Truth – the new reflexive duty that is all our responsibility

capture-final-picAs the year comes to an end I thought I would add a few lines on the one thing that has troubled me most – truth. By truth I mean dependable knowledge that enables people to form effective opinions and decisions. With the US Presidential Election and the vote of the UK to leave the EU it seems that the fragility of truth has become all too apparent to those of us who care. More worrying, those of us who care seem to be in short supply.

There is little I can do to affect global events, but at least I can look closer to home to make some sort of impact. I work with postgraduate and undergraduate students and delegates on professional development programmes. I have become intrigued as to what people count as dependable knowledge, more specifically how much critical thought is given to this.

We now have blogs (like this one), news aggregators, complexity delivered in 140 characters and so on. All of this amplified by virtual velcro, the means by which ‘news’ unknowingly sticks to people by what they ‘like’ and what ‘friends’ they have. In readymade communities anyone can say anything with the added double bonus of both instant credibility and a boost that brings forth further response; a rapid process that risks self-reinforcing groupthink.

What did we have before? Newspapers and books, both with some form of editorial process. Peer reviewed journals that sought to take a rigorous stance on what made it through. Professional and trade press again with editorial teams. None of these were perfect but all had editorial processes and people in place were invested in the long term. In other words, any claims on truth would be reconciled with the credibility they had developed and yet held hostage to future challenge. Of course we still have these sources, but like the patina of an antique they are outshone by the new.

I am not suggesting a rejection of these new sources. However, the new skill of the student, citizen, consultant, work colleague – all of us, is increasingly to establish the validity of those sources and to carefully explain them to those around us and to ourselves. In short to be a reflexive check to ensure we do not get sucked in. What questions might we ask? There are many, but I think the most important stem from: what is the network of relationships that this person is invested/nested in? People have a tendency to cite and draw comfort from like-minded individuals. What awareness do they have of this, and how overt is this? Do they make connections with people from other traditions and views? Can you draw a connection of thought back to ideas and areas that you relate with and you know to be valid?

This is not just a skill, but a set of skills. Firstly, there is the ability to work out these connections and to draw the messy map of relationships. Secondly, the knack of being able to critically connect any valid insights to one’s context and practice. And finally, and importantly, being able to stand up and to argue the case; this is important as in doing this we can shape the debate. By doing this we can be an informed consumer, contributor and curator of knowledge.

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