You may have heard the term ‘groupthink’. It’s becoming more commonplace as a phenomenon that has been the cause of problematic responses to crises. As communicators, it’s really important to guard against groupthink and be confident enough to challenge it when it comes up.
What is the definition of groupthink?
The dictionary definition is ‘the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity or individual responsibility.’
Essentially, it is something that is underpinned by the fear of an individual speaking out against something that may be a bad idea - a fear of looking stupid or being seen to go against the group. This comes down to our basic needs as humans to want to survive in a group setting and is very hard to stand up against.
Where did it come from?
Irving Janis was a research psychologist at Yale University and coined his theory of "groupthink" which described the systematic errors made by groups when making collective decisions.
If you want to really get into it, the book ‘The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Groupthink, and How the People Around Us Shape Everything We Do’ by Michael Bond is a great place to start.
Why does it matter to PIOs?
When groupthink occurs it usually results in poor outcomes for your organization and ultimately for the public. As managing reputation and crisis is part of your role, you are responsible for speaking truth to power or at least suggesting that ideas are fully considered from all angles to ensure a disaster doesn’t happen.
That said, it shouldn’t be solely down to the comms pro to make sure disasters are averted all the time. Causes of groupthink include a lack of diversity in leadership, a lack of empowerment for everyone to be able to speak without fear and a lack of outside perspective.
So how can we help our organisations avoid groupthink and arrive at better decision-making during a crisis?
How do your senior team members lead? Do they listen? Do they feel they are there to serve as much as to lead and direct? As the communications lead, you should be able to speak truth to power. You have the ear of those leading and need to be able to advise on how their style of leadership lands with those who work with and for them.
A diverse management or command team – diverse in thought, experience, education and background – is much more likely to be able to view the other perspectives of a crisis.
Part of the goal of the communicator is to ensure that organizations attract more diverse talent through their narratives and HR campaigns, for example.
As with diversity, employee empowerment is part of an organization’s culture or should be. At the root of a crisis when it comes to the reputation of an organization is often one, or many, that didn’t feel they were able to speak up. People need to be able to feel that that can speak up, so as communicators, how can you ensure that this is a key internal message for everyone?
Independent advisory groups are fantastic for giving advice on how your leadership team is steering the ship. Not only does it take the pressure off you and your role within the leadership team, but there are opinions and thoughts that are generally not influenced by politics or ego. If you don’t have the luxury of such groups, it may be worth considering a third party consultant to give a view.
Ultimately, the public and a wide range of stakeholders will be able to tell you how they think you and the team are doing - whether you ask for it or not - it’s up to you to take the information and ensure it is assessed with a rational mind. You can take the useful and meaningful information and weave it into your comms strategy. There are many tools for getting feedback from the community and your stakeholders - some start with a simple ‘how are we doing?’ form on the website or a short social media post asking for feedback. It’s important though, to ensure you don’t take out the bad and only report back on the good - otherwise, this contributes to the groupthink problem all over again.
Sometimes it really is hard to speak truth to power, but, like all strategies, there are many different approaches and not all of them may work. Keep in mind that sometimes it just takes one person to ask the question or push back to create a positive shift. Always keep organizational values - and your own - at the forefront of your mind at all times.