Beware Groups


The Internet changes how we think, feel and behave, and the consequences are profound, ubiquitous and irreversible. Although access to 250 million websites and the collective thinking of the world’s population is now the new normal, our mental transformation is as subtle as it is astonishing.

A friend, on vacation in a remote area with no Internet, had to change hotels because his teenage daughter became so distraught. My granddaughter was playing simple games on her mother’s iPhone before she could talk. A passenger was heard cursing the airplane’s Internet system as being too &#($! slow, as if, at 35,000 feet above Colorado, loading any of those 250 million websites in seven seconds instead of two seconds was a violation of his God-given rights.

Using search engines alters the structure of our memories: how we remember is literally different. The more we use search engines, the less we remember the facts themselves, but the more we remember how to find them. This is a useful adaptation (as long as we have Internet access), but it does confirm fundamental mental change. My concern is how the Internet is affecting groups. CEOs should be concerned as well, because corporate decision-making is affected. A common but massive mistake is to assume that by making diverse ideas and opinions easily available, the Internet will make people more open to new ideas and more willing to consider opposing opinions. Not so.

Because we self-select sites we visit, the Internet pushes people to reinforce their own preconceived ideas and opinions, such that groups solidify more internally due to the attractive forces of common belief but fragment more externally due to the repulsive forces of opposing belief. This mental malignancy metastasizes in two ways: less diversity within groups and more alienation between groups.

The implications for CEOs are direct: More “groupthink” inside groups and more conflict between groups. How to deal with Internet-enhanced groupthink is the subject of this article.

The implications for CEOs are direct: More “groupthink” inside groups and more conflict between groups.

The Perils of Groupthink

Groupthink is a process of conformed, suboptimal rationalization that comes about subliminally when group members feel constrained to hold similar beliefs. It may be generated, inadvertently, by dominant leaders who discourage dissent or manage by praise, or it can develop without leadership when powered by group loyalty and pride. Once present, groupthink is perniciously robust in that it feeds on its own results: the more group members think alike, the better and happier they feel, which reinforces their conformed behaviors. Thus, groupthink enhances bad decisions via a positive feedback circuit that does not self-correct.

Although groups form spontaneously by common interests or are brought together for specific purposes, groups can emerge for the slightest of reasons. As such, groupthink is pervasive in its potency for producing poor decision-making.

The term “groupthink” was coined in 1952 by William Whyte, an organizational analyst, and was researched by Irving Janis, a social psychologist. Groupthink is said to have spawned the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba during the Kennedy administration and the disbelief that the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor in 1941 in the face of substantial evidence.

Groupthink emerges when groups are more cohesive, where members know one another well, have long-standing working relationships and personal friendships and where there is good esprit de corps. All these factors are often good, but they can also engender complacent discussions and the lack of critical, disruptive arguments, and thus lead to flawed outcomes. No group is immune from groupthink.


Recognizing Groupthink

Janis called out eight warning signs, organized under three types, that can help identify groupthink.

Type I: Group overestimations of itself:

  1. Illusions of invulnerability. Members are inordinately optimistic, ignore obvious dangers and take unwarranted risks.
  2. Illusions of superior morality. Members exaggerate the positive ethical consequences of their actions and downplay the negative ones.

Type II: Closed-mindedness:

  1. Rationalization. Members explain away and discredit warning signs that contradict the group’s conclusions.
  2. Stereotyping. Members reject those opposed to the group by characterizing them as ignorant, misguided, prejudiced, spiteful or malicious.

Type III: Pressures toward uniformity:

  1. Self-censorship. Members reject dissenting views that run counter to the group consensus.
  2. Illusions of unanimity. Members falsely assume complete agreement and count silence as consent.
  3. Pressure to conform. Members coerce other members to support the group’s consensus with veiled threats of implied disloyalty.
  4. Mind guards. Members appoint themselves to police the group and purge it from adverse information and dissenting views.

Antidotes to Groupthink Poison

The key for resisting groupthink, Janis argued, is attentive decision-making. What this means in practice is trying to make the group aware of problems with the consensus and offer alternatives. To do this, someone in the group has to be critical. Encouraging critical thinking is not easy, but it is possible.

Because groupthinkis so insidious,comfortableand prevalent, it is a constantchallenge forCEOs. This isespecially so inthe age of theInternet.

In the Real World

Consider this example from China, which needs leaders who can overcome groupthink. Li Yuanchao, head of the ruling party’s (CPC’s) Organization Department with the mission to recruit, train and promote first-rate o”cials, singles out for criticism those who are “benign and uncontentious.” So in addition to requiring positive traits for leaders, Li prioritizes the fight against groupthink.

Because groupthink is so insidious, comfortable and prevalent, it is a constant challenge for CEOs. This is especially so in the age of the Internet. Only the proactive administration of psycho-social antidotes can counteract the poison of groupthink.

Dr. Robert Lawrence Kuhn is an international corporate strategist, investment banker and expert on China. Since 1989, he has worked with China’s senior leaders and advised the Chinese government on matters of economic policy, industrial policy, mergers and acquisitions, science and technology, media and culture, Sino-U.S. relations, and a variety of international business matters. Dr. Kuhn advises leading multinational companies, CEOs and C-Suite executives, regarding formulating and implementing China strategies in a variety of sectors, including science and technology, energy and resources, industrial, media and entertainment, healthcare / medical / pharmaceuticals, consumer products, and financial services. He works with major Chinese companies on structuring their capital markets financing and M&A activities.