Getting out of groupthink
How groups can avoid one type of bad decision-making
Have you ever made a decision, having been firmly convinced at the time that your judgement was wise and well-informed, only to discover later that the basis on which your decision was made was flawed, therefore casting doubt on the rightness of your choices? For some people, a discovery such as this leads to a moment of humility and learning and, in some cases, an attempt to put right what might have been wrong. For others, despite the new factual evidence offered, they continue to assert the rightness of their decision-making. And this can be particularly true when the original decision was made in a group and now no individual member of the group wants to stick their head above the parapet and admit that they were ill-informed when they made their previous choices.
Jesus accused the chief priests and Jewish elders of this kind of narrowness of thinking: “For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him” (Matthew 21:32, ESV, emphasis mine). No matter what evidence was presented to them, they would not alter their mindset.
In her book Followership, Barbara Kellerman explains this phenomenon using the term groupthink. (1) First coined by psychologist Irving Janis, a man who analysed a number of high-profile American foreign policy decisions, the term refers to faulty group decision-making as a result of the pressure to conform. It’s seen when a group of people get into a particular mindset over a situation and then are unable to move from that position, despite receiving evidence which may rightly challenge their stance. Group members keep conforming to the position and don’t want to be the one to rock the boat and assert that perhaps there might be other storylines which could explain what’s going on.
On the surface-level, it’s much easier to conform like this, because there are rewards. We don’t have to engage in awkward conversations which might lead to conflict. By conforming we make it appear that our group is harmonious and of a united mind on the matter in hand. Behaving with compliance like this means we reap certain benefits of community dynamics.
But the tragedy is that the group may be making a very poor decision because of its groupthink mentality, which censors outside information so that only views which accord with the group’s stance are accepted. Other opinions are summarily dismissed because of the pressure to conform.
There are various reasons why groups can dismiss or miss viewpoints:
· As stated above, we don’t like to hear something that may prove we might be wrong
· Opinions of people can be dismissed because we have adopted a negative stance towards them. The message is rejected simply because of the messenger
· Sometimes a viewpoint is dismissed because a group believes it’s the wrong time to take that opinion on board. Perhaps the viewpoint seems out of date or an idea before its time
· Some viewpoints never get out into the open because quieter people in a group can feel intimidated by stronger personalities and so only comments from the latter get aired within group meetings. This is the influence of what is called dominance dynamics. It’s particularly observed in groups with a leader who adopts a controlling approach with the group.
Irving Janis believed that groupthink mentality was the reason behind several disastrous U.S. foreign policy decisions, like the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Vietnam War (1955-75). Interestingly there is a similar groupthink mentality displayed at one point in the history of the Israelites, related to a foreign policy decision. The book of Isaiah relates this to us.
Isaiah 30:1-2, 8-11
“Woe to the obstinate children,” declares the Lord, “to those who carry out plans that are not mine, forming an alliance, but not by my Spirit, heaping sin upon sin; who go down to Egypt without consulting me; who look for help to Pharaoh’s protection, to Egypt’s shade for refuge.
Go now, write it on a tablet for them, inscribe it on a scroll, that for the days to come it may be an everlasting witness. For these are rebellious people, deceitful children, children unwilling to listen to the Lord’s instruction. They say to the seers, “See no more visions!” and to the prophets, “Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions. Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!”
How does this passage illustrate groupthink and what can we learn from its wisdom about avoiding bad decision-making in group settings?
The context of the passage is the people of Judah caught between a rock and a hard place. To the north of them, the Assyrian superpower has been flexing its military muscles, showing clearly its land-grabbing intentions. To the south was Egypt, considered also an enemy. But with the Assyrians acting so aggressively towards a helpless Judah, some of God’s people wanted to form a military pact with Egypt to help them against the northern foe.
These verses reveal the groupthink mentality of the people:
· There was an obstinacy in their behaviour (verse 1)
· They were unwilling to listen to viewpoints beyond themselves (verse 9)
· In fact, they specifically said they didn’t want to hear the words of the prophets (verse 10)
· They only wanted to hear viewpoints that would not challenge their position (verses 10-11)
Through Isaiah, God was making it very clear to the people that their decision-making was wrong. Forming an alliance with Egypt was not God’s plan for them (verse 1-2).
In the next part of the chapter, God confronts them with the consequences if they go down this road.
Therefore this is what the Holy One of Israel says:
“Because you have rejected this message, relied on oppression and depended on deceit, this sin will become for you like a high wall, cracked and bulging, that collapses suddenly, in an instant. It will break in pieces like pottery, shattered so mercilessly that among its pieces not a fragment will be found for taking coals from a hearth or scooping water out of a cistern.” (Isaiah 30:12-14)
The language here is dramatic: high walls crashing down, the shattering of pottery vessels in such a way that no repair can be made and the pieces are so small that they cannot be used even to scoop up water. Quite a warning for God’s people to receive. But the groupthink mentality threatened their ability to see other viewpoints from the one they had adopted.
What was God’s challenge to them to save them from groupthink? And how might we apply these principles to enhance good decision-making in group settings? Because Isaiah’s words related to His people, this article assumes the context of Christian groups in decision-making processes.
This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says:
“In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it.” (Isaiah 30:15)
The key words in God’s challenge to the people were repentance and trust. Repentance for them in this context would have involved a realisation that they were about to make a poorly-informed and ill-judged decision. It would have involved admitting that they should step back from their piously-held position and stop dismissing the words of God’s prophets. They should have stopped to listen to other voices which would challenge their stance and to give a fair critique of these voices – to actually give them a chance to demonstrate that maybe another storyline was the true one.
In our group decision-making let’s take care to fairly hear all available perspectives on an issue. Hearing the relevant facts is important, as there is a big difference between fact and story. A fact is something objective which can be substantiated; story is a subjective way we try to explain the facts. In our decision-making, we should first seek to establish the facts and then understand the correct storyline behind what’s going on and base our judgements on that. Michael Syed in his book Rebel Ideas shares research which has demonstrated that groups generally make better decisions when all members of the group are united in their purpose, but are able to offer broad perspectives to the discussions. As Syed puts it: “Diversity contributes to collective intelligence, then, but only when it is relevant. The key is to find people with perspectives that are both germane and synergistic.” (2)
Secondly, the other dominant challenge in this passage is that the people were not deeply placing their trust in God. Forging an alliance with Egypt was trying to pull in another option other than God. Scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, “Judah was inclined to seek succour and support in an alliance with Egypt, a policy that is regarded in this prophetic tradition as a rejection of Judah’s proper reliance only on Yahweh.” (3) Placing their full trust in their God was what was needed. Sometimes our decision-making in groups needs to be courageous because we have spent time listening to God in prayer corporately and we’ll follow where He is leading. Isaiah’s prophetic voice told Judah that a true reliance upon God would permit a different perspective for their foreign policy decision. Groupthink turns a group inward to perpetuate through compromise a single viewpoint. Corporate prayer turns the whole group outwards to seek the mind of God. This makes corporate prayer so important. If only a few members of the group are praying, the others may still be turned inward to stay in groupthink. Only if all members choose to pray together can the whole group look in a different direction.
So, the need for trust means that the danger of groupthink can be lessened by a commitment to corporate prayer within the group as decisions are taken. God may show a solution which is a surprise to everyone, but the whole group will have peace about making that decision because it has come through prayer. This is why for me corporate prayer is always the clearest spiritual barometer to church health. Where corporate prayer is lacking, a congregation and its leaders can veer towards self-reliance and this in itself is a form of groupthink.
So, in summary, here’s two sets of key questions that Christian groups seeking to make a decision can ask themselves:
1. Have we honestly listened to and considered all the main perspectives on the issue (financial, priorities, relationships, the values at stake, timings, etc)? Are we willing to hear perspectives which might challenge our current stance and reveal a different storyline? Are we able to say we really understand what is going on so that our decision is well-informed?
2. Have we given adequate time to pray together about the decision? Does the group have a shared sense of peace that we understand the mind of God concerning the matter in hand?
Even God’s people are not immune from the danger of groupthink. But if we follow these two principles from Isaiah 30, it’s a trap we’re less likely to fall into.
1. Kellerman B, Followership, 2008, Harvard Business Press, Boston, p69-70
2. Syed, M, Rebel Ideas, 2019, John Murray Publishers, London, p66
3. Brueggemann W, Isaiah 1-39 Westminster Bible Companion, 1998, John Knox Press, Louiseville, p240