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How to avoid the pitfalls of groupthink

Obama's ideas applied locally
 Posted: 1:05 PM January 28, 2009

As President Obama finishes assembling his Cabinet, following Abraham Lincoln's strategy of the team of rivals, Southern Oregon University psychology professor Dan DeNeui said local leaders can use a similar approach to avoid groupthink and make the best decisions possible.

The term groupthink originated in the 1970s, when it was used by researcher Irving Janis to describe decisions — such as the Bay of Pigs invasion — made in which agreement among group members was more important than considering all viable options.

While some aspects of groupthink are specific to politics, it can also affect business decisions, such as when to launch a new product or how to diversify an investment portfolio, said DeNeui, who also consults with local businesses and nonprofits to help them make more effective decisions.

"Those types of decisions can run some of the same risks," he said.

Almost any organization can fall prey to groupthink if members must make quick decisions under pressure, if dissenting opinions are deliberately criticized, or if individuals censor their own ideas because they feel they are the only one who disagrees.

The first step of avoiding groupthink is to assemble a group of people who are comfortable disagreeing, with a leader who is comfortable with critical evaluation, DeNeui said.

Critics are still debating whether Obama has assembled his team of rivals — including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration — for the purpose of avoiding groupthink, but to capitalize on the diversity of his Cabinet, he must encourage an environment of healthy disagreement, DeNeui said. The same can be said of local organizations, she added.

"You can't just assemble people who are going to disagree with you in a healthy way," DeNeui said. "You have to set that up and you have to reinforce it."

Simple strategies

Once group members know criticism is encouraged, there are several strategies businesses can use to limit bad decision making.

One member should be assigned to play devil's advocate and deliberately disagree, "even if it's sort of wacky," DeNeui said.

In bigger groups, members should also split up into smaller units because it is easier to disagree or come up with unconventional ideas.

"It's much less intimidating and you also get more ideas on the table that way," DeNeui said.

Between meetings, group members should consult with outsiders to make sure their ideas seem plausible. For example, members of SOU's faculty senate, of which DeNeui is a part, are encouraged to talk with their individual departments and colleagues, he said. Groups who spend too much time together without outside input run the risk of overlooking obvious risks, he said.

Bringing in a consultant or any kind of outside opinion also helps groups to avoid isolation, he said.

Once a consensus has been reached, groups should hold one last meeting with the sole purpose of expressing concerns or doubts, he said.

On the local level

Those strategies can be further tweaked to fit groups based in the Rogue Valley.

"There are very smart people all over this valley and for whatever reasons, I think there's more innovation in the leadership strategies or the management strategies than you'd find in a metropolitan area of similar size," DeNeui said. "The people around here are a little more in tune with these types of things and more likely to be wary of these symptoms of groupthink."

With the smaller size of many Rogue Valley companies — some with just four or five people on the executive team — more vigilance is required to ensure there is enough outside input, he said. Every third meeting could have a visitor or a person assigned to the devil's advocate role, for example.

"Nobody sets out to make a bad decision," he said. "It just happens."

Nonprofits — especially those with rotating volunteer boards — can benefit from the fresh perspectives of new members, but should also be wary of groupthink.

"It is hard because you're asking people to volunteer their time," he said. "Certainly having an inconsistent group of people meeting can be debilitating to the group in its own way."

It is possible to take anti-groupthink principles too far, however, and even critics of Obama warn that his Cabinet is too diverse and could get bogged down in disagreements.

"Yes, it's good to bring that diversity because it will help you avoid the pitfalls of groupthink, but you can go overboard," DeNeui said. "There has to be a balance to avoid the gridlock of dissent."

For local leaders, watching Obama for insight may not be the best strategy.

"You could certainly look to that from Obama, but it would be much more global and the more intangible things," DeNeui said. "I think you'd be better off attending a workshop or hiring a consultant to come in."

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or

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