Penn State: An example of ‘groupthink’

18 Jul

The latest scandal involving lapses in ethical behavior is the Penn State child abuse scandal. There have been other lapses in ethical behavior and unfortunately there will be future lapses. Many are shaking their heads and asking, why? Manuel Velasquez, Dennis Moberg, Michael J. Meyer, Thomas Shanks, Margaret R. McLean, David DeCosse, Claire André, and Kirk O. Hanson.of Santa Clara University have an interesting framework for making ethical decisions. In, A Framework for Thinking Ethically, they write:

Recognize an Ethical Issue

  1. Could this decision or situation be damaging to someone or to some group? Does this decision involve a choice between a good and bad alternative, or perhaps between two “goods” or between two “bads”?
  2. Is this issue about more than what is legal or what is most efficient? If so, how?

Get the Facts

  1. What are the relevant facts of the case? What facts are not known? Can I learn more about the situation? Do I know enough to make a decision?
  2. What individuals and groups have an important stake in the outcome? Are some concerns more important? Why?
  3. What are the options for acting? Have all the relevant persons and groups been consulted? Have I identified creative options?

Evaluate Alternative Actions

  1. Evaluate the options by asking the following questions:
  • Which option will produce the most good and do the least harm? (The Utilitarian Approach)
  • Which option best respects the rights of all who have a stake? (The Rights Approach)
  • Which option treats people equally or proportionately? (The Justice Approach)
  • Which option best serves the community
    as a whole, not just some members?
    (The Common Good Approach)
  • Which option leads me to act as the sort of person I want to be? (The Virtue Approach)

Make a Decision and Test It

  1. Considering all these approaches, which option best addresses the situation?
  2. If I told someone I respect-or told a television audience-which option I have chosen, what would they say?

Act and Reflect on the Outcome

  1. How can my decision be implemented with the greatest care and attention to the concerns of all stakeholders?
  2. How did my decision turn out and what have I learned from this specific situation?

Clearly, those in positions of authority failed at Penn State. The reason for the failure my lie in “group think.”

Lawrence J. Cohen and Anthony T. DeBenedet, M.D. have written a fascinating Time article, Penn State Cover-Up: Groupthink in Action:

While Big Football certainly played a role, what happened at Penn State is best explained by a psychological phenomenon known as groupthink, whereby sound decisionmaking is impaired by the bigger concern of group unity and preservation. Insider groups — private clubs and fraternities, religious groups and sometimes corporations — are particularly prone to groupthink, and it’s hard to imagine a more inside group than university president Graham Spanier, senior vice president Gary Schultz, athletic director Tim Curley and revered football coach Joe Paterno. The characteristics of groupthink, first described by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972, are that the group sets itself above the law, avoids transparency and oversight, and protects itself at all costs. Instead of trying to find the best solution, it encourages the conformity of opinion, often around the wrong decision.

Groupthink also helps explain why the leadership protected Sandusky — one of their own — instead of vulnerable children. As Janis said his book Victims of Groupthink, the phenomenon “is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against out-groups.” The outsider status of Sandusky’s child victims was most likely exacerbated by the fact that many were poor. The e-mails detailed in the Freeh report show that this particular insider group managed to twist logic to the point where they thought that it was more “humane” to cover up the repeated allegations of Sandusky’s abuse than to report them to the police. The “only downside” they saw to this decision was that they would be vulnerable if the truth came out. The humanity — and vulnerability — of the abused children and potential future victims didn’t come into the discussion.

Janis first described groupthink as the dynamic behind foreign policy fiascos like the Bay of Pigs, and the concept is still applied to political decisions. Some of Janis’ recommendations to prevent groupthink have been widely followed, such as appointing a devil’s advocate, introducing outside voices and allowing brainstorming to occur without judgment or criticism. Over the years, his original concept was also criticized, especially what he described as the conditions necessary for groupthink to emerge: internal cohesion, crisis, pressure, group insulation and members with similar ideologies and backgrounds. More recent research has actually found that groupthink can occur when group dynamics aren’t as optimal, which means that it’s more ubiquitous than Janis initially thought, and in this sense, perhaps more dangerous.

The University of Oregon has a great synopsis of “groupthink.”

In Groupthink, the synopsis describes the key elements of “groupthink.”

Groupthink occurs when a homogenous highly cohesive group is so concerned with maintaining unanimity that they fail to evaluate all their alternatives and options. Groupthink members see themselves as part of an in-group working against an outgroup opposed to their goals. You can tell if a group suffers from groupthink if it:

  1. overestimates its invulnerability or high moral stance,
  2. collectively rationalizes the decisions it makes,
  3. demonizes or stereotypes outgroups and their leaders,
  4. has a culture of uniformity where individuals censor themselves and others so that the facade of group unanimty is maintained, and
  5. contains members who take it upon themselves to protect the group leader by keeping information, theirs or other group members’, from the leader.

Groups engaged in groupthink tend to make faulty decisions when compared to the decisions that could have been reached using a fair, open, and rational decision-making process. Groupthinking groups tend to:

  1. fail to adequately determine their objectives and alternatives,
  2. fail to adequately assess the risks associated with the group’s decision,
  3. fail to cycle through discarded alternatives to reexamine their worth after a majority of the group discarded the alternative,
  4. not seek expert advice,
  5. select and use only information that supports their position and conclusions, and
  6. does not make contigency plans in case their decision and resulting actions fail.

Group leaders can prevent groupthink by:

  1. encouraging members to raise objections and concerns;
  2. refraining from stating their preferences at the onset of the group’s activities;
  3. allowing the group to be independently evaluated by a separate group with a different leader;
  4. splitting the group into sub-groups, each with different chairpersons, to separately generate alternatives, then bringing the sub-groups together to hammer out differences;
  5. allowing group members to get feedback on the group’s decisions from their own constitutents;
  6. seeking input from experts outside the group;
  7. assigning one or more members to play the role of the devil’s advocate;
  8. requiring the group to develop multiple scenarios of events upon which they are acting, and contingencies for each scenario; and
  9. calling a meeting after a decision consensus is reached in which all group members are expected to critically review the decision before final approval is given. 

For a really good example of “groupthink” in action, see the Strategically Speaking Blog.

There is an excellent example of “groupthink” in How to identify groupthink: An introduction to the Abilene Paradox at the Strategically Speaking Blog.

When your organization makes decisions, do you find the same dysfunctional activities repeated over and over? If so, you want to be on the look out for the paradox and find a way to cut it off before it causes more damage. If you want to identify the paradox at work within your group, we’ve compiled the following list to look out for:

  • Members exhibit different opinions in the group as opposed to one on one
    If your people are telling you one thing and then offering their true opinions only in private, there’s likely an issue with communication. It’s common for bad news to have trouble flowing upstream in an organization, but if no one’s telling you the plan is a dud, you’ll never know.
  • Members are discouraged to dissent, often seen as lack of commitment
    When someone on your team offers constructive criticism, is it encouraged, or are they accused of failing to be a team player. If anyone offering a different opinion is asked “hey, where are your pom-poms?” you may have a problem on your hands.
  • Members seem frustrated or resentful towards management and other team members
    If your organization has a habit of letting bad ideas come to fruition, then it stands to reason that someone’s being blamed for each failure. There’s plenty of reasons for employees to be resentful of management- some is reasonable and some isn’t. In this case, you’re looking for resent for being blamed- often for tasks that when assigned were already doomed to failure.
  • Members avoid responsibility or even attempt to blame others
    The same systemic habit of failure mentioned above can often lead to a culture of blame. If no one feels the freedom to point out bad ideas, then no one wants to take responsibility for them either.
  • Members exhibit a lack of trust
    Eventually, all of these things erode trust. Employees distrust management that doesn’t listen to their concerns and that delegates not only tasks, but also blame for failed initiatives. Corporate politics then lead to backstabbing and blame-shifting among employees under such management, as everyone does what they can to avoid being targeted.
  • All decisions require unanimous agreement
    Leadership by committee can breed horrible decision-making. On the one hand, it may increase buy-in. On the other hand, every member is incentivized to agree as soon as possible, or risk being stuck in committee session longer than they want, as well as risk the image of dissenter.
  • Very little dissent from group opinion is observed
    Again, lack of dissent is not always a good thing- in fact, if you as a manager aren’t encountering any dissent for the decisions you make, that should be a red flag. You have a choice- you can go on believing that the reason that your employees fail to argue with you because all of your decisions arise from bulletproof logic and infallible judgment, or you can probe to find out if the Abilene Paradox is thriving under your leadership.

Increasingly, more emphasis is placed on teams.

Susan Cain has written the New York Times piece, The Rise of the New Groupthink:

SOLITUDE is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in. 

But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

In order to prevent more Penn States, two things must happen. First, those responsible for the lapse in behavior must be punished. Second, some dissent and even “whistleblowing” must be tolerated to air what may sometimes be “dirty laundry” sooner rather than later.


Ethics Resource Center                                                                               

Ethics and Virtue                                                                                                

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

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