Rethinking Groupthink – Implications for Leadership

For some reason I have heard the word Groupthink several times this week, more than likely in relation to reforms to the NHS and who the Secretary of State for Health chooses to have around him. But it did prompt me to look afresh at Irving Janis’s 1960’s book Victims of Groupthink where the term was first coined.

Janis was puzzled by what he had seen around him. How could seemingly sensible and intelligent people stumble their way into the catastrophes and fiascos such as the Bay of Pigs, Pearl Harbour; the Korean War; and, the escalation of Vietnam? On the other hand what was it about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the post war Marshall Plan where people managed to recognise an imminent disaster and take action to avoid it? Janis defined Groupthink as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when members’ striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action”, resulting in deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgement.

This blog seeks to pose a question. In the last fifty years there has been enormous change in technology and information that has deeply affected our culture. Recent developments include: the internet; the ‘freedom of information’, a rapid increase in the speed by which information is spread; the phenomenon of wikileaks and people being held to account for their (perceived) actions by emergent groups and coalitions. Those staid institutions behind which people could hide and control information are gone. The question for me is this: Groupthink still exists, we see the impact in both national and international policy, but what are the features today that should now come to define Groupthink? For me words and phrases that spring to mind include: fear, failure, anxiety, image, perception, the need to ‘mirror’ expectations, being assertive, the need to control, the ‘virtual group’ against the world, etc. These words are not often in the vocabulary of the policy maker, but they have powerful emotional impact on policy and implementation. This needs to be recognised in a reflexive way so as groups think about what they are doing together, how they are doing it and how this thought comes to affect their practice.

Reference: Janis, I (1972) Victims of Groupthink, Boston: Houghton Mifflin


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