My kitchen sink is leaking because over time London’s tap water, which is rich in minerals, has coated its inner workings with calcium deposits. Limescale is an unavoidable cost of living in a city with hard water.
In this regard, Limestone is reminiscent of “groupthink,” the phenomenon first developed and popularized by psychologist Irving Janis in the mid-twentieth century. “Groupthink” was the term Janis used to refer to when organizations make bad decisions because members value group harmony over common sense.
If you’ve been involved in or observed any form of collective decision-making up close, you’ll almost certainly have observed something that closely resembles groupthink. But the concept proved difficult to observe in the laboratory and its impact is difficult to quantify.
Part of the problem is that it’s essentially impossible to tell where the groupthink ends and the small internal calculation begins. If, before a meeting, I agree to endorse an idea that I consider bad in exchange for the support of a colleague for my own projects, it is difficult to tell the difference between me and someone who endorses the same scheme at name of a quiet life.
But the bigger problem – and this is why groupthink is so much like limestone – is that the occasional organizational error caused by groupthink might just be better than the paralysis caused by its absence. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign team for the Democratic presidential nomination was drawn from a much smaller pool than Hillary Clinton’s, in part because the front-runner always attracts more candidates. And his blunders reflected that, from his misguided comments on the skyrocketing price of arugula to his remark that the disenfranchised “cling to arms or religion”. But the Obama campaign has been more successful in recovering from those mistakes than the Clintons have been in overcoming their own squabbles over strategy.
My experience is that political parties, NGOs, and other “mission-aligned” organizations are more prone to groupthink than other forms of business. None of these organizations face the pressure that comes with having to make money by buying and selling goods or services. I’m not saying that for-profit companies never drift into dangerous groupthink, but because they tend to face more immediate consequences for their mistakes, they are often forced to course-correct more quickly.
There is a long history of political parties making demonstrably bad decisions, and often these mistakes occur precisely because group members decide they value their continued presence in the party more than avoiding disaster. Very few Labor members thought it was a good idea to stand in the general election with Jeremy Corbyn as leader and on an anti-Brexit ticket in 2019, but because it was in no one’s interest to point out that this guaranteed a heavy defeat, the party did it anyway.
Nonetheless, when I think of the winners and losers of every campaign or contest I’ve covered, the winners have been more prone to groupthink than the losers. Winning campaigns have unity of purpose and strong internal camaraderie. Those who lose are much more likely to be flighty and paralyzed by disagreement.
Sometimes, of course, the lens unit can cause problems later. The fact that David Cameron’s Conservatives had a pretty good idea of how to fight and win a multi-party general election, where winning required 35-45% of the vote, didn’t help them when they tried to turn the same tactics to win a binary referendum. But in general, an organization that is able to act with unity of purpose is a better bet than one that is crippled by indecision or plagued by internal divisions.
That’s not to say there aren’t benefits to facilitating dissent within organizations or increasing the diversity of people within them. It’s just that even these perks work best in organizations that still have effective processes for encouraging groups to make decisions: decisions that inevitably come with the risk of groupthink.
Of course, a perfect organization would be one that has all the advantages of internal dissent and is able to make decisions as quickly as one that is prone to groupthink. But perfect organization, like a lime-free faucet, only exists in very limited settings or for very short periods of time. From a strategic perspective, you would probably be much better off being in an organization prone to excessive groupthink than one that suffers from excessive bickering.