Of Groupthink and False Harmony


What happens when thinking men and women, sometimes highly educated and sometimes highly experienced, gather around a table to discuss matters of great importance and then because of their unanimity, they lead to unimaginable damage to life, property and organizational reputation?

It has happened before. There are more illustrious instances of calamity that have resulted from what experts call “Groupthink”. The three most cited management failures in modern times include sinking of the Titanic, the Bay of Pigs fiasco of the US administration and finally the Columbia explosion.

The Titanic, as we all know, sank in her maiden voyage from England to the US in 1912, taking along with her 1400 people. Some of the people who had designed or been involved in building the ship had serious doubts about her design, but they had kept quiet as she sailed because they did not want to look foolish in front of majority of their colleagues who did not seem to share their doubts. Even as she was on the ocean, it seems that other ships in the vicinity had radioed the Titanic, warning her of icebergs – she ignored those: read someone did not exercise the professional requirement to ask questions on how they might impact the ship.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave clearance for a covert attack on Cuba by 1400 Cuban exiles in what has been termed as the Bay of Pig disaster. Intelligence reports indicated that such an attack would result in a popular uprising in Cuba resulting in the ultimate unseating of Fidel Castro. Contrary to expectations, when the 1400 invaders arrived, they were far outnumbered by the Cuban military that was forewarned of the assault. 1200 were taken as prisoners and 200 died in the fiasco. One key assumption that was made during the infamous invasion was that the exiles would dissolve into Cuba without questioning the fact that between Bay of Pigs and the mainland lay eighty miles of swampland. When the mission failed, it was apparent that the President had been misled and it was even clearer that people who doubted the success of the strategy had suppressed their urge to question because everyone else seemed to be so patriotically pushing the idea! After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a term called “groupthink” emerged and subsequently researched very extensively by celebrated Yale psychologist Irving Janis in the seventies. Janis brought to light how groups of decision makers become blind to impending warnings when they are bound together on a mission and members fail to raise critical questions because of the need for false harmony.

In 1986, in one of NASA’s worst disasters, space shuttle Challenger exploded, 73 seconds after lift-off, killing all 6 astronauts and Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher on board. It was the tenth voyage for the space shuttle and the most watched on television because of the historicity of McAuliffe’s presence. The space shuttle’s explosion made it one of the most cited case studies in contemporary engineering and management theory. The space shuttle exploded because of a defect in what was termed as the O-ring seal in the right solid rocket booster. This part was made at Morton Thiokol Inc., a sub-contractor of Marshall Space Center. Tests indicated that the O-ring was not reliable at temperatures below 53 degrees and people knew about that fact. The Challenger lift-of took place when the temperature was 36 degrees – it is obvious that no one asked a question while the shuttle was given the go-ahead.

What happens when thinking men and women, sometimes highly educated and sometimes highly experienced, gather around a table to discuss matters of great importance and then because of their unanimity, they lead to unimaginable damage to life, property and organizational reputation? Why do they fail to ask critical questions? Why do they sometimes have the questions but choose to remain silent? Is it caused by a desire for false harmony? Is it the fear of ridicule? Is because they are beholden? Or, is it the sheer abdication of responsibility? Is it likely to driven more by cultural factors? Or is it just the DNA of an organization?

In truth, it is all of the above and probably some more. It is also about size. In every large organization – public and private, where groups of people routinely gather around teak paneled tables to dwell on matters of consequence, fail to act as professionals. For the one that meets the eye, there are countless many that go unnoticed. The truth be told: even in the United States where there is a bigger tradition of failure-analysis, highly placed individuals routinely fall prey to “groupthink”. On our part, we would all do well to know that it may well be happening in our own organizations where every time a critical decision is taken, the voice of dissent is not been listened to as intently as the voice of approval.

For more on the subject, read ‘Leading with Questions’ by Michael Marquardt and see you soon.

 

Comments
mia Says
Thursday January 8th 2009

After the SATYAM debacle I feel senior execs should be holier than pope. It is the “broken window” syndrome, if small things are pushed under the carpet there could be bigger problems.

I THINK what Mr. Bagchi is DOING AT MINDTREE is fraudulent, if you subscribe to the broken window theory. No one is questioning him, so what is he doing ? He calls himself gardener, spouts some mumbo-jumbo to captive employees, galivants about town, write novels, etc. Basically having a gala time at company expense. FRAUD alert. The founders of mindtree only care to monetize their shareholding and leave the inverstors holding the junky bag of goods, aka SATYAM.

    Somenath Says
    Friday February 6th 2009

    To term what Mr Bagchi is doing as “FRAUDULENT” is a foolishness to say the least. U had a question what is he doing? Perhaps the absence of a correct answer within yourself led to you terming his time at Mindtree as “Gala”. In simple words he is the Gardener because he has taken the role of nurturing future leaders at Mindtree. What wrong is he doing by writing novels,blogs? At the end of the day are you not learning something new from reading his work? It is very important for a leader to showcase his/her company to the external world through all possible fair means and i believe he is doing exactly that.

    Jayanta mukherjee Says
    Thursday March 19th 2009

    Have not you heard ‘as you sow, so you reap’.
    If you do not understand what Subroto Bagchi is doing, it is your limitation of mind & thouight.

L Says
Thursday January 8th 2009

Dear Gardener,
When you speak of the DNA of an organisation – I cannot but help thinking that there needs to be a difference carved out between confidence and arrogance. It is nice for organisations to instill a sense of confidence and pride in their employees. But at times, this results in a sense of arrogance and what I term as- “We are the best, what can go wrong?” syndrome.
It is upto the leaders in an organisation to perhaps point out the difference. Several bosses whom I reported to and report to, took pains to point out the need to differentiate between the two. Guess I have been very lucky to get some splending bosses.
If an organisation’s DNA is entrenched in arrogance, people stop thinking and stop learning or are not open to receiving. As you have said in GTKW it is important to learn how to receive. That said, people do go with the herd because of various reasons, the main one, it takes a wise boss to appreciate “non conformity” at times, it is treated as mere rebellion.
Perhaps when a voice of dissent is tactfully put across it gets heard – such as by saying, may I play the role of a devil’s advocate? Perhaps this issue can also be looked at, ithen it sounds more palatable. [Guess I’ve just become a wee bit wiser]
At times voices of dissent are forced to be anonymous, such as the open letter in Mint, by an unidentified IAS officer. This in turn had its own repurcussions. Perhaps even anonymous voices of dissent need to be heard? if such voices are anonymous for a valid reason?
I must stop rambling.
Best regards
Lubna

    Anon Says
    Thursday January 8th 2009

    Not all can afford to take this course.Not all can take a risk with their eval.Not all can afford to be seen as a pain.This had to be anonymous, hope you don’t mind.You get the drift? A friend

Metaempiricus Says
Thursday January 8th 2009

I and many folks I know have invested in Mind Tree shares. Any surprises on the lines of Satyam.

Lukesh Says
Friday January 9th 2009

I have just finished reading this amazing book called ‘Outliers’ where Malcom Gladwell writes about among other thing why Korean pilots had 20 times the accident rate of an American pilot. Reason Korean culture where First Officer couldn’t communicate forcibly with the Captain as he was the senior. they spoke in terms like “Weather radar has helped a lot” when they meant “Weahter is really bad. you should look out”. Just reminded of the example after reading the blog post.
Outliers is a great read.
Lukesh

mia azad Says
Sunday January 11th 2009

Yo baldy,

Talk about the fraud done by your bro at Satyam. Another scamster like you who sprouted crap to boost the share price up and pocket the profit.

Be very careful of righteous b*******! Thats the obvious sign of fraud, because any honest person would know of the dark side to ones sould and would know better that to speak of any so sanctimonius.

Ram Says
Monday January 12th 2009

As usual, very well written. However, while the 3 case studies seem to be sporadic instances of ‘Groupthink’, the IT industry has made it a routine phenomenon!

(Belated) Happy New Year

Anonymous Says
Monday January 12th 2009

Actully, it is rampant in many IT services companies when the GM, DM, PM sit together for weekly meetings.

I call it “Group Therapy Session” rather than “GroupThink”. One hotshot proposes and other massage his/her ego based on many biases and benefits!

    Saurabh Says
    Monday March 2nd 2009

    “One hotshot proposes and other massage his/her ego based on many biases and benefits!” – This is very well said…

Debachou Says
Tuesday January 13th 2009

Quite some time back I requested Mr Bagchi about his view on Satyam issue when the disclosure by fraudmaster was not made. I feel perhaps this was avoided by Mr Bagchi purposedly to cast any aspeersion on his scamstar friend. Now since Mr Raju is behind the bar , Mr Bagchi can do some justice to his readers throwing some light on this issue from a gardener point of view. How about that , Mr Bagchi ?

Lubna Says
Tuesday January 13th 2009

Hi all,
I can sense a lot of anger here. No doubt, the Satyam episode has shocked us all. But, we should not paint the Indian IT sector with the “Satyam” brush.
Enron was probably the first mega corporate scam, that comes to my mind. And America is believed to be a country with one of the strictest regulations. But did people lose faith in the oil and gas sector, or treat other companies in the same sector on par with Enron? No. Likewise, what will help us here is not anger against the entire IT sector.
Perhaps for the first time regulatory authorities are acting quicker than usual. The truth or the reason for this scam will soon be out.
Yes, we can be more responsible shareholders (the real estate deal was called off owing to the proactiveness of the shareholders), as employees – many of us, may be stakeholders in the company we serve. So asking questions in the right forum such as a shareholders meeting is the way forward. Similarly each of us can do our own bit, when attending group meetings – by voicing our own views for the benefit of our company and the country.
Misdirected anger will not help any one of us.
Best regards
Lubna

Raghav Says
Thursday January 15th 2009

Hi Mr.Bagchi,

Can we exchange some emails on some issue that I think would require some words of advice from you? I have read both your books and I strongly relate to your value systems. Hence I am an admirer of your core values. I think you can have some well-meaning advise for me.

Can you please let me know? My email id is mkraghavendra@gmail.com

Thanks,
Raghav

Akshay Says
Tuesday January 20th 2009

Hi Mr.Bagchi,
I am 23 years old and i am establishing a dream of starting my own I.T company i have confidence but i dont have experience. Currenlty i am in london working for a I.T company as a software Tester. Please if you can advice me.

Saturday January 24th 2009

hey mr bagchi
very true words, i completely agree with whatever u wrote when people start working as a group in organisations or any other place they always work under this false pretence of working as a group without profesional clashes in thinking & in work. evrybody wants to be a group leader but because of this unnecessary competition the real purpose of work is lost evryone wants to be the best & due to dese reasons no one wants to raise the critical question coz if they do they will be seen as arrogant, creator of unnecessary differences & what not this fear stops people who do not have the quality of being a leader but people with great leadership qualites do not fear dese problems & they r the ones who really succeed in what ever they do in life…. i have read both your boths & they were really good… have learnt a lot from them… hope u doin great as the gardener of mindtree & nurturing the great minds well for the battle ahead..

Bharat S Says
Tuesday January 27th 2009

Hi Mr. Bagchi,
I am 26 yrs old IT professional working in the top IT company as a IT Consultant. I read your book and I am deeply advised by that in many parts and many aspects of life.
It has come to me as an essence which I dream to fulfill it someday.
I thank you for writing this book.

Regards
Bharat S Natarajan

Saturday February 7th 2009

Dear Subroto,

It’s nice to read about your posting on Groupthink. The fact I really appreciate is, you brought out cases that are of cultures where individuality is respected. Somehow, I get a feeling we have brought the aspect of team spirits to extreme levels where it has started to affect innovation. We have in some sense made alignment to management as team spirit. Those who are not will be shown the door. More so in difficult times when pink slips are quite common in the market.

If you look at most organizations India or elsewhere there are two sets of employees. One who agree to all management decisions or one who completely ignore the decision and express no opinion at all. I consider two simple cases to read existence of strong groupthink.

1. Skill gap between senior leadership and mid-level managers
2. No of tough questions asked in an all hands meeting

A strong skill gap would mean management is fostering blind followers and thus protecting their importance and if no tough questions are asked at all hands meetings people have realized to ignore the company affairs and are comfortable in own worlds not fight the developing groupthink.

regards,

Sambit

Subroto Bagchi Says
Sunday February 8th 2009

Sambit,

You are spot on. There is another deeper cultural issue in India – we are not encouraged to ask questions and reverence to leadership is confused with value to the organization and its cause.

Thank you for your thoughts!

Subroto

Spandan Says
Monday February 9th 2009

Dear Mr. Bagchi,

With all due respect, I have a slightly different view.

I think cultural issue stays for sometime, when you are at the same place as localite and have never been outside of your own state or max a neighbouring state. When you move a lot, then you automatically start questioning.

But then it depends on the company that you are with.

I think it starts with the founders and senior management of the company. I have worked with one of the best product companies in India, where you CEO comes and sits on your chair (he is from IIT, Stanford and then a Doctorate – in case someone is thinking …) to fix software design issues! – sometimes he just drops in like that. I was used to fight with him even when I was a nobody – read a fresh graduate.

Imagine my confidence and the way everyone talked. I also gave the same freedom to other team members when they came. In this kind of environment politics become zero as you know you can talk to the uppermost echelon when needed. And the game being played is fair.

Now when I joined one of the 3 service providing companies in India, the very first day we have shunted people out from the workplace – the manager even did not give a glance to the new recruitees or even if he did, it was plastic smile – anyone can see through that. I later on found out they are scared as they do not know much and just hanging on. Needless to say, I quit very shortly.

Lubna Says
Sunday February 15th 2009

Hi
I thought I will post this for the benefit of those readers who perhaps are missing on the gems of archieved articles available on this website. Subroto,,I was searching for an earlier article of yours and realised that everything is available here under the “columns” section.
“The Missing I” an earlier article written by Subroto Bagchi sheds light on an allied topic – the lack of initiative to ask questions. The Url is below. Happy reading.

http://www.mindtree.com/knowledgecenter/the-missing-i.html

Maybe I must pick this recommended book up – Leading with questions. It sounds useful.
Thank you for uploading all your earlier articles, it is always a pleasure to read them again.
Best regards,
Lubna

roshan Says
Thursday February 19th 2009

Hi,
I think there is a difference between a skeptic and a cynic. Often times people do not understand the difference. In some cases group think is a result of this – people do not want to be seen a cynic. The person who questions is considered as a pain.

As managers it is important to recognize and encourage skepticism. Otherwise, we will have what Guy Kawasaki calls as the Bozo explosion.

Roshan

Saurabh Says
Monday March 2nd 2009

Hello Subroto,

You have many fans and supporters like me. We can ignore some of the baseless, irrelevant and loathe worthy comments posted here.

Coming to the topic of the blog, I cannot think complete at one time so I have few half-baked thoughts to share… :)

Man is a social animal and feels secure in a group. Going against the group requires lot of will power and self belief. The moment a man tries to go against a group, creeps in a feeling of insecurity and nightmare of getting boycotted by the group and then what becomes acceptable and likable is what a large majority of the group would do and pursuits of the large majority become the desired pursuits of everyone in the group.

For obvious and not so obvious reasons, few people command and are able to influence and if the person happens to be a senior more are the chances of Group Think. Group members always try to be in the good books of such 1-2 influential leaders who are influential and land up taking key decisions. Influential leaders need not necessarily be competent and wise.

Breaking the Group Think apparently is difficult as its a complex mix of human emotions, ambitions, apprehensions however awareness of the phenomenon, being conscious of what’s happenning is the first step to come out of it.

So, have you identified who’s an influential leader among your next line and who are among the subdued but competent leaders?

See you. Good Day!

With Regards,
Saurabh

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