My Leadership Fails: Group Think Disasters

Group Think“Madness is the exception in individuals but the rule in groups” Nietzsche

Have you ever been a part of a team that, despite good intentions, made some very bad decisions?

Why do intelligent groups of people make stupid errors causing monumental disasters? As individuals we are regularly shaking our heads in disbelief about the decisions our leaders and their advisors are making.

Most recently we have watched Greece opt for bankruptcy over bailout which was a path strongly recommended by their own government. There have also been some other stand out incidents in the last decade. The erosion of financial security laws and inconsistent decisions by the US Treasury (against the advice of many experts) which directly led to the Global Financial Crisis; the refusal of Industrial Nations to reduce emissions despite the evidence of global warming, the list goes on…

Clearly something is wrong. But surely it is not a question of basic adult intelligence; as all of the decisions referred to above were made by groups of very intelligent and experienced people who had access to expert information that was both favorable and unfavorable to the decisions that were taken.

What then was the cause of such monumentally bad decisions? If it is not based on individual errors it must by default be related to team dynamics. Something must be happening when these collective groups of people are meeting which leads them (in hindsight) down the garden path. The team dynamic creating such a disaster is called ‘Group Think’.

Group Think

Group Think is a phenomena reported by Irving Janis in his 1972 book Victims of Group Think: Psychological Studies of Policy Studies & Fiascoes. This is a fantastic book and a must read for anyone interested in team dynamics and leadership with great case studies on world historical disasters such as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the escalation of the Vietnam War and the Watergate Crisis. But Group Think is not just restricted to politicians and policy makers. Group Think can emerge in any team situation and is marked by 3 common team dynamics.

Group Think: More Common Then You Think!

Group Think is far more common among teams and organizations then most people realize. Let’s take a look at Janis’s 3 Group Think criteria and some much more frequently occurring team situations that many of us can relate to:

1. Over-estimations of the groups power and morality.

Teams involved in making decisions on eligibility and provision of services may have to deal with finite resources, unhappy and/or complaining customers and at times vague or inconsistent directions from management about how to navigate the dilemma of finite resources that exceed demand. To solve this problem they may make value judgments amongst themselves, which may not necessarily be fair towards customers, but rather based on their own judgments about relative ‘worthiness’ and end up treating customers quite unfairly. Every week or two a telecommunications company, power, water utility or social security department somewhere on the planet is exposed in the media as allegedly favoring some customers whilst denying services to others – the seeds of which may begin in this Group Think team dynamic.

2. Closed Mindedness.

Teams that have worked together for a long time, often in isolation, can rationalize and minimize objective risks and threats, and so increase the overall likelihood of disaster. There are many examples of this seen in workplaces across the world. From the spectacular mistakes small teams of deep sea fisherman make on TV shows such as The Deadliest Catch to the tragic disasters of gas explosions on oil rigs and cave-ins in deep underground mines, there are many examples of the effect of closed mindedness in ignoring signs of escalating risk ultimately leading to disaster. Teams in the banking and finance industry are also victims of this Group Think process when they minimize fluctuations and downturn in the stock market or interest rate changes instead of taking action to prevent subsequent losses.

3. Pressure Toward Team Uniformity

Many teams have one or two dominant personalities who overtly or accidently create pressure on the team to conform to a particular view which may or may not be the most helpful or accurate perspective on an issue. Team members may self-censure and fail to adopt an effective ‘devils advocate’ role to enable arguments of pros and cons to be fully tested in order to remain safe within the group. The result of this may lead to premature and faulty decision making similar to the examples of mining, oil and gas and financial services outlined above. An additional example of this form of Group Think can be seen in the hierarchies of the medical profession where the doctors opinion and power may create pressure on nursing and allied health staff to withdraw their own opinions despite having greater knowledge leading to misdiagnosis and medical negligence.

My Own Group Think Disasters

During the course of my career I have had front row tickets to several classic Group Think disasters – some of them more public than others. I have selected 3 examples – each from a different personal or professional perspective to show how commonplace Group Think is in today’s world of team dynamics.

IT System Failure: The Queensland Health Payroll Disaster

I was privileged to work alongside some of the most talented, hard working and professional leadership teams I have ever met as they were preparing to launch a new payroll system across 80,000 staff. This would prove to be one of Australia’s greatest IT disasters costing $1.2 billion, instead of the $6 million originally forecast, and placed the public healthcare system in extreme crisis. It turned out to be a very complex project, since the subject of a Royal Commission, and had many different stages of testing and implementation leading up to the launch. As each stage progressed I remember an increased level of anxiety among senior executives about risks and uncertainties yet in parallel, an increased amount of expectation and pressure from the oversight committee made up of government officials to adhere to the launch schedule.

These group dynamics appeared to suppress the escalation of growing concerns raised by many people. Ultimately leaders were placed in untenable positions to proceed to launch a system that was, in hindsight, not ready or face the end of their careers by asserting themselves against the majority. A clear no-win situation for them personally and a Group Think catastrophe that cost over a billion dollars and took 5 years and a Royal Commission to properly understand and ultimately recover from.

Medical Negligence: My Father’s Misdiagnosis & Near Death

I still remember the unbelievable and unfathomable shock I felt at holding my father in my arms as he shook violently and uncontrollably, his body cold and clammy in one instance only to experience sky rocketing temperatures the next. He was almost incoherent and in extreme pain when the ambulances finally arrived. I immediately gave the paramedics the temperature chart showing the wild fluctuations and told them of my concerns that he was gravely ill.

To my surprise they conferred among themselves and then told me he was not gravely unwell but rather my thermometer was broken and he simply had a high temperature and a likely cold or flu on top of his stomach pain. I was aghast!

How could they ignore my direct touch of his skin and the obvious coldness he was showing? How could they not even test my own medical equipment yet declare it was broken? Group Think had gone too far. They left our midnight emergency only to have us drive my father to hospital later that evening being correctly diagnosed with a gangrenous gal bladder and death narrowly avoided through emergency surgery.

Small Business Turnarounds: The Cavalry Didn’t Come

The last Group Think team experience I want to share is common to many small businesses and teams delivering products or services to big business or government clients. There was a freeze placed on consulting projects and a sudden stop to most of the work we were doing for several large public sector clients. It was the beginning of the Global Financial Crisis, yet my team mates and I in the leadership team believed the freeze would only last a couple of months and then things would return to normal. As time wore on and more and more lay-offs occurred, we kept ignoring the obvious signs of the deepening crisis and instead kept reassuring each other things would turn around very shortly. We kept all our own staff and our costs quickly drained our cash reserves to dangerous levels.

Instead of developing new markets and products and investing accordingly we spent most of our remaining dollars marketing to previous clients who could not make any purchases and telling our demoralized staff to work even harder at networking and selling to a market that could not buy. In hindsight this seems so ridiculous, but again the spell of Group Think – where we all so desperately wanted to believe in a happy ever after turn around rather then confront our business’ rapidly escalating distress prevailed and the disaster kept escalating.

Group Think & Your Team

How about you and your co-workers?

Have you ever found yourselves ostracizing people who didn’t ‘fit in’ and reassuring yourselves that the doom sayers and negative people were wrong – only to find out later they were right (or at least partially so?). Have you ever been on the blunt end of a customer complaint or criticism of your staff, your company or your product and found yourselves minimizing and distancing yourself from their feedback?

Have you ever found yourselves working too closely together for too long and in the familiarity of routines, and so missed some important steps in a process or failed to see a safety problem that later created a serious risk or disaster?

Group Think is real and an important part of understanding why teams fail. The antidote is, of course, a commitment to objective evaluation, seeking data and evidence to inform decisions and encouraging and respecting people in the team with contrarian views. Take some time out today to consider how your current workplace culture and dynamics either prevents or encourages the Group Think dynamic in your team.

Ride The Waves of Work!

Dr Pete

The Stress Surfer

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