133. A Chairperson’s Challenge — The Dangers of “Groupthink”

Consider this scenario:  at a recent church board meeting the lead pastor introduced a new ministry project proposal. The church would sell its aging building and highly valued property to the adjacent seniors residential complex. This organization in turn would demolish both facilities and build a totally new structure including a new church complex at no real cost to the congregation. A modest annual fee for service costs would be charged. The congregation would have use of the facility for ninety-nine years. Given the serious financial struggles the congregation was experiencing, the deteriorating condition of the current church facility, and the need to inject some hope and optimism into the congregational mindset, the board agreed to recommend the proposal to the congregation. They wanted the lead pastor to be successful, they wanted the congregation to grow, and they wanted to work in a cooperative way. No other equally good solution seemed to present itself. However, they had given no extended time to considering or exploring what other options might be available. Two of the more vocal board members had backed the proposal. Those who had misgivings felt constrained to go along. Several members in the congregation spoke clearly and articulately against the recommendation, but the weight of support from the board and the lead pastor persuaded the congregation to support it. Two years later after all the agreements were signed, the organization running the seniors facility sold its operations to another company who then decided it did not have the resources to go ahead with the plans for redevelopment.

The concept of “groupthink” emerged from the work of Irving Janis, a psychologist who sought to explain why some group decisions seem to be miscalculated or poorly conceived, resulting in disastrous consequences. The term “groupthink” reflects George Orwell’s term “doublethink.” Janis defined groupthink as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action” (I. Janis, Groupthink (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982, 2nd ed). His theory is not accepted by all because attempts to verify it empirically have had mixed success. Some reject the concept entirely, suggesting that the cases analyzed have more to do with poor implementation of decisions, then the decisions themselves. But other critics accept the theory more or less and suggest modifications.

Perhaps one way to pose the question raised by Janis for a board chair is this:  are there occasions in the life of a board when cohesiveness coupled with certain internal and external dynamics will result in “defective decision-making?”

Janis suggests three primary symptoms that might indicate groupthink is operating:

1. the group may be overestimating its power and the morality based upon which it is making its decisions. This attitude may result in the group deciding to take actions that are extremely risky because they have a sense of invulnerability.

2. the group may suffer from close-mindedness. The group fails to understand external factors, dismissing their potential for good or harm.

3. within the group there are significant pressures towards uniformity. Divergent opinions are dismissed, unanimity is superficial, and individual board members exercise self-censorship knowing the dynamics of the group. In other words group loyalty overwhelms prudence.

These symptoms of groupthink in turn exist in tandem with seven symptoms of poor decision-making, also identified by Janis:

1. incomplete survey of alternatives

2. incomplete survey of objectives

3. failure to examine risks of preferred choice

4. failure to reappraise initially rejected alternatives

5. poor information search

6. selective bias in processing information at hand

7. failure to work out contingency plans (Janis, 1982).

In addition Janis (1982) names three conditions which tend to cause groupthink and precede the decision-making process:

1. the group is insulated from good advice and critical evaluation of proposals;

2. the group lacks a tradition of impartial leadership. Rather the leadership tends to employ power or status as a means to influence in unhealthy ways the group’s decisions;

3. the group has adopted no norms to define a methodical decision-making process.

Church boards are groups and are engaged consistently in decision-making. The values that guide church boards normally include mutual love, servant leadership, humility, and submission to spiritual leadership. Further, the relationship between a lead pastor and church board often encourages a deferential attitude towards recommendations brought forward by a lead pastor. Board members do not like being tagged as negative thinkers or lacking sufficient “faith.” In addition most church boards lack resources that enable them to gather good information or struggle to follow a clear decision-making process. Traditional processes overwhelm principles that could guide the board to better decisions. And then, once a decision is made the follow-through for ensuring accountable implementation is very weak. In other words the very values that contribute to the spiritual well-being of a church board can also become a basis for the subtle influences of groupthink.

In your role as chairperson you are responsible to serve the board and facilitate its effective operation. Enabling key decisions to be made in the best way brings this responsibility to a particular focus. Consider one of the major decisions that your church board has made in the last six months. Review the process in the light of Janis’ “seven symptoms of poor decision-making.” Were any of these factors operative in the decision-making process? What might you have done as chairperson to note these issues and challenge the board members to exercise greater prudence? Or perhaps as you reflect upon the implementation of the decision you can identify other aspects where the board has not exercised appropriate leadership?

Although Janis’ concept of groupthink remains controversial, the issues he has raised about decision-making and implementation remain critical for effective church board decision-making. If a chairperson knowingly allows a church board to make defective decisions, he or she is not being the servant of the board.

To explore this issue further you might refer to Anthony Hempell, “An Introduction to Janis’ theory of concurrence-seeking tendencies in group work.”

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