‘Only peril can bring the French together. One can't impose unity out of the blue on a country that has 265 different kinds of cheese.’
Charles de Gaulle
In 2008, the world was brought to its knees by a highly contagious outbreak of ‘groupthink’. This involved some very smart people, powerful government regulators and highly paid senior management teams from the world's leading banks. Commenting on the crash, Robert Shiller of the New York Times, wrote:
‘Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, acknowledged … that he had no idea a financial disaster was in the making. …Yet it is clear that well before home prices started falling in 2006, lots of people were worried about the housing boom and its potential for creating economic disaster.’1
The field of social psychology provides a possible answer. In his 1972 book, Groupthink, the Yale psychologist, Irving L. Janis, pointed out how gatherings of ‘experts’ can make these kind of disastrous mistakes.2 He explained that in teams drawn from similar social backgrounds, the desire for acceptance within the group often overrides their motivation to consider alternative courses of action. In short, they suppress their doubts and go with the flow.
While this provides a large-scale example, it does not take much imagination to transpose these same failings onto the organizational context, where the quality of collective decision making can have an equally significant effect on companies' ...