09/12/2007

Does your agency suffer from Groupthink?

Dr. Lou Harris,Criminal Justice Department, Faulkner University


Voicing a dissenting or merely additional opinion in the face of a group can be daunting, but the health of the decision-making process depends on it.

In law enforcement, functioning as a unified team is critical. However, sometimes the desire to quickly get everyone in agreement on a strategy can undermine the decision-making process and leave us with an ineffective solution. A phenomenon called “groupthink" can serve to discourage throrough input from team members who are eager to move forward and hesitant to slow the process down. This article will explore how that happens and how you can avoid it.

During April of 1961 a disastrous attempt was made to invade Cuba. On the eve of that event Robert Kennedy stated that his group directing the operation could overcome whatever challenges they might face with common sense and hard work. History records that the Bay of Pigs invasion did not succeed and much blame was placed on a faulty decision-making process later named "groupthink" by Irving Janis (1973).

Janis* states that groupthink occurs when a cohesive group's desire for agreement interferes with the group's consideration of alternative solutions. Consider my personal experience.

While assigned to an Indian Reservation in the State of Washington as an FBI agent, I received information that a dangerous fugitive, a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, was en route to the reservation. Members of various law enforcement agencies met to formulate plans to locate and arrest the fugitive. 

At this meeting one senior officer forcefully presented a plan of action and quickly received an endorsement from the group. The plan was simple, stake out the three major access roads into the reservation and wait. 

The plan was immediately implemented, but three days later word arrived that the fugitive had visited the reservation, obtained money and guns, and returned to California. How? The group had failed to consider travel by air. The fugitive rented a small plane in northern California and had flown to the reservation undetected while we watched the roads. Later, the law enforcement group critiqued the operation and recognized the following errors:

Illusion of invulnerability.  How could we be outsmarted by one fugitive? After all, we had the best law enforcement officers in the area assigned to the operation and we were playing on our home court.

Feeling of unanimity.  No one dissented or made other suggestions during the planning session.  The senior officer was highly respected and everyone wanted to be a team player.

Pressure to conform.  Several officers later reported that they were silent during the planning session since it appeared that a decision had been made prior to the meeting.

Opposing ideas dismissed.  During the three day surveillance, line officers questioned the logic of the plan but were told by their supervisors to carry out their assignments without comment. One officer reported that he checked one of the numerous airstrips on the reservation while off duty and found signs of recent use. He gave this information to his supervisor but no further action was taken. 

Lessons Learned

Most law enforcement managers work hard to build a closeness or commonness of attitude, behavior, and performance with their officers and staff.  This management goal has been referred to as cohesiveness. Unfortunately, when cohesiveness becomes groupthink, the decision making process may be faulty.

Here are some suggestions for managers to look for as warning signs of groupthink.

  • Is your group overly optimistic and likely to take extreme risks?
  • Does your group oversimplify or ignore the possibility of failure?
  • Do group members keep their doubts and conflicting ideas to themselves?
  • Do you as the group leader protect the group from negative information that could conflict?
  • When a group member expresses dissenting views, is he likely to be viewed as disloyal, not a team player?

The challenge for managers is to create a cohesive team that is compatible and clearly committed to the group's goals, but does not become a team that fails to consider alternative solutions.


*Sources:  Janis, Irving.  Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign Policy Decisions and Fiascos.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973.

Article reprinted with permission from the Institute for Criminal Justice Education, Inc.

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