Herd immunity to groupthink?

Cartoon image of a herd of animals

When we are debating an issue, loyalty means giving me your honest opinion, whether you think I’ll like it or not. Disagreement, at this state, stimulates me. But once a decision is made, the debate ends. From that point on, loyalty means executing the decision as if it were your own.” So said Colin Powell. He was the four-star U.S. General who became a popular figure to quote for leadership training in the first decade of the 21st century. It makes sense, right? But now sit his words beside those of astronaut Chris Hadfield. “There is no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse!

Hadfield ventured into space three times in his career with NASA. He used this phrase to great effect during a talk he delivered on TED. It’s basically an update on the old adage that, “If you’re in a hole, stop digging!” Unfortunately, “no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse,” is a sentiment which those involved in space exploration have learned at great cost. They have learned from tragedies which have, rightly or wrongly, been blamed on problematic groupthink.

What is groupthink?

People connecting with each other, creating consensus of beliefs, what is right and wrong with positive peer pressure can provide a solid foundation for the development of a community or team. It can create a virtuous circle of improvement, achievement and wellbeing.

However, ‘groupthink’, as defined by Irving Janis, is a problematic mindset where tribal instincts where desire for belonging and expectations of conformity spiral out of control. The ‘echo-chambers’ which can develop in social media are a good example. Participants can become close-minded, hearing what they want to hear, rationalising all information and events as evidence which reinforce their beliefs. They may even reject conflicting facts as ‘fake news’ or a hoax. Members of the group then typically fall into line and avoid rocking the boat rather than question the obvious. A bad problem can get worse and worse as participants become more and more deeply entrenched.

There may well be a broad range of contributing factors. However, groupthink can develop quickly and easily. Our tribal instincts of needing to belong can drive us toward thinking in terms of “them and us” faster than we often realise. Last year, the GMC identified a set of problematic subcultures which exist within the medical profession. Subcultures can grow around divas and/or patronage of certain individuals. Factions develop. Groups of people who feel embattled can collect together, reinforcing each other’s feelings of pressure and hopelessness. Some groups can become insular and detatched, their practices increasingly deviating from accepted standards but are convinced that they are doing the right thing.

Risk points

The problems of groupthink can become greatest when the stakes are highest. It may become acute when time pressures are intense, when there are conflicting demands or when there is a lot to lose. This loss could be physical, emotional, reputation or about resources. Concerns over loss of resources can include time having been wasted, need for unexpected additional time commitment or finances.

We may become closed to new information or fail to speak up when there is a state of urgency. We may not want to hear what we need to hear when the message means having to admit we got it wrong. And we may argue against any idea if it means undoing a great deal of work where we have already invested time and energy – even when tat idea makes perfect sense.

So here’s the flaw in taking Colin Powell’s words at the top of this page out of context. “When we are debating an issue, loyalty means giving me your honest opinion, whether you think I’ll like it or not. Disagreement, at this state, stimulates me.” Such an approach is an excellent groupthink preventer. However, “From that point on, loyalty means executing the decision as if it were your own,” must come with some caveats. Commitment is commendable, but these words can easily be interpreted as, “we will now be resistant to new information.” That would be a dangerous groupthink catalyst.

Developing herd immunity

There is no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse!” Time and the inevitable inquiries will tell if the “herd immunity” approach to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic was ever the government’s original policy. Was it this approach that made the bad problem worse? Did it have it’s roots in groupthink? Or could it turn out to be the only solution after all? Let’s park that debate and think of herd immunity in a different context.

Herd immunity – where enough members of a community are resistant to something – is an interesting concept to think of in relation to problematic groupthink. If enough members of a team are willing and able to challenge beliefs, point out the issues, listen to inconvenient truths and at the same time stay true to their values then that team will collectively develop an immunity to groupthink. Achieving this requires all members of the team, from most senior to most junior, to develop excellent team communication skills. It is dependent on every member being able to engage in difficult conversations in a constructive manner. People have to be able to speak up if they can see a problem – even after the decision has been made.

What are you doing to help develop herd immunity to groupthink?

Stephen McGuire – Managing Director