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Decision making during crises and how to avoid groupthink

Charlie Maclean-Bristol looks at decision making during incidents, describes the risks of ‘groupthink’, and offers some tools and techniques to prevent it from impacting your team.

For a while now, I have been thinking about and looking at ways of making decisions during incidents and have been looking at simple tools and techniques that I can teach to incident management teams. There is an art to good decision making and some people are either just good at it, or when a major decision needs to be made are just lucky they made the right call. However, the right decision has often been made for the wrong reasons! For those who know they are not brilliant at decision making or don’t want to rely on luck I have been looking at simple tools and techniques which are easy for teams to understand and, therefore, use during an incident.

One of the tools many try to use and adopt is the UK Police National Decision Model (NDM). Many business continuity consultancies teach a civilian version of it. For me, it is a little too complex and I am still on the lookout for something simpler.

In my quest for insights and tools for decision making I came across an excellent paper by Carolyne Smart and Ilan Vertinsky called ‘Designs for Crisis Decision Units’. Part of this paper discusses groupthink and some techniques for avoiding it. Recognising the effects of stress and making sure that you avoid groupthink all contribute to making sure that during incidents you give yourself the best chance of making effective decisions.

According to the Cambridge English Business Dictionary, groupthink is defined as ‘the process in which bad decisions are made by a group because its members do not want to express opinions, suggest new ideas, etc. that others may disagree with’. I personally think that groupthink is more likely to happen during a major incident because many of the members of a team may not have been in these situations before. They are more likely to take the lead and agreement from others, thinking that they may have more experience and therefore are more likely to make the right decisions.

A classic historical example of groupthink is when the American establishment received a number of intelligence reports that the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbour but chose to disbelieve them. The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba is sited as another example. Under the administration of Eisenhower, the CIA planned to infiltrate Cuba and launch a military attack within the country. When Kennedy took over, he gave a green signal to this attack, despite concerns raised by figures such as Arthur Schlesinger and William Fulbright. The invasion resulted in a fiasco where the US forces were defeated by the Cuban army within three days.

So, if we know that our incident team may be susceptible to groupthink how do we recognise that it may be happening and what action can we take to ensure that it doesn’t happen. According to Smart and Vertinsky there are eight symptoms of groupthink:

  • Most of the group members develop an illusion of invisibility which promotes excessive optimism, and encourages decisions of a very high risk.
  • The group ignores warnings and negative feedback that might force a reassessment of a decision. Attempts are made to rationalise the status quo.
  • Group members display an innovative belief in their own morality. The ethical and moral consequences of the decision may be ignored completely.
  • The group hold a stereotypical view of their adversary and usually underestimate them. The adversary is regarded as immoral and too evil to attempt to offer any genuine negotiation to resolve conflicts, or too stupid or weak to take any effective counteractions.
  • The group puts pressure on any members who express doubts on any course of action or questions arguments supported by the majority. The downside of any action is not discussed.
  • Individual members practice self-censorship and keep quiet about their own doubts.
  • Group members share an illusion that unanimity means truth.
  • The group develops ‘mindguards’ who are self-appointed members who shield the decision makers from members who go against the shared beliefs.

If we recognise that groupthink may be happening, which is likely to lead to poor decision making, what measures can we take during our incident team meetings to avoid it happening?

  • Get the members of the incident management team to discuss the issue or solution with their own team to get an external view and to verify or challenge the solution.
  • Use creative problem-solving techniques e.g. brainstorming which can lead to independent thinking and ideas rather than following the consensus of the group.
  • Put looking at long term issues as part of the agenda or designate someone to look at parallel at the long term solutions. This allows short term decisions to be looked at critically to check if they fit with a long term solution.
  • Give one person the role of devil's advocate and to challenge the group’s solutions. You should consider rotating the position to avoid them getting domesticated!
  • Taking part in exercises can help increase the confidence of the team and they will have experience to fall back on to challenge group solutions and decisions.
  • Use of professional outside help such as a PR agency or having an external crisis management professional on the team can again give an alternative view and they can bring their experience to contribute to group decisions.

Next time you are in a meeting or observing an exercise see if you can spot the first indications of groupthink taking place, or whether you are confident that your incident teams are making independent decisions and there is discussion to ensure that the best decision is reached. Building some of the above techniques into your incident management procedures and ensuring that they are used during an incident is going to contribute to the quality of decision making by your incident team.

The author

Charlie Maclean-Bristol, FEPS, FBCI, is Director of Training at PlanB Consulting.



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