Blinded by Groupthink

Blinded by Groupthink

In 2006 Turkish shepherds watched as hundreds of their sheep followed each other over a cliff. It started with just one sheep who thought it could cross the ravine, and the next thing the shepherds knew, 1,100 other sheep followed suit. In total, 400 of the “non-thinking followers” plunged to their deaths while the rest managed to survive.

While reading the article in disbelief, I kept thinking: How could the sheep be so foolish? Didn’t they see the cliff? Didn’t they see the first few plunge to their deaths? And if they did, why did they keep following?

The flocking and following instinct of sheep is so strong that when one sheep makes a move, the rest will automatically follow. When the first of those Turkish sheep jumped to its death, so did the rest. There is a lot we can learn from this incident, and from the general disposition of sheep to flock and follow without thinking.

Groupthink Blinds Us

“Groupthink” is the human “flocking and following” instinct that blinds us by removing all logic and sound judgment.

Merriam-Webster defines “groupthink” as a pattern of thought characterized by:

  • Self-deception
  • Forced manufacture of consent
  • Conformity to group values and ethics

Proverbs 14:15 warns us against being unthinking and gullible, blindly following others without first giving the matter careful consideration. It says:

“The gullible believe anything they’re told; the prudent sift and weigh every word.” (The Message)

“The simple believe anything, but the prudent give thought to their steps.” (NIV)

Groupthink Starts with Self-Deception

Self-deception is the act or an instance of deceiving oneself concerning one's true nature, feelings, or even values.

As leaders we are in danger of tricking ourselves into thinking we are more powerful, more knowledgeable, more effective, more influential or godlier than we really are. James 1:22 warns us against self-deception and says: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” In this age of instant access to information, we can easily deceive ourselves into thinking that:

  • If we know or read enough about empowering others, that means we will actually lead in an empowering way.
  • If we talk enough about the importance of vision and mission, we will actually lead in a way that protects our organizations from mission-creep.
  • If we know what God’s Word teaches about serving those we lead, we will actually live this truth out.

All of us know certain things to be true, but we fail to do them, right?

All of us know certain things to be true, but we fail to do them, right? I know sugar is bad and exercise is good, yet many times I choose to indulge in the first while neglecting the latter.

Let’s heed the admonition of James and remember that neither knowing, reading, listening, repeating, lecturing nor teaching makes any of us actual doers or practitioners of the espoused truth. Only doing does.

Conformity to Group Values and Ethics

In 2002 one of the most prestigious airlines, Swissair, went bankrupt. The world was stunned. Swissair was known for its financial stability. Many who analyzed the fall of the airline blamed groupthink and conformity to group values and ethics.

Before Swissair went bankrupt it reduced its company board, losing much of its industrial expertise, many of whom were individuals who were more likely to sound an alarm or raise an issue. Those who remained embraced the common thinking that they were invulnerable and failed to question poor decisions and gross mismanagement.

Conformity may seem like a great idea, and can even be hailed as a “unifier,” but blind conformity for the sake of fitting in and not ruffling feathers ends up being a destructive force.

In Romans 12:12 we are told: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Engaging our minds by thinking and discerning is a good thing and protects us from blindly conforming.

Engaging our minds by thinking and discerning is a good thing and protects us from blindly conforming.

Forced Manufacture of Consent

This may be the most dangerous form of groupthink, since it uses tactics such as manipulation, guilt, fear or even force to create a perception of consent and unity. Some examples would be political dictatorships, but this also happens in our places of work—it’s just more subtle.

In the movie Annie, the story of an orphan girl, Annie, spends years in an orphanage run by Ms. Hannigan, an awful, mean and just plain old scary woman. In one scene, Ms. Hannigan catches Annie and the rest of the kids sneaking a dog into the orphanage. 

The kids know that any disobedience or misbehavior will be met with severe punishment, so, to pacify angry Ms. Hannigan, all the kids in unison exclaim, “We love you Ms. Hannigan!” Those watching the movie know that this is just a manufactured consent. The kids know it and Ms. Hannigan knows it a, yet all are willingly engaging in it. The kids, because it may lessen the severity of the punishments, and Ms. Hannigan, because it somehow strokes her ego.

A group of employees may be manipulated into embracing certain directions for fear of losing their jobs or in exchange for upward mobility in the workplace. Others are made to feel guilty for not embracing ideas or directions or for raising red flags about issues.

Protecting from Groupthink

What can we do to protect ourselves, our teams and organizations from groupthink? Here are just a few practical ideas:

  • Commit Proverbs 14:15 and Romans 12:12 to memory.
  • Give permission to those around you to challenge your thinking, ideas or leadership.
  • Give thought to criticism instead of dismissing it or finding ways to excuse it.
  • Encourage and reward critical thinking.
  • Before making a decision, establish a 24- or 48-hour rule (as much as possible) so you can evaluate any potential pitfalls and consider any red flags that are raised.

Allow me to leave you with few more nuggets of wisdom from God’s Word:

“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” 1 John 4:1

“…Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…” James 1:19

“The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.” Proverbs 12:15

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Megan Pacheco

Megan Pacheco

Megan Pacheco is the Chief Learning Officer at Lead Like Jesus. Born and raised in Poland, Megan moved to the U.S. at 17 and after finishing her studies, she started work in the faith-based sector, where she has served for over 13 years. She comes with years of experience in product development, marketing and alliances and is passionate about using her God-given talents to advance the cause of Christ. Megan is a writer, and her content on issues like personal finances, money and marriage and  raisingchildren have been published by More Living, Yahoo Finance, AllParenting, FoxBusiness, DailyFinance, and Crosswalk. Megan is married to David and they have two sons, Joshua and Daniel.

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