• Categories: Role of the board, premium, Chair
  • Author: Graeme Nahkies
  • Published: Dec 20, 2021
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Forty years ago, Irving Janis[i] published his analysis of major public policy fiascos resulting from poor decisions made during the administrations of five American Presidents. In each case, small groups of government officials and policy advisers made gross miscalculations about both the practical and moral consequences of their decision. Janis found a pattern of behaviour that made groups vulnerable to poor decisions. He named it ‘groupthink’.

 

In the following years, groupthink has become arguably the best known and oft-quoted of the decision-making biases. Despite that, groupthink is still a major challenge to effective group decision making and can still have huge unintended consequences.

Publicly, this has most recently been visible in the botched response to the coronavirus pandemic in the UK. A House of Commons report published in October was scathing, particularly about the delay in invoking a lockdown that would likely have reduced the total UK death toll (one of the highest in the world) by at least half.

 

The delay was a deliberate policy that stemmed from a fatalistic belief that the disease could only be managed, not suppressed, and a mistaken conviction that the British people would not heed an appeal to stay at home. The government’s scientific body – known, ironically, by the acronym Sage – was seized by groupthink. Driven by a sense of British exceptionalism, it either ignored the experience of other countries or concluded without evidence that the lessons could not be applied to Britain. For their part, government ministers failed to challenge or question their advice.[ii]

 

The major consequences of groupthink are not just at national and international levels. The groupthink tendency is also significant at board level. Boards are possibly even more vulnerable to ‘in-group pressures’. Janis described, for example, how a group's members, striving for unanimity, can suppress their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.

In every case studied by Janis and his colleagues, people knew their group was making a wrong decision and had the information to prove it. That information was not made available to the group, or it was discounted or sidelined in some way. The individuals with the knowledge that could have avoided disaster either did not present their information or offer their perspective or, if they did, failed to advocate effectively for it.

 

 What are the symptoms of groupthink?

Janis described eight major symptoms of groupthink. Around a board table suffering from groupthink, one or more of the following is likely to be apparent:

 

  • An illusion of invulnerability. When a board has members who are powerful or high-status individuals it is easy for it to start believing it can do no wrong. Members are overly optimistic and ignore obvious danger. The feeling that ‘everything is going to work out all right because we are a special group’ makes it more likely a board will take extreme risks.
  • Stereotyping outsiders. Board members see themselves as part of an in-group working against others opposed to them. ‘Out groups’ (e.g., competitors) are stereotyped and disregarded.
  • Collective efforts to rationalise or discount warnings. Board members have the impression they are right—even if data/evidence suggests they may be wrong. Members reassure each other that their interpretation and perspectives are correct. They do nothing to challenge old or superficial assumptions. They discredit and explain away views or advice contrary to the group’s thinking.
  • Belief in the inherent morality of the group. The board feels its cause is righteous and that it therefore occupies the ‘moral high ground’. This is associated with an ‘us and them’ mentality. If you are not part of ‘us’ you are somehow less intelligent, less moral, less worthy, less trustworthy.
  • Self-censorship of deviations from an initial group consensus. Self-censorship eliminates any expression of disagreement. Directors (and perhaps management too) voluntarily withhold their dissenting views and counter-arguments.
  • A shared illusion of unanimity. Silence is seen as consent. There is a false feeling that everyone agrees with the board’s position. This further curtails expression of disagreement.
  • Pressure for conformity. Members put pressure on anyone on the board who contests its stereotypes, illusions or commitments. ‘Opposition’ or disagreement is seen as disloyalty. Anyone who voices a different view risks being sidelined or even expelled from the board. This favours unthinking acquiescence and conformity in decision making. Any disconfirming information, perspectives, experience or expertise that directors, managers, and other key stakeholders have to offer is withheld, or not used effectively.
  • Mind guarding. The ‘mind guard’ protects the chair and/or the board as a whole from disturbing ideas. Opinions different from the group consensus are fended off and withheld from the board.

 

When groupthink is present it means a board will likely:

  • fail to adequately explore alternatives—often only one idea receives any real consideration. Other ideas go unheeded and rejected alternatives are seldom re-examined.
  • fail to examine possible adverse consequences that might be associated with its preferred course of action. In not being critical of each other's ideas, directors can fail to sufficiently explore the costs and risks of different options. Assumptions are untested and possible negative outcomes are overlooked or too readily discounted.
  • be highly selective in gathering and assessing information. The search for information is superficial. The process is selective and/or biased. The ‘filtering’ process tends to exclude valuable items of information which do not fit the prejudices or preconceptions of the board and/or management. There is a reluctance to seek the advice of experts or anyone else who may ‘complicate things’.
  • neglect to develop a Plan B.  Lack of attention to worst-case scenarios means little attention is paid to the development of fallback positions in case the chosen solution does not work out. Consequences and risks are commonly ignored or glossed over.

 

The social dynamic of many boards makes them particularly vulnerable to groupthink

 

A governing board is a group of human beings, so it has a particularly important social dimension. Most individuals will go to great lengths to be accepted by their colleagues. The continuing desire to ‘fit in’ means that preserving good relations among fellow directors can assume overwhelming importance. Because boards are often elite groups with a prized membership, the usual social pressures and vulnerabilities associated with group membership can be accentuated. Board members are very vulnerable, for example, to the easy put down or the accusation that they are not ‘team players’.

Boards are often also formed from within existing social networks, and typically seek new members who are already known to current directors or who have characteristics that suggest they will ‘fit in’. Unfortunately, the more amiability and esprit de corps among members of a group, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink.

Other common boardroom situations may present additional preconditions for groupthink:

  • When a decision must be made under time pressure, a board is more likely to overlook details, disregard flaws, and fail to seek alternatives and/or to apply critical judgment.
  • Decisions elevated to the board often involve complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. This can induce anxiety and a tendency to focus on simple, obvious, and easy solutions.
  • High-risk and ‘siege-type’ situations may encourage a shared sense of threat that increases pressure on board members to be more cohesive.
  • Budget and other resource constraints can constrain the range of options management will propose or that boards will be prepared to consider.
  • Pressure to perform may make members myopic, focusing more on a desired result than the risks inherent in achieving it.
  • Legislative and regulatory compliance demands may encourage box-ticking rather than genuine consideration of the objectives of compliance requirements.
  • The real or perceived urgency of a transition (e.g., after a substantially new board is elected or after a merger) may detract from rigorous attention to the development of teamwork and the kind of policies and procedures that would at least inhibit groupthink.
  • If a board’s deliberations are very visible (e.g., a public authority that holds its meetings in public) its members can be reluctant to create even the appearance of dissension, let alone the reality.

 

Techniques for avoiding groupthink

 

A board can avert any tendency towards groupthink by taking some deliberate, well-informed actions:

  • Ensure the board is aware of the causes and consequences of groupthink described in this article and takes time to discuss and regularly remind themselves of the issues.
  • Encourage healthy group participation, especially by members with a different point of view.
  • Increase the board’s consciousness of group dynamics generally—identify and encourage group dynamics that promote awareness of desirable group norms valuing difference, diversity, honesty, questioning, conflict and dialogue.
  • Learn new skills and insights about the human dimension of teams, personal motivation, behaviours, and relationships. As part of this process, up-skill the board to ensure that members are conscious of and competent in group dynamics.
  • In board discussions, assign the role of ‘devil's advocate’ or ‘critical evaluator’, where someone is given the job of saying the ‘un-sayable’; of asking the ‘un-askable’; of ensuring the board is forced to consider unpopular alternatives. If it is too difficult to expect one individual to play this role, ask each member to be a critical evaluator of the group's procedure and ideas.
  • Learn to use systematic processes that take the board through different ways of looking at things (e.g., Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats methodology; divergent thinking; re-framing, etc.).
  • Pay attention to the board’s own dynamics and culture by, for example, a regular board evaluation process (ensuring this addresses aspects of the board’s decision-making style and group effectiveness). Supplement this by making board meeting debriefing and evaluation a regular part of meeting closure.
  • Avoid introducing and making important decisions at the same meeting—allow a period for ‘sleeping on’ a proposal before the final decision is made.
  • In between times, test the board’s preliminary conclusions, for example, by asking that each member discusses the content of the board’s initial deliberations (subject to confidentiality where needed) with trusted associates outside the group, and report back the results of those conversations.
  • Although there may be a preliminary consensus, ask board members at the ‘second chance’ discussion to express as vividly as possible all their residual doubts, even to completely rethink the entire issue, before making a final decision.
  • Deliberately use people who are not part of the board to challenge the thinking behind the board's consensus.
  • Closely examine the views of people whose ideas are known to conflict generally with positions or policies the board has adopted or is tempted to adopt. One way of doing this is to deliberately bring contrary views into the board’s discussions (e.g., through the use guest speakers).
  • Plan and manage board meetings so there is enough time to seek a deep understanding of issues and options and to explore different points of view.
  • Use effective process tools that deepen the discussion and make it easier and safer to express a contrary point of view (e.g., dialogue techniques).
  • Use task forces, commission ‘think pieces’ and the like to explore issues before board meetings (ensuring that those responsible have gone out of their way to describe issues from different viewpoints).
  • Use techniques that enable individual board members to put forward their ideas in a neutral or an anonymous manner (e.g., brainstorming, Delphi technique, etc).
  • Adopt formal ‘job descriptions’ and performance expectations that clearly state the need for the board to seek out and articulate differences.
  • Review the composition of the board to seek more diversity. The more homogenous and cohesive a group is, the more vulnerable it is likely to be to groupthink).
  • For important discussions, use an independent facilitator who can manage the expression and discussion of differences productively and safely.
  • Split the board into smaller groups to discuss vital issues, getting each group to address the same question (enabling a comparison of different answers and ensuring that the board does not foreclose options too soon).
  • In discussion, focus fully on areas of doubt and uncertainty—challenging assumptions and gathering the fullest possible range of information. Challenge the data—assess its significance and reliability.

 

Specific tips for chairs

 

The board chair is responsible for the integrity and effectiveness of the board’s processes. This makes the chair well placed to take extra steps to protect their board from any tendency to fall into a groupthink situation:

  • Consistently encourage an atmosphere of open inquiry. Remind everyone that open and frank communication is essential to good decision making.
  • Insist that the open and honest sharing of ideas and information is an essential part of a healthy board culture. Do not tolerate ‘passive aggressive’ behaviours where board members are allowed to leave important concerns unspoken but carry these into informal ‘car park’ discussions after the meeting.
  • Ensure that the board values the expression of different views and uses these as a fertile opportunity to explore new angles and gain new levels of understanding. Explicitly encourage dissent and criticism (including of your own views or positions on issues).
  • ‘Mine for conflict’—deliberately try to discover alternative points of view among board members. If contrary ideas or comments are being cut off by others, intervene. For example, this includes protecting board members or staff advisors from subtle put-downs that signal their different point of view is not welcome (e.g., ‘eye rolling’ and other aggressive body language). Ensure that individuals can finish their comments and explicitly value those individuals for offering alternative ideas or different information; make sure that these are fully explored.
  • Avoid imposing your own views. Be impartial—try to draw out the ideas of your colleagues and always be prepared to defer to their ideas.
  • As a matter of principle, don’t state your own personal views or preferences at the start of a discussion. People will often agree with the chair simply because of the status and influence of the position. Be conscious how any differences in gender, status, length of service on the board, etc., may affect a director’s ability to be heard by their colleagues.
  • If you have strong views about a controversial proposal and wish to become an advocate for a particular line of action, hand the leadership of the meeting to another board member or arrange for a neutral outsider to guide the board through its decision making. One of Janis’s prescriptions for open inquiry is to have the leader periodically leave the group so that members will feel free to express their personal views
  • Model the desired behaviours yourself. For example, give high priority to acknowledging and airing doubts and objections, and accepting criticism.
  • Coach board members to avoid being defensive and encourage them to develop the essential boardroom skill of being able to disagree without being disagreeable.

 

Boards are particularly prone to groupthink because of the way they are usually formed (of people ‘just like us’) and because membership of a board often carries with it considerable status or other social value.  Many practical steps, consistent with ‘good governance’, can be taken to minimise the risk of this happening. Every board should check from time to time (e.g., as part of a board self-assessment) just how vulnerable it is to group think and its ugly associate—bad decisions.

 

[i] Janis I L (1982) Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascos Boston, Wadsworth (2nd Ed.). Those original case studies were Roosevelt (Pearl Harbour), Truman (invasion of North Korea), Kennedy (Bay of Pigs invasion), Johnson (Escalation of the Vietnam war), and Nixon (Watergate).

[ii] https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/how-groupthink-in-its-covid-response-led-the-uk-to-disaster-1.4701527

 

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