Agree to disagree

15th September 2000 at 01:00
Always seeking a consensus can kill critical thinking warns Jane Philips.

I DOUBT that your governing body is considering invading Cuba - but it could learn some vital lessons from those who did. President John F Kennedy and his advisers turned the Bay of Pigs invasion into a pig's ear. Afterwards, Kennedy said "How could we have been so stupid?"

Stupidity was not the problem. The group that Kennedy assembled comprised some of the greatest intellectual and military strategists in the history of America. Yet they made fundamental errors and the result was disaster. The reason? They became

victims of "groupthink".

The dangers posed by over-

cohesive groups were first outlined by Irving Janis, a psychologist working at Yale University. He gave the label "groupthink" to the tunnel-thinking that leads to faulty decisions. Most modern theories about group dynamics have the central concept that the more cohesive the group, the better. Yet Janis has shown that a group can be too cohesive, and make wrong decisions. Consensus can become so important that it drives out critical thought. This does not happen in teams that are functioning well. Here, as cohesiveness increases, so does members' ability to voice concerns. Conformity decreases as cohesiveness increases.

Groupthink is an aberration where maintenance of unity stifles real debate. At government level it can result in disasters such as the Bay of Pigs invasion. But, at all levels, it is more common than we realise. What happens is that group members internalise the group's consensus-seeking. This results in the suppression of critical thoughts. The more cohesive the group, the greater the inner compulsion of each member to avoid disunity. They suppress doubts. They persuade themselves that misgivings are irrelevant. Discordant thoughts are ignored and decisions become one-dimensional and occasionally disastrous. And no one knows it's happening!

Could group think be a feature of your governing body?

Does your governing body assume its decisions are always the right ones?

Is there a tendency to dismiss information which contradicts the majority view?

Is pressure exerted for members to toe the majority line?

Do members express misgivings after meetings hich they fail to express at meetings?

Is there an assumption at meetings of unanimity of view?

Do members of your governing body take dissenting members aside to "warn them off"?

Does your governing body rationalise negative feedback so that it does not feel obliged to revisit those decisions?

"Yes" answers to most of these should give you pause for thought. You may be thinking "If it makes for a quiet life, is groupthink such a bad thing?" The answer is "yes", for two reasons.

First, the composition of governing bodies is designed to bring a variety of perspectives to its decision making. The strength of a governing body lies in its diversity. Clones take up space and offer nothing extra. Dissenting voices may seem like a nuisance but they add value - if only by making the rest of us think again. I wonder how many "rogue governors" are really just using their critical faculties to question the prevailing culture.

Second, most governing body decisions are relatively unimportant - but governors are in the hot seat on occasion. Some decisions will have repercussions for the school and its community for years - headteacher's appointment or dismissal, the character of the school, increased or reduced admissions numbers, public-private partnerships. Governors need to have practice at effective decision making before they go for the big one.

Fortunately for humanity, by the time Kennedy faced his "big one" - the Cuban missile crisis - he had changed his group's decision-making processes.

With essentially the same group of people, he avoided the earlier mistakes.

How did he do it? In essence, he encouraged the group to give high priority to the airing of objections and doubts and ensured that there was regular feedback from experts outside the group. And at every meeting where there was an evaluation of policy alternatives, he assigned at least one member of the team to the role of devil's advocate.

In other words, he encouraged and valued different perspectives, and it worked - we're still here!

Jane Phillips is an occupational psychologist, a governor of a primary school and vice-chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers. NAGM publications can be obtained on 0121 643 5787

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today