On Having the Courage to Think For Yourself

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Thinking for yourself is the thing on which everything else depends.  Until we are free to think for ourselves our dreams are not free to unfold. Nancy Kline

Groupthink, a term coined by Yale psychologist Irving Janis, occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment”.  Such groups value harmony and coherence – “getting along” – over accurate analysis, critical evaluation, seeking outside views and considering aternatives. Groupthink causes individual members of the group to unquestioningly follow the word of the leader and it strongly discourages any disagreement with the consensus.

A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making.

The extent of the problems we see in business today and the common threads to all the issues suggests that “groupthink” is a major contributor to the malaise both within and across organisations.

Over the last decade, we’ve seen groupthink in action across organisations, as decision-making has fallen foul of the “unseen force” which legendary investor, Warren Buffet refers to as the “institutional imperative”,  described in his 1989 Letter to Shareholders:

 (1) As if governed by Newton’s First Law of Motion, an institution will resist any change in its current direction; (2) Just as work expands to fill available time, corporate projects or acquisitions will materialize to soak up available funds; (3) Any business craving of the leader, however foolish, will be quickly supported by detailed rate-of-return and strategic studies prepared by his troops; and (4) The behavior of peer companies, whether they are expanding, acquiring, setting executive compensation or whatever, will be mindlessly imitated.

Institutional dynamics, not venality or stupidity, set businesses on these courses, which are too often misguided. After making some expensive mistakes because I ignored the power of the imperative, I have tried to organize and manage Berkshire in ways that minimize its influence. Furthermore, Charlie and I have attempted to concentrate our investments in companies that appear alert to the problem.”

In her book The Watchman’s Rattle, American sociobiologist Rebecca Costa explores the impact groupthink has had on civilisation – from the ancient Mayan, to the complex challenges we now face, but seem unable to solve, such as worldwide recession, global warming, fast-spreading viruses, terrorism, poverty and the failure of business to fulfil the societal role stakeholders expect.  Costa explains how groupthink was responsible for human atrocities, as well as queues round the block on Black Friday and the stampede to buy rice in 2008 when news of a potential shortage leaked out.

Costa states that groupthink is seductive because conforming to society and its pressures is much easier than making conscious decisions about every issue. The more complex life becomes, the more difficult it is to acquire the knowledge we need to make a correct decision. Not only are the decisions we face more complex, we also have to make many more of them and make them faster. The alternative is to become paralysed by too much information, too many choices, and too much difficulty.

When conditions become chaotic and incomprehensible, we naturally align with the majority. We let the group decide because we believe there is special wisdom in the group’s decision.

Experts who study human behavior speculate the drive towards uniform behavior may be a natural instinct inherited from our ancient ancestors. They suggest that survival opportunities increased when we acted as a unified group rather than as individuals. Working together enabled us to capture larger prey and to efficiently defend against more powerful predators. So, similar to the jackals and wolves, our ancestors relied on the strength of the pack for their well being. If this is true, it implies that we may be biologically predisposed to conform to the wishes and behavior of the group.

Regardless of whether our desire to conform to society is motivated by comfort, is biologically inherited, or is simply a natural inclination to take the path of least resistance, it is also dangerous.  We can change the course of inevitability if only we would shatter the status quo of “business as usual” and venture out from the world of known assumptions and erroneous conclusions.

Business as usual isn’t working – never have we needed courageous leaders to think for themselves more, so their dreams are free to unfold. Thinking for yourself, as yourself, is a radical act.

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