is the best pill against groupthink and the disastrous decisions that might ensue.

(The writer is Professor of People and Organizations at IFMR Graduate School of Business, KREA University.)