Leadership in COVID-19: The dangers of groupthink in crisis leadership
May 26, 2020
Sean Heneghan and Kamal R. Mahtani
The authors lead the University of Oxford Evidence-Based Healthcare Leadership Programme
In a previous blog, we discussed the importance of governments building trust with the public in response to managing the current pandemic. Over the last few days, we potentially have seen the opposite happen, with the story of the senior government advisor, Dominic Cummings, perceivably breaking lockdown rules to travel around the UK. Several public figures have condoned these actions calling for repentance to avoid losing public trust. A number of the government’s members have also criticised Cumming’s activities, in some cases calling for resignation. In contrast, those closest to Cumming’s work within the cabinet, including the prime minister, health secretary, chancellor, and foreign secretary have all publicly defended Cumming’s actions. In this blog, we look at the concept of groupthink by providing a historical example of it, and the possible risks it poses.
A situation has rapidly developed. Although the situation had been planned for it had never actually happened before. The actual political decision-makers are relying on others. The others have specific areas of expertise, and they have been employed in that area throughout their careers. They are skilled and are part of a small, interconnected network that coalesce around several central points which they then build into a case for action. The argument is concentrated on specific activities and timelines, and they as a group are very determined to carry out those actions.
The timeline is not 2020. It was in 1961.
In 1961 the American Government of President Kennedy sanctioned an invasion of Cuba. The previous administration had developed the plan in 1960. Cuba had recently been taken over by a Communist Government and, lying 90 miles off the southern coast of continental America; this had been viewed poorly by American Governments. The plan to invade had been developed by the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency, the external secret service supporting American interests) and the new administration ’uncritically accepted’ the plan. Despite reservations, the new Kennedy team ignored any critical comments. Those that did have comments eventually minimised their doubts, and self-censored.
The invasion was to begin with 1500 Cuban exiles, trained by the CIA, securing an airstrip into which a Government in exile would fly. A crucial part of the plan was to rely on a Cuban uprising against the Cuban leader Fidel Castro and help in his demise. Once ashore, the Government in exile would call for American support and then American bombers would launch an air attack on Cuba.
Virtually from the start, the plan went wrong. Cubans attacked the first beach landing, and the uprising never occurred as intended. The Cuban air force planes arrived quickly, and the invasion forces were surrounded. The fact that the Cuban air force was even able to respond was because part one of the plan, its destruction had failed. Once the invasion had started, a radio station on the very landing beach, missed by the CIA in reconnaissance, began broadcasting the events across Cuba. Within 24 hours the invading force had surrendered.
President Kennedy was determined to minimise the reputational damage these events could have on the USA, backed away from any further air support. The invasion had failed, and it came back to haunt future American relations with Cuba.
groupthink n. a type of thinking engaged in by a group of people deliberating an issue, typically characterized by the making of injudicious decisions through individuals’ unwillingness to challenge group consensus. (Oxford English Dictionary)
The theory of groupthink was developed and proposed by Irving Janis in 1972. Janis was a research psychologist at Yale University. He developed the approach to look at faults within an organisation or system; in this case, Kennedy’s Government and referred to it as:
‘’…groupthink is a quick and easy way to refer to the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action. Groupthink is a term of the same order as the words in the newspeak vocabulary George Orwell used in his dismaying world of 1984. In that context, groupthink takes on an invidious connotation. Exactly such a connotation is intended since the term refers to a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments as a result of group pressures.
The main principle of groupthink,…. is this, the more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a policy-making ingroup, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanising actions directed against outgroups.”
Janis researched the decision making that occurred in significant world events including the events in Cuba, Pearl Harbour, the Vietnam War and the NASA Space Shuttle disaster, Each time decision making was rushed, contradictory views were prevented, either by being ignored, unheard or self-censored as a result of groupthink.
Why does this happen?
Janis suggested three antecedent conditions.
- Cohesion– in groupthink, the group avoids any conflict, avoids critical reactions to decisions, and works to maintain friendly relationships at all costs. The group becomes more important than the individual.
- Structural faults– the group is organised so that it becomes quite insular, focus on specific areas of action, lacks impartial leadership with leaders that plan in advance what will be discussed, for how long and only ask for opinions that agree with their own. This is combined with a lack of structure in discussions, and the group is often similar in social background, ideas, ideology and in some cases, schooling.
- Situational context– groupthink can sometimes occur in a highly stressful situation, with possible external threats and some group members coping with stress in irrational ways. There may be excessive difficulty in actually making a decision, time pressures and constant deadlines coupled with a moral dilemma.
Not all three elements need to be present according to Janis, but element number one does need to be present.
So what can be done about this? Janis suggested several ways to avoid groupthink:
- Having a structured decision-making process which is used and shared.
- Creating a decision team that has a broad diversity of thought, and are capable of listening to opposing views, responding to them, and embracing them where appropriate.
- Increasing personal accountability for the decisions participants in the group take to counter the motivation toward conformity and give participants personal responsibility for their actions.
- Provide a leadership style that reflects choice thelevel of collaboration appropriate for the decision being made.
- Where applicable, using outside experts that have nomotivation to conform; to offer independent insight and reflection (this could include members of the public).
Elements of the UK Governments response to the COVID-19 pandemic have already been accused of groupthink. The lack of any actionable response to Dominic Cumming’s activities by cabinet members, despite contrasting views from wider members of society, could be perceived as another example of groupthink. We stand by our previous statement that building public trust, should be vital in managing the response to the current pandemic.
Sean Heneghan is a Chartered Organisational Psychologist and Senior Tutor at the University of Oxford.
Kamal R. Mahtani is a practising NHS GP, Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, and Director of the MSc in EBHC Systematic Reviews.
Both authors lead the University of Oxford Evidence-Based Healthcare Leadership Programme.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this commentary represent the views of the authors and not necessarily those of the host institution, the NHS, the NIHR, or the Department of Health and Social Care. The views are not a substitute for professional medical advice.
Competing interests: None declared