The Calamity of Conformity
Have you ever bitten your tongue in a meeting? Surely. You sit there, say nothing, and nod along to proposals. After all, you don’t want to be the (eternal) naysayer. Moreover, you might not be 100 percent sure why you disagree, whereas the others are unanimous—and far from stupid. So you keep your mouth shut for another day. When everyone thinks and acts like this, groupthink is at work: This is where a group of smart people makes reckless decisions because everyone aligns their opinions with the supposed consensus. Thus, motions are passed that each individual group member would have rejected if no peer pressure had been involved. Groupthink is a special branch of social proof, a flaw that we discussed in chapter 4.
In March 1960, the U.S. Secret Service began to mobilize anticommunist exiles from Cuba, most of them living in Miami, to use against Fidel Castro’s regime. In January 1961, two days after taking office, President Kennedy was informed about the secret plan to invade Cuba. Three months later, a key meeting took place at the White House, where Kennedy and his advisers all voted in favor of the invasion. On April 17, 1961, a brigade of 1,400 exiled Cubans landed at the Bay of Pigs, on Cuba’s south coast, with the help of the U.S. Navy, the Air Force, and the CIA. The aim was to overthrow Castro’s government. However, nothing went as planned. On the first day, not a single supply ship reached the coast. The Cuban air force sank the first two, and the next two turned around and fled back to the United States. A day later, Castro’s army completely surrounded the brigade. On the third day, the 1,200 survivors were taken into custody and sent to military prisons.
Kennedy’s invasion of the Bay of Pigs is regarded as one of the biggest flops in American foreign policy. That such an absurd plan was ever agreed upon, never mind put into action, is astounding. All of the assumptions that spoke in favor of the invasion were erroneous. For example, Kennedy’s team completely underestimated the strength of Cuba’s air force. Also, it was expected that, in an emergency, the brigade would be able to hide in the Escambray Mountains and carry out an underground war against Castro from there. A glance at the map shows that the refuge was 100 miles away from the Bay of Pigs, with an insurmountable swamp in between. And yet Kennedy and his advisers were among the most intelligent people to ever run an American government. What went wrong between January and April 1961?
Psychology professor Irving Janis has studied many fiascoes. He concluded that they share the following pattern: Members of a close-knit group cultivate team spirit by (unconsciously) building illusions. One of these fantasies is a belief in invincibility: “If both our leader [in this case, Kennedy] and the group are confident that the plan will work, then luck will be on our side.” Next comes the illusion of unanimity: If the others are of the same opinion, any dissenting view must be wrong. No one wants to be the naysayer that destroys team unity. Finally, each person is happy to be part of the group. Expressing reservations could mean exclusion from it. In our evolutionary past, such banishment guaranteed death; hence our strong urge to remain in the group’s favor.
Groupthink is no stranger in the business world. A classic example is the fate of the world-class airline Swissair. Here, a group of highly paid consultants rallied around the former CEO and, bolstered by the euphoria of past successes, they developed a high-risk expansion strategy (including the acquisition of several European airlines). The zealous team built up such a strong consensus that even rational reservations were suppressed, leading to the airline’s collapse in 2001.
If you ever find yourself in a tight, unanimous group, you must speak your mind, even if your team does not like it. Question tacit assumptions, even if you risk expulsion from the warm nest. And, if you lead a group, appoint someone as devil’s advocate. She will not be the most popular member of the team, but she might be the most important.