Avoiding the Dangers of Groupthink

Have you ever found yourself sitting in a project planning meeting where everyone around the table is discussing completion dates they know can’t be met, yet no one ever says so? Or have you ever spent hours trying to work out some technical aspect of a design, even though you know another aspect of the design has a serious flaw that isn’t being addressed? Unfortunately, these surreal experiences are familiar to most engineers, and they take place more often than many of us would like to admit.

How does this happen? How do engineers, who pride ourselves on our rationality and individualism, get caught up in a collective denial of reality? Most importantly, how do we live up to our professional responsibility to speak out?

Groupthink is a concept that was introduced by William H. Whyte in a 1952 Fortune magazine article and later developed by the psychologist Irving Janis in the 1970s and 1980s. It refers to the tendency to suspend independent critical thinking in favor of group consensus. The result is poor decision making.

The loss of the space shuttle Challenger and the lives of its crew, and the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its crew 17 years later, are often given as examples of engineering groupthink. More recently, the stubborn insistence by the truck and engine manufacturer Navistar that its diesel emission reduction strategy would eventually work, despite evidence to the contrary, cost that company hundreds of millions of dollars and cost more than 700 people their jobs.

In all of these examples, it’s probably fair to say the denial of reality was more on the part of managers than engineers. But why weren’t engineers successful in winning their managers over to the side of reality?

The insidious thing about groupthink is that it builds on some of the best aspects of our character, including our ability to work together toward common goals and our unwillingness to give up in the face of a challenge. Despite the stereotype of engineers as solitary misanthropes, teamwork is central to the engineering profession. Engineers often have deep loyalty to their teammates. This is a good thing, but loyalty should never mean self-censorship of criticism. Engineers also often have a tendency to believe they can solve any problem with hard work and ingenuity. This can sometimes lead to ever-increasing expenditures of effort toward a difficult task without questioning the value of the task itself.

The first rule in Dale Carnegie’s well-known book How to Win Friends and Influence People is “Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.” It’s certainly true that negativity rarely leads to popularity, but it can sometimes play an important role in making good decisions.

During my senior design project in engineering school, one of my classmates distinguished herself by criticizing nearly every group decision and constantly complaining about the hopeless state of our project. Needless to say, the rest of the group found this behavior annoying. As the semester progressed, however, I realized that it was important to take her criticisms seriously. If they were wrong, explaining why they were wrong increased our own understanding. If they were right, they helped keep us from going in the wrong direction.

Of course, I’m not suggesting it’s good to be a chronic complainer, but such people shouldn’t always be written off. Engineers should not let the fear of being perceived as negative, stepping out of line, standing alone, or even being wrong override their professional judgment. As Richard Feynman pointed out in his appendix to the Challenger report, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Keep that in mind the next time a project leader asks you for a positive piece of information to help him sell a project to his managers.

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