My last blog article entitled Diversity in the Association Boardroom focused on ways to assist an association in building an appropriately diverse board. This article will continue along a similar theme and is focused on the psychological phenomenon known as Groupthink.

Groupthink, a term defined by social psychologist Irving Janis, occurs when a group makes poor decisions because group pressures lead to a decline of mental efficiency, reality, and moral judgment. Boards affected by Groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take unreasonable actions that effect an association’s overall well-being. A board is especially vulnerable to Groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is shielded from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making.

Symptoms of Groupthink

According to Janis there are eight symptoms of groupthink:

1. Illusion of invulnerability – Creation of excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
2. Collective rationalization – Members ignore warning signs and do not reconsider their assumptions.
3. Inherent morality – Members believe their cause is so great therefore ignoring the ethical consequences of their decisions.
4. Stereotyped views of opposition – Negative views of opposition causes the group to underestimate opponents.
5. Peer pressure – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
6. Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not encouraged or expressed.
7. Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
8. Mindguards – Members protect the group from information that is problematic or contradictory.

When the above symptoms exist in a board that is trying to make a decision, there is a reasonable chance that groupthink will happen.  Groupthink most frequently occurs within a board when they are extremely connected and are under a lot of pressure to make a good decision.  When pressures for agreement increases, members become less motivated to think about the alternative options that available to them. These pressures tend to lead to bad decision making since experiencing Groupthink will cause members to fail to consider all alternatives.

Preventing Groupthink

Groupthink may be prevented with in an association’s board of directors by adopting some of the following actions:

  • The chair should assign the role of critical evaluator to each board member
  • The chair should avoid stating preferences and expectations from the outset
  • Each member of the board should routinely discuss deliberations with a trusted associate and report back to the group on their reactions
  • An expert should be invited to each meeting on a staggered basis.  These outside experts should be encouraged to challenge views of the members
  • At least one articulate and knowledgeable board member should be given the role of devil’s advocate
  • The chair should make sure that a sizeable block of time is set aside at each meeting to examine the warning signals from opponents and construct alternative scenarios

Decisions shaped by Groupthink have a low probability of meeting established goals or achieving a successful outcome. By taking the time to understand Groupthink and implementing the preventive steps above an association’s board will be equipped with the proper tools to make informed and effective decisions.