Crushing Groupthink in Pursuit of Safety: A Case Study
Crushing Groupthink in Pursuit of Safety:
A Case Study
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Crushing Groupthink in Pursuit of Safety: A Case Study

Tony Kern, Ed.D

By Tony Kern, Ed.D
Chief Executive Officer, Convergent Performance

I recently had the wonderfully unique experience of working with a group of experts who didn’t give a damn about hurting each other’s feelings. The team was tasked to produce a full day of training to accomplish multiple objectives, engage a tough audience, and move the needle of safety and professionalism for a very large organization. Time was limited, everyone had turf to protect, and all were “Alpha” types, used to being the big dog. Oh, and we had about half the time to put the entire program together that it would normally take to do it well. Labor reps, management types, and your humble outside consultant team sat down and got to work.

As you might expect, almost immediately there was conflict of interests and ideas, but through the pure force of focus on the objective, we were able to set aside our feelings and one and all took turns pulling spears our of our chests, putting on our big kids pants, and grinding forward. Don’t get me wrong here, no one was rude and all were respectful, but with no time for the subtleties we got right to work.

The result was an on-time curriculum that combined the best practices from CRM, personal accountability, threat and error management, role modeling and mentoring, and holistic professionalism. In a short period of time, we went from solo artists to an orchestra, and man did it feel good. Here are three big insights I picked up along the way:

1) Forget about “going along to get along.”
Far too often, people in a team setting feel that it is more important to fit in than to solve a real problem. Non-assertiveness and a desire to go along with most any idea presented prevent team members from suggesting their own improvements or criticizing or commenting on the ideas of others. It eats up time and dulls creativity. Our team got past this quickly, but it took some effort.

2) Check your ego at the door.
In the real world of time pressured performance, there is often no “win-win” solution to tough questions. Our team learned early to take personal agenda losses with a grain of salt, and move forward to the next challenge without carrying grudges.

3) Put every idea on the table.
Groupthink results in many potential contributions or solutions never being placed on the table for evaluation or inclusion in the plan. At best, this results in a decision or plan of action that appears to be supported but may not be “optimized” since there is little attempt by anyone to make it better. At worst, the groupthink process reaches a point where the final decision is one that is not supported by anyone in the group, and the team succumbs to the emotional need to complete the task without any conflict. We recognized this trap from the start, gave every idea a fair shake, and did not settle for mediocrity.

Checklist for Recognition and Prevention of Groupthink

  • Talk about groupthink up front. Assign someone the task of wearing the “black hat” and challenging ideas. This opens the door for others.
  • If this is not done and you begin to see groupthink creeping in, state your intent to act as a “devil’s advocate” to combat it. Use a statement such as “I don’t necessarily disagree, but I’m going to challenge that line of thinking just to make sure we aren’t falling into groupthink here.”
  • Sense and fight the first emotional tug that inhibits your contribution to the group process.
  • Treat pros and cons of ideas equally, particularly if it is your idea under discussion.

After nearly six months of hard work, our program hit the street. I think I can speak for all members of the team when I say we were all a little nervous on how it would be received. We needn’t have worried. Well over 90% fully embraced the training. Here is one critique from an experienced pilot who went through the training.

When I went through AF Survival School, I was prior Army and 28 years old—not new. On my flight home from WA, I felt like I should have a survival knife clenched in my teeth just begging for a crash so I could use my new skills. That’s how I felt after yesterday (leaving the training)…I’m reinvigorated and ready to fight. The future is looking good.

After a collective sigh of relief following the first week of training, we got back to work refining the product to make it even better. This type of collaborative effort has become the exception—not the rule—in many committee style efforts. But from what I learned from this effort, it need not be so.

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