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The Groupthink Pandemic

Groupthink is all around us. Decision-making in government, in the media and at work. It’s slowly killing the world.

In the background of the most important events, the Covid-19 response and increasing tension and conflict in the world, it might be worth looking through some of this in a bit more detail.

I’ve experienced groupthink working for large organisations, most notably in my last job. We were tasked with investigating and solving complex problems. Some technical expertise helped but was not crucial to the role.

Critical thinking and balancing evidence and differing viewpoints was key.

Yet the organisation decided that this was no longer required and changed the whole operating model to a one-size fits all type of call-centre. This new high-risk approach was recommended to us by the outside consultants Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) who were clueless about our business.

Those of us who were experienced in the role argued that the model wouldn’t work. But the organisation ploughed on regardless. It was obvious from day one that the financials didn’t stack up which they tried to deny and later concealed.

The executive largely ignored our concerns to start but then paid limited lip-service when the wheels started to come off. Anyway, in the end they offered us redundancy while employing fresh university graduates to replace us. As far as I know the place is still in denial and heading down the pan.

Groupthink is described as follows:

Groupthink is a term first used in 1972 by social psychologist Irving L. Janis that refers to a psychological phenomenon in which people strive for consensus within a group. In many cases, people will set aside their own personal beliefs or adopt the opinion of the rest of the group.

People who are opposed to the decisions or overriding opinion of the group as a whole frequently remain quiet, preferring to keep the peace rather than disrupt the uniformity of the crowd’.

Groupthink is common where group members have similar backgrounds and particularly where that group is placed under stress, resulting in irrational decision outcomes.

These are the main behaviors to watch out for:

  1. Illusions of invulnerability lead members of the group to be overly optimistic and engage in risk-taking.
  2. Unquestioned beliefs lead members to ignore possible moral problems and ignore the consequences of individual and group actions.
  3. Rationalising prevents members from reconsidering their beliefs and causes them to ignore warning signs.
  4. Stereotyping leads members of the in-group to ignore or even demonise out-group members who may oppose or challenge the group’s ideas.
  5. Self-censorship causes people who might have doubts to hide their fears or misgivings.
  6. “Mindguards” act as self-appointed censors to hide problematic information from the group.
  7. Illusions of unanimity lead members to believe that everyone is in agreement and feels the same way.
  8. Direct pressure to conform is often placed on members who pose questions, and those who question the group are often seen as disloyal or traitorous.

There are two further observations I made in the workplace, particularly relevant to groups going through major change or/and a crisis.

Firstly, they tend to swing from the status quo to the complete opposite. In our organisation, we definitely needed some changes and tweaks but we lurched towards a model which was completely unsuitable and unsustainable operationally and financially.

The other thing I noticed was our employers became control freaks. They started to talk down to us and our customers like children. They introduced office slogans such as ‘let’s crack on’ or ‘we’re all in this together’ and deflected from the problems of the disastrous reorganisation towards ‘celebrating diversity’ in the workplace. Critical thinking, creativity and expression were sucked out of the place.

The obvious analogy for all these behaviors is the response to Covid-19 when government ministers were collectively panicked into making extreme decisions on lockdown, using just one preferred source of ‘expertise’.

At the same time, they sidelined dissenters and independent experts who could have offered a calm, rational perspective and a targeted response to Covid-19.

In summing up this thinking and behavior, I’m reminded of these observations from Dr Malcolm Kendrick and Lord Sumption about the response to Covid-19. Dr Kendrick here:

We locked down the population that had virtually zero risk of getting any serious problems from the disease, and then spread it wildly among the highly vulnerable age group. If you had written a plan for making a complete bollocks of things you would have come up with this one”.

And Lord Sumption writing in the Mail on Sunday:

The Prime Minister, who in practice makes most of the decisions, has low political cunning but no governmental skills whatever. He is incapable of studying a complex problem in depth. He thinks as he speaks – in slogans.

These people have no idea what they are doing, because they are unable to think about more than one thing at a time or to look further ahead than the end of their noses.

Read more: The Groupthink Pandemic