Conor Hannaway examines the risks of groupthinking when pressures for conformance and cohesion impact on the ability of the group to effectively communicate, problem-solve and make decisions.
They say that success has many fathers and that failure is an orphan. When the Celtic Tiger was ruling the roost, many individuals and groups were quick to claim credit for their contribution to the national success. Now that we are facing almost calamitous national economic woes, the finger pointing has begun. It is easier with near 20-20 hindsight to see the errors of our ways. Some good will come from such introspection only if we learn lessons of the past and use them to build a sustainable, prosperous and equitable society.
It is difficult at times to look back at the quality of economic discussion some five years ago. The reality is that there were two Celtic Tigers, one based on getting the fundamentals right for solid economic growth based on rising GDP per capita. The second one was fuelled by an economic bubble. In 2006, it was captured in a discussion group where a participant said: “People in this country actually believe that buying and selling houses is in itself a form of entrepreneurial endeavour. A legitimate, bona fide, vibrant, positive form of economic activity. As though buying and selling property actually produces wealth or creates something.” Views such as the above were voices in the wilderness.
Many commentators suspected the worst – a hard landing – but debate was stifled and only favourable comment was tolerated. Contrary voices were silenced and nay sayers were characterised as being disloyal. Legitimate discussion was silenced as a false national consensus of superiority emerged. In 2005, the Financial Times ran an editorial asking Irish leaders to stop lecturing other countries on how to run their affairs. Ireland was caught in a national form of ‘groupthink’. The ‘Bay of Pigs’ used to be the classic example of the negative impact of groupthink. Ireland could easily become the new classic.
Groupthink occurs when pressures for conformance and cohesion impact on the ability of the group to effectively communicate, problem-solve and make decisions. Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternative viewpoints and value conformance over rational debate. Some of the key characteristics of groupthink include a failure to look for and to integrate diverse viewpoints and conflicting information. Other characteristics include a sense of superiority and the exclusion of dissenters. Critically, the group loses its ability to critically evaluate alternative perspectives.
‘As though buying and selling property actually produces wealth or creates something’
Groupthink can occur at a national, institutional, organisational or work group level. Over the coming months, in the face of significant cutbacks and the dislocation of the status quo, we can expect the development of partisan viewpoints as individuals and organisations coalesce to protect their own interests. Regretfully, the conditions are now perfect for a new wave of groupthink to emerge as different stakeholders take self-serving positions to protect themselves and to access limited resources. Such an approach will ultimately do a disservice to each of the groups. If ever there was a time to think outside the box, the time is now.
Overcoming groupthink requires broadmindedness and a willingness to embrace alternative viewpoints. Leaders need to engage openly with other leaders without personalising or stereo-typing positions. Multigroup debates and non-adversarial problem-solving are the way forward. In recent times, many people have referred to the Einstein dictum: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Overcoming groupthink could be the first step in that process. It may be the reason why some people welcome the views of Professor Patrick Honohan, Matthew Elderfield and maybe even the IMF?