Futures Rambling #86

By Laure Aznavoorian

The political satirist Jon Stewart began a recent show saying “I think we’d all agree 2014 was not a great year for people.” He referenced the attacks on the staff of Charlie Hebdo, and then went on to say that he hoped 2015 would bring a respite, we can only hope.

The Daily Show’s goal was not to make sense of the events, because they said, there is no sense to be had. Most of us would agree, attempting to apply logic to the killing of people who draw cartoons, manage café’s in Sydney, or attend schools in Peshawar baffles most scholars, and they are significantly more educated than the rest of us.

Even if we eliminate terrorist’s motivation from the conversation, we’re still faced with a conundrum in the aftermath of shocking events and that is determining what it means to our rights and our lives. It used to be that in places like Australia, America and most of Europe we could say what we pleased, satirize and criticize to our hearts content, regardless of whether or not we knew what we were talking about.

Most people generally accepted that with these freedoms comes a responsibility to not gratuitously offend or compartmentalize, and it is this acknowledgement that creates the challenges we all face now. We know we must resist the urge to: throw out the baby with the bathwater, judge the entire group for the actions of one and beat our chests demanding responsibility. But it’s so damn hard.

It’s our natural tendency to turn hypocrite – we #jesuischarlie out of one side of our mouth and then demand tighter migration policy and the silencing of Islamic extremist out of the other. The reactions are understandable, particularly when you consider the role a powerful force like groupthink plays.

The term Groupthink was coined by the social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972, it occurs when a group makes faulty decisions due to group pressure. Group members are generally of a similar background, they insulate themselves from outside opinions and have no clear rules for decision making. The negative consequences are ignoring alternatives, taking irrational actions and dehumanizing other groups.

In his book Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes Janis documents eight symptoms of groupthink:

  1. Illusion of invulnerability – Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
  2. Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
  3. Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
  4. Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
  5. Direct pressure on dissenters – 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 expressed.
  7. Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
  8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.

This list reads like an al-Qaeda entry application. Of course we westerners would never make dumb decisions due to groupthink. What’s that, oh yeah – the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq before allies other than the ‘coalition of the willing’ could be convinced to participate. Never mind.

Collaboration is a veritable watchword for this era, we believe including others in decision making process generates better ideas and shelters us from mistakes, but that’s only if groupthink doesn’t stand in the way of honest analysis. A group of dumb people can be just as dangerous as one dumb individual; the worst part is groups can be made up of very smart individuals and they may still behave as a dumb group.

This was highlighted in 2010 study at M.I.T. that set out to define the characteristics of smart teams from those that weren’t. Each volunteer took an individual I.Q test, but the teams with higher average I.Q.s didn’t score any higher than those with members whose average was lower. And the teams with more extroverted and motivated people also fared no better when it came to the team’s success.

Therefore, you don’t need to have smart, extroverted or highly motivated people in your team for it to be good, so what do you need to be? The most important ingredients are to communicate a lot, allow members to participated equally and recruit people with good emotion-reading skills. That’s the ability to pick up complex emotional states from people’s eyes.

A surprising result the research delivered was the characteristics of smart teams were the same whether they worked face to face or on-line. Not surprising, the MIT researches learned teams with more women performed better than those with more men! This was attributed to women being better mind readers as opposed to men being inconsiderate dopes. It came down to what they call “Theory of Mind”, which is to consider and keep track of what others feel, know and believe.

Applying this new science of effective teamwork in organisations will help businesses immeasurably. In addition to enlisting people on your team who possess these characteristics, you can go one step further and actively avoid groupthink by applying the following tips, again from Irving Janus:

  • Assign each team member the role of critical evaluator.
  • Avoid stating preferences and expectations at the outset.
  • Routinely discuss the groups’ deliberations with a trusted associate.
  • Invite one or more experts to each meeting.
  • Assign an articulate and knowledgeable member to the role of devil’s advocate.
  • Survey warning signals from rivals and construct alternative scenarios of their intentions.

One of the most important aspects or characteristics of an organization, or community, is to find balance. Even though different groups may develop their own subculture, they still need to function as a team and work toward a common goal. Leaders set those goals and create culture and it is up to them to manage and maintain an environment that supports it, and they need to do that without silencing the views of individuals who cut against the grain.

Imagine if we were smart enough to do this in our communities. We wouldn’t need initiatives that curtail free speech like Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act that make it unlawful to: “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people because of their race or ethnicity”. Nor would we need to fire university professors for tweets or arrest dumb kids who post stupid things on Facebook.

Sources:

Breakey, Hugh. Charlie Hebdo Attack: When Should we Hold a Group Responsible for a Member’s Evil? The Conversation, January 8, 2015

Janis, Irving L.  (1982).  Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes.  Second Edition.  New York: Houghton Mifflin

King, David R. PhD and Demarie Samuel M. PhD. Understanding Organizational Culture Using the Culture of Music. Graziadio Business Review, June 2014

Phiddian, Robert. Cartoonists are Defiant in Their Response to Charlie Hebdo Attack. The Conversation, January 8, 2015

Switzer, Tom and Hemmer Nichole. The Right Way to Tackle Offensive Speech. The Age, January 20, 2015

Woolley, Anita, Malone, Thomas W and Chabris Christoper. Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others. The New York Times, January 16, 2015

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