The dangers of groupthink in a crisis – and how to avoid it

About the author

Chris is a lecturer, media trainer, crisis communication consultant and coach. Her in-house roles have included the global position of Director of PR for Barclays. Chris leads the CIPR PR Diploma and Crisis Comms Diplomas. BA Hons, CAM, MCIPR

'Hindsight is a wonderful thing'. Image by ❤ Monika 💚 💚 Schröder ❤ from Pixabay
'Hindsight is a wonderful thing'. Image by ❤ Monika 💚 💚 Schröder ❤ from Pixabay

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It is all too common when it comes to crisis communication case studies. Mostly these are of organisations that at some point during a crisis made a decision that turns out to have been catastrophically bad. A decision that was so out of step with the expectations of the organisation’s stakeholders that we ask ourselves: what on earth possessed them to think that was the right course of action?

Just a couple of recent examples: P&O Ferries firing their staff by recorded video, and the energy company, Ovo, telling its customers to “do star jumps” to keep warm this winter in the face of record fuel bills and a cost-of-living crisis.

It got me thinking about how management teams make decisions when they are under pressure. And then I had an interesting conversation with a contact whose organisation made a decision that sparked off a whole new avenue to a crisis they were already in.

Before I could ask about the background, the contact told me that having thought about what had happened they were sure the cause was one of “groupthink”. Essentially, the management team had latched on to an idea and never thought to challenge it or look at it from the point of view of all the organisation’s stakeholders. There was no diversity of thought and in fact the management team itself was not particularly diverse either.

A lack of diversity of background and thinking is a recognised problem when it comes to organisational leadership.  But it is even worse in a crisis.

Leadership teams need to make sense of their environment to respond to challenges and opportunities. But during a crisis the usual sensemaking process pretty much collapses. Weick talks of crises as cosmology episodes in which “people suddenly and deeply feel that the universe is no longer a rational, orderly system.” As Weick says it feels like: “I’ve never been here before, I have no idea where I am, and I have no idea who can help me.”  It is perhaps hardly surprising then that in such circumstances management teams cleave to just one idea and run with it without the proper level of challenge and oversight. Classic groupthink.

So, what exactly is groupthink? The concept of groupthink was developed by Irving Janis who defined it as: “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” Janis applied his concept to the 1961 failed invasion of Cuba by the US government at that time led by President J F Kennedy.

The plan to invade Cuba was actually drawn up by the previous American administration due to fears about the danger during the Cold War of having a Communist regime just 90 miles from the US coast. There was therefore plenty of opportunity for the new regime under President Kennedy to question the viability of the invasion but anyone who did soon fell into line with the dominant way of thinking about the plan.

History tells us that the invasion was a disaster. The Cuban people did not rise up and welcome their “liberators” as the US administration had expected. The Cuban air force and army arrived quickly and effectively on the scene and the US troops were soon surrounded. The new US President was humiliated, and Cuban/US relations never recovered.

Janis identified groups under extreme pressure as being particularly susceptible to groupthink. High-stakes decisions lead to high anxiety and if we factor into that lack of time common to a crisis and we can see how the concept helps us understand those otherwise hard to understand decisions.

So how can we help our organisations avoid groupthink and arrive at better decision-making during a crisis?

Diversity: A diverse management team – diverse in thought and background – is much more likely to be able to view the other perspectives to a crisis. The cohesion of a management team that is diverse is rooted more in shared goals rather than in a homogeneity of outlook from all being drawn from the same narrow section of society. For the communications team helping our organisation attract a more diverse workforce is an important goal.

Empowerment: As with diversity employee empowerment is part of an organisation’s culture or should be. Crisis management literature is littered with examples of organisations where wrong doing was not challenged because employees did not feel empowered to do so. How does empowerment figure in the culture of your organisation and how can the communications team help to foster and champion it?

Leadership: How do the senior leaders in your organisation lead? Do they listen? Do they feel they are there to serve as much as to lead and direct? One simple tip during the meetings of a Crisis Management Team (CMT) is for the CMT Leader to speak last and hold back from voicing an opinion until all the other contributors have spoken.

External advice: Obviously difficult in a crisis given the pressure of time and the often-confidential nature of the discussions. But it is worth thinking of as part of your crisis preparedness having access to outside and truly independent experts who can bring an impartial mind to the problem and who also ensure the organisation does not lose sight of its broader network of stakeholders.

Feedback: One of the roles of the crisis communicator is to monitor how the organisation’s crisis narrative is being received by stakeholders. Is it answering their concerns? Is it seen as credible and authentic? Collating feedback from stakeholders direct and mediated through various channels should be played back into the decision-making process whenever the Crisis Management Team meets to ensure the crisis response stays in tune with stakeholder expectations.

Finally, decisions taken during a crisis require some sort of frame of reference. Some of the most successfully managed crises see organisations put their shared corporate values at the heart of their decision-making response. Not a bad place to start at all.