What Cross-Cultural Workers Ought to Know about Groupthink
Suppose this happened to a cross-cultural worker. After the fourth meeting about a new project which the long-time field director proposed and strongly supported, Pat was still troubled by misgivings. When she considered the cost of the project and the condition of the economy, proceeding with the project just did not seem wise. When another first term cross-cultural worker began to raise questions, a veteran cross-cultural worker quickly accused her of having too little faith. Certainly the project would help people, and it could be God’s will, so Pat voted for it along with the others, but she still felt uneasy.
Later, after the project was abandoned and their agency had lost many thousands of dollars, Pat and several of the others who had voted for it talked about how they were like the man who began the tower but could not finish it (Luke 14:28-30). As they talked, they asked themselves, “How could we all have voted for it? It is so obvious now that it would not succeed.” What happened to them was groupthink.
What is groupthink?
Irving Janis, the first person to study it in detail, defined groupthink as the kind of thinking people do when they are committed to a cohesive group and their striving for unanimity overcomes their ability to be realistic about which action to take. Individual uniqueness, creativity, and independent thinking are left behind in protecting the cohesiveness of the group. People do not want to appear foolish or to upset the group so they set their doubts aside and make irrational decisions.
Janis studied American foreign policy disasters such as Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961. Most cross-cultural workers today remember the American government’s decision to attack Iraq in 2003 to destroy the weapons of mass destruction although many USA citizens and most of the rest of the world did not think it was wise. Groupthink is not only something that politicians may do, but also it is something cross-cultural workers may do.
Did groupthink happen in the Bible?
We do not have enough details to be sure but groupthink appears to have happened shortly after King Solomon died. His son, Rehoboam, became king and soon asked Solomon’s advisors about how to respond to a difficult situation. Rehoboam rejected their good advice to serve the people, and then he consulted some young men with whom he had grown up. These young men gave him bad advice to treat the people harshly. He did so, lost many of his subjects, and barely escaped alive to Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:8-20).
Conditions leading to groupthink
Though nothing has been proven to cause groupthink, several conditions may make groupthink more likely. Here are several of these conditions relevant to cross-cultural workers on the field.
Symptoms of groupthink
Some of the symptoms indicating that groupthink is in progress follow. Beware if you notice any of them as your group meets.
Results of groupthink
Consensus-driven decisions lead to the following types of problems.
Groupthink may be less likely if some of the following suggestions are followed.
Differences between unity of the Spirit and the unanimity of groupthink
Finally, the unanimity of groupthink must not be confused with the “unity of the Spirit” described in Ephesians 4:3. The unanimity of groupthink comes from a set of assumptions that must not be questioned. Unity of the Spirit comes from a Christian set of assumptions and a common purpose of being united with Christ (Ephesians 2:1-5).
After the first term of Christian cross-cultural service, a problem surfaced which illustrates the difference between the unity of the Spirit and the unanimity of groupthink. When they reached the church in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas met with the apostles, elders, and the church. They reported the results of their service, and some of the believers present stood up and said that the converts had to be circumcised and obey Moses’ law. Then the apostles and elders met to consider this (Acts 15).
This was unity in the Spirit, quite different from the unanimity of groupthink. The leader did not express his opinion at the beginning; people from both sides
of the issue spoke; people were quiet as they listened; there was much
discussion; in the end a decision was reached that the Gentiles involved “read
it and were glad for its encouraging message.” Cross-cultural workers must be
careful to distinguish between the unity of the Spirit and groupthink.
Ronald Koteskey is
Mental Health Resources
for Cross Cultural Workers