Monday, May 2, 2016

One Reason for Defence Scams : GROUPTHINK

While we watched the TV News on the latest Defence Scam – a friend asked me: “How come everyone agreed? How is it possible that even one officer did not voice his dissent?” 

“Groupthink...” I said.

“Groupthink...? What the hell is Groupthink...?” he asked.

So – to answer his question – and – to tell you about a ubiquitous phenomenon which inhibits progressive thinking in the Defence Services – I will re-post my article on GROUPTHINK

GROUPTHINK – Bane of Military Officership
Musings on Defence Management

I have written plenty of my “Humor in Uniform Memoirs in my Blog – so – for a change  let me delve into my academic” writings  or  more precisely – my management writing archives  and post for you  once more  an abridged and updated version of an article on GROUPTHINK I had written more than 30 years ago  in the 1980s  for a business supplement of a newspaper  and also in some journals. 

I have lectured on this topic too.

After the advent of the internet  my article on GROUPTHINK has been carried by many websites  and once I started blogging around 15 years ago  I have posted this article on my blogs too. 

Though I wrote this more than 30 years ago in 1985  I feel this article is relevant even today. 

Do tell me if you feel GROUPTHINK exists even today  especially in government and military decision-making. 

I look forward to your views.

GROUPTHINK – Musings on Defence Management by Vikram Karve

Where all think alike  no one thinks very much 
~ Walter Lippmann


When I was in the Navy I saw plenty of GROUPTHINK. 

During my interactions with the army, I saw even more Groupthink.

There was a tendency to have “unanimous” decisions.

In many cases, contrarian views were not tolerated by the top brass and senior officers wanted to force their decisions by creating a situation of “my way or the highway”.

Also, years of regimentation and discouragement of original thinking creates a “groupthink” mindset in most military officers.

I feel that Groupthink is one of the main reasons which hampers optimal decision making, especially in the defence services which have a highly regimented way of thinking. 

Here is an abridged version of one of my management articles which tells you all about GROUPTHINK in a nutshell:


Tradition has it that conflict is bad.
Conflict is something to be avoided.

The culture of many organizations implies explicitly or implicitly that conflict should be suppressed and eliminated. 
It is common for managers to perceive intra-organizational conflict as being dysfunctional for the achievement of organizational goals.
Most of us still cling to the idea that good managers resolve conflict. 

Current thinking disputes this view.
In the absence of conflicting opinions, harmonious tranquil work groups are prone to becoming static, apathetic and unresponsive to pressures for change and innovation.
Work Groups and Teams, even Top Management,  also risk the danger of becoming so self-satisfied, that dissenting views, which may offer important alternative information, are totally shut out.
In short, they fall victims to a syndrome called “GROUPTHINK”

In a study of public policy decision fiascoes, I.L. Janis identified “GROUPTHINK” as a major cause of poor decision making. 
As he describes it:

‘GROUPTHINK’ occurs when decision makers who work closely together develop a high degree of solidarity that clouds their vision, leading them to suppress conflicting views and negative feelings about proposals, consciously or unconsciously.

A manifestation of the groupthink phenomenon is the staggering irrationality which can beset the thinking of the otherwise highly competent, intelligent, conscientious individuals when they begin acting as a group or team and this affects organisational effectiveness.


The net effect on the group is that it overestimates its power and morality, it creates pressures for uniformity and conformance, and its members become close-minded, living in ivory towers. 

Some manifestations are the illusions of invulnerability and the encouragement to take great risks and to ignore the ethical or moral aspects of their decisions and actions.

This author has witnessed close-mindedness on the part of several managers which then permeated their teams.
One project manager took this to the extreme and in effect defined his environment as consisting of two kinds of people, either friends or enemies
This syndrome is akin to the dialogue from the classic Movie Ben Hur which I call the:
“you are either for me or you are against me” syndrome
Like this Manager I observed, many persons, especially some of my bosses, exhibit this syndrome.

Friends were people who completely agreed with his favoured solutions and supported his project. 

All others were enemies.

Soon his entire project team was echoing similar sentiments having fallen victim to “GROUPTHINK”, resulting in unbending positions, heated arguments and subsequent lack of respect for anyone who disagreed with them. The ultimate consequences can easily be guessed.

The symptoms of groupthink include:

(i) An illusion of invulnerability that becomes shared by most members of the group.

(ii) Collective attempts to ignore or rationalize away items of inconvenient information which might otherwise lead the group to reconsider shaky but cherished assumptions.

(iii) An unquestioned belief in the group’s inherent morality, thus causing members to overlook the ethical consequences of their decisions.

(iv) Stereotyping the dissenters as either too evil for negotiation or too stupid and feeble to merit consideration.

(v) A shared illusion of unanimity in a majority viewpoint, augmented by the false assumption that silence means consent.

(vi) Self-appointed “mind-guards” to protect the group from adverse information that might shatter complacency about the effectiveness and morality of their decision.

Not very surprisingly it has been suggested that individuals most susceptible to groupthink will tend to be people fearful of disapproval and rejection and who want to “conform”.
Conversely, an outspoken individualist who freely airs his views and opinions, if trapped in a groupthink situation, runs the risk of being ejected by his colleagues if he fails to hold his tongue.



Firstly, because the CEO [or the “Boss”] dispenses all favours, his biggest problem is to avoid being treated like God. Secondly, the “Boss” must avoid thinking that he is God.

Indeed, in many organizations, it is not easy to contradict or argue too vigorously with the boss.

Even when managers feel that they know more than a superior, they may suppress doubts because of career considerations.

Fearrespect for authority, and even admiration for the boss, may make skeptics hesitate when confronted with a confident CEO or dominating superior.
This is less of a problem if the leader acts in the organization’s interests, possesses requisite soft skills, and has strong ethics and cognitive capabilities to make decisions.

However, if a leader does not force serious questioning, he or she will sometimes make mistakes and errors of judgement. 
Colleagues and subordinates will become “yes-men”, and groupthink will take over decision making.
And the dominant CEO may not discover his or her mistakes because fearful employees withhold information.

What can lower-level managers do about the boss who has lost touch with reality and seems to be driving the organization in the wrong direction?

You can adopt three different strategies:

1. “Exit” (Leave the organization)
2. “Voice” (attempt to force changes from within)
3. “Loyalty” (accept things the way they are)

Each individual can evaluate the risks and benefits of each strategy.

 if the organization is really on the wrong track  true loyalty requires you to make an attempt to communicate your reservations and concerns to the leader and you must voice your views (option 2)
Will the leader accept your views?
Or  will your career suffer if you are outspoken?
Is it best to “lump” whatever your superiors say and just do as you are told?
Or  does this blind obedience culture cause too much stress in you and is it best for you to quit your job and exit such an organisation afflicted by the disease of groupthink?

How can a confident, independent CEO avoid the pitfalls and temptations of absolute power?
The obvious (but difficult) answer is to make sure that power is never absolute, and surround oneself with other confident, independent people, and encourage dissension and debate on every decision.
In his autobiography ‘A Soldier’s Story’ – General ON Bradley has exemplified this aspect in the decision-making style of General George C Marshall, Chief of Staff of the US Army in World War II, a dominant leader who was instrumental in the Allied Victory owing to his resolute management of the entire war effort.
After one week in office  General Marshall called all his staff officers to his office and admonished them: 
“Gentlemen, I am disappointed in you. You haven’t yet disagreed with a single decision I have made. When you carry a paper in here, I want you to give me every reason you can think of as to why I should not approve it. If, in spite of your objections, my decision is still to go ahead, then I’ll know I am right.”

General Marshall did not believe in groupthink but wanted to hear different and contrarian views before taking a decision. 

Like General Marshall, who did not encourage cronyism and groupthink  rather than search for views that might reinforce his own  a CEO should seek contrary opinions to avoid groupthink. 
Some suggest using a devil’s advocate methodology for all major decisions by assigning some individuals in all groups and teams to argue against the dominant view.

This is a “groupthink” situation in which individuals or groups low in the hierarchy are powerful enough to do what they want, even when contrary to organizational objectives. 
Such power may be based on specialized expertise or privileged access to information.
Parallel power can lead to groupthink in two ways.

Firstly, senior managers may accept ideas from lower-level managers that are not necessarily in the organizational interest, either because they have insufficient information to ask the right questions, or because opposition would not seem legitimate.

Secondly, top managers may make decisions without all the necessary information because subordinates do not provide it due to vested interests arising from misplaced loyalties to a limited function, department or team, rather than to the organization as a whole.

Such situations can be mitigated by ensuring that managers rotate between different units and positions.


When everyone in power instinctively shares the same opinion on an issue, the wise manager should be wary.
Natural unanimity groupthink results in an inward-looking organization detached from its environment.

Escape from this predicament almost certainly requires a fresh perspective that can come only from outside, by hiring new managers or appointing outside consultants.

A CEO may lay overemphasis on staff – line cooperation in the belief that the easiest way to ensure implementation is to recommend only those actions that the line managers agree with.
But this is not necessarily useful to an organization and may lead to mutual admiration and, ultimately, “natural unanimity groupthink”.

The effectiveness of staff - line dichotomy depends on maintaining a certain tension between the staff and the line managers.When the tension disappears, the staff may not be doing its job.


The key element in any strategy for avoiding groupthink is to instill checks and balances into the system. 

Formally, this can be achieved through cross-functional teams, staff advisers, external consultants, or procedures like “devil’s advocacy”.

 managers must learn to tolerate dissidence, criticism, contrary opinions, discussion, brainstorming and debate and encourage their colleagues to express doubts about proposals. 

Propositions from various parts of the organization need to be treated transparently, equitably and consistently  in order to avoid groupthink.

In a nutshell  for effective decision making  and to prevent the dangers of GROUPTHINK  it is best to steer clear of yes-men, ego-massage, sycophancy and cronyism.

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All stories in this blog are a work of fiction. Events, Places, Settings and Incidents narrated in the stories are a figment of my imagination. The characters do not exist and are purely imaginary. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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