Ethical failings in the corporate world are nothing new. Labour rights abuses by suppliers are one small part of a firmanent of corporate misdeeds. Financial fraud. Short-cuts on product safety. Price fixing. Environmental disregard. Onshore labour rights shortfalls. The public hears about these things when they go horribly wrong, but they bubble away in the background constantly.

More often than not, problems are known to more than one person in a company. They are caused not by anti-heroic behaviour but by group behaviour.

Earlier we looked at diffusion of responsibility. Another phenomenon is GroupThink. It’s defined on Wikipedia as:

a type of thought within a deeply cohesive in-group whose members try to minimise conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analysing and evaluating ideas.

It is one of two negative consequences of group cohesion (the other is group polarisation, that is the tendency for groups to adopt more extreme positions than their individual members would).

Groupthink has been a factor in some astonishingly bad military decisions including the Vietnam and second Iraq wars.

Group coherence / team-mindedness is highly valued in organisations as it produces tangible results. Reports get done on time, sales figures improve, meetings run smoothly. No one is concerned as to whether it’s possible to get carried away with group cohesion (“or at least, no one worth speaking of” -Douglas Adams) until it causes a major problems. Even then the group may not recognise their own behaviour as the cause.

The good news is, the risk of GroupThink arising in an organisation can be mitigated. This in turn reduces the likelihood of decisions being made too rashly and without due consideration of the effects they will have on people outside the room.

Irving Janis, who coined the expression, says that there are two antecedent causes: (1) a provocative situational context and (2) structural faults in the organisation. Not much can be done to avoid the first, but the second can be remedied.

Janis considers the major structural problems as:

  • Insulation
  • Lack of a tradition of impartial leadership
  • Lack of norms requiring methodological procedures
  • Homogeneity of members’ social background / ideology

Another psychologist Clark McCauley devised a similar list, except he uses the term ‘directive leadership’ in place of points two and three.

Picture: Dana Ellyn,

So this is the unlikely place for a heroic employee to maintain high standards of ethics: by subtly questioning accepted wisdom.

For a person with a responsibility for hiring, this is one reason to find new employees with differing backgrounds.

For a person with managerial responsibility, the key is to find means of encouraging dissenting viewpoints to be heard without fear of retribution or isolation. One method is to always appoint a “Devil’s Advocate” in decision making, whose job it is to explore contrarian views (and to make sure the role gets rotated).

For an individual inside an organisation, the key is to be constructively deviant, to put forward alternate interpretations or suggestions in a manner that is clearly intended to be helpful and not merely as a smart-alec.

  1. […] an earlier post I talked about ‘GroupThink’, the phenomemon in which teams make bad decisions when […]

  2. […] When the team gets it wrong 18 February 2011 […]

  3. […] When the team gets it wrong 18 February 2011 […]

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