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Preventing "Groupthink"

Take your team off autopilot.

"Groupthink" is a dynamic wherein members of a team see the world through a biased, narrow lens, reach premature conclusions, and make bad decisions. In 1973, Yale psychologist Irving Janis began exploring the concept of Groupthink by researching the chain of events involved in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, where U.S.-trained and equipped soldiers attempted to overthrow Fidel Castro's Cuban government.

As Janis put it, "Groupthink refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures." Kennedy wanted to overthrow Castro and his subordinates knew it—which meant that they, as a group, were not acting and thinking as intelligently as they could be. Instead, they jumped to conclusions and then moved forward without an openness to new information and without considering changes in direction. By directly involving himself in the decision making, Kennedy caused his subordinates to come up with a plan that pleased him rather than one that made the most strategic sense. The result, as history shows us, was a disaster and quickly put the U.S. on a course to go to war with Russia.

Fortunately, President Kennedy proved capable of learning from his mistakes as his actions in the wake of the next major crisis that occurred on his watch, The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, prove. Knowing that the survival of the nation, and the world, depended on the decisions and actions he took, Kennedy—unlike what he did the year before—decided to try and get as much information and to identify as many different courses of action as possible.

So, he convened an Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or EXCOMM, composed of Vice President Lyndon Johnson, his brother Robert Kennedy, then the Attorney General, and other members of his cabinet. He gave the EXCOMM time to explore and present various courses of action, then recused himself from the process so as not to bias it by being presented with choices the EXCOMM members might have thought he favored.

Robert Kennedy took on the role of Devil's Advocate and was tasked with vigorously arguing against contemplated courses of action in order to force the group to discuss and debate the contingent merits of different strategies. The end result, thankfully, was a good group process that led to successful outcomes. By making well-considered moves, President Kennedy influenced his Russian counterpart, Premier Nikita Khrushchev, to tone down the crisis. Together, they took steps to improve relations between the two countries such as by establishing a direct telephone connection or hotline where the leaders of the two countries could get in immediate contact with each other.

Leaders at any level of any kind of organization can learn from this case study. Sometimes, the best thing a leader can do to prevent groupthink is to take a step back from his or her team and allow the group to reach its own independent consensus before making a final decision. Leaders can also be helpful by encouraging the members of the group to speak their minds openly so that different perspectives are discussed and debated.

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