During my interview of the Board Chairman for the organization that I assessed, I pressed the Chairman for information regarding any crisis that the organization had experienced. The Chairman indicated that the organization had not experienced any crisis during his tenure on the board. “Really,” I thought to myself, how could this be? Having reviewed the organization’s most recent IRS Forms 990’s, I knew that the financial stability was a little shaky. Certainly, I thought the Chairman would view the recent decline in contributions as a crisis, or at least a concern. While I managed to refrain from questioning the Chairman any further on the matter, I am sure that he was not oblivious to my dissent of his answer. Instead of discussing any such crisis, the Chairman elaborated on the subject presented by explaining that the organization’s board gets along well, never has any disagreements, and is able to reach decisions easily. Fair enough, on to an interview of the Executive Director.
During the interview of the Executive Director, I presented the same question regarding organizational crisis. As if the Executive Director had read from a script of my interview with the Chairman, she provided a very similar answer. The ED stated that the organization had never had a crisis; the board members work well as a group; and they conduct their business without having any disagreements. Amazing, I have found the consummate board of directors; one that displays superb efficiency in its fiduciary activities. As if had just uncovered evidence of the location of the Holy Grail or Jimmy Hoffa’s body, I decided that I had to investigate further. Armed with pie charts, bar graphs, and data generated from the organization’s IRS Form 990’s, I sympathetically inquired into the financial stability of the organization with the ED. The ED hesitantly acknowledged that the organization had in fact seen a decline in contributions from businesses in recent years. During her explanation, I sensed that the subject was a sensitive one and therefore I did not pursue it beyond her own voluntary statements. The interview was completed just prior to the start of a scheduled board meeting. The ED invited me to stay and observe the meeting and I accepted as I thought it would provide an opportunity to observe this overtly efficient group of people that I had heard so much about.
The Board meeting proceeded as they usually do. The Chairman went through an agenda prepared by the ED. Specific items were discussed, motions were made, and votes were taken. Amazingly, the board members tackled each topic and voted with impressive synchronization. Then the discussion turned to the need to address the current state of the organization’s contributions. The Treasurer provided explanations of her financial report while everyone attentively followed. While one member did provide his perspective regarding the issue, the other board members followed the ideas put forth by the ED. It was decided that the issue would be explored further at the next meeting, one scheduled in July. The Chairman made a motion that the meeting should take place on a Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon. Unanimously the members voted to meet at such day and time.
There you have it. No arguments, no one contested the motions put forth by the Chairman, no one questioned the Treasurer’s financial report, and no one dissented to the Saturday meeting. Is this an example of an efficient board of directors? Or could there possibly be some other explanation for the seemingly chastened actions of the board members.
Irving Janis put forth a theory as to why decision makers within groups tend to seek excessive concurrence among them. Janis termed this phenomenon “groupthink.” Paul’t Hart summarized Janis’ definition of group think as an excessiveness in which group members come to value the group more than anything else. (Hart, 1991, p. 247) Melanie Leslie explains that groupthink is a “desire for consensus” and that “approval and group solidarity can cause group members to ignore information that contradicts the view of the majority or dominant group members, and to reach a decision that solidifies their position within the group.” (Leslie, 2009, p. 5)
During his research, Janis identified eight symptoms of groupthink. Hart categorized the eight symptoms into three overarching categories:
1. “Those producing an overestimation of the group (illusion of invulnerability; belief in inherent morality).
2. Those producing closed-mindedness (collective rationalizations; stereotyped images of out- groups).
3. Those producing pressures toward uniformity (self-censorship; illusion of unanimity; direct pressures on dissenters; self-appointed mind guards).” (Hart, 1991 p. 259)
Janis did not believe that concurrence-seeking among members of a group was necessarily detrimental to the collective decision making process. Rather, only when this concurrence becomes excessive in the early stages of the decision making process and in ways that are restrictive do they adversely affect an organization.
The presence of groupthink is easily observable in an organization. Often board members to fail to examine alternatives to issues being considered by them and board members only consider those positions presented by those in high positions, such as the Board Chairman. The board also fails to consider the risks of the position presented. Board members often limit their research of favored positions and when information is collected, it is prone to the selection biases of the researcher. The final groupthink practice identified by Janis was the failure of the board as a group to create a contingency plan.
Janis went as far as to provide seven practices that nonprofit boards can implement in order to prevent groupthink. They are:
1. The Board Chairman should assign each Board Member the role of “critical evaluator. Each member would then feel as if they can express any objections without fear.
2. Executive officers should refrain from expressing their opinions when assigning a board task. The Executive officers can and should discuss
- The Board Chairman should establish independent groups to work on an issue or problem facing the organization.
- When facing an issue or problem, all alternatives and perspectives should be examined.
- The Board’s ideas should be vetted by trusted persons outside the board.
- Advisors and experts should attend board meetings during which board members have the opportunity to engage in question and answer sessions.
- Alternating board members should be assigned the task of playing the Devil’s Advocate.
The organization that I assessed, as well as others like it, needs to come to the realization that they are in a crisis. Of upmost importance is the realization that their nonprofit organization is not invulnerable and that they are in fact facing failure. The Board Chairman and Executive Director must not continue to confuse groupthink with efficiency. Doing so only provides an example of the closed mindedness identified by Jannis. In order reverse the dismal situation facing the organization, they must implement those strategies and practices that remove the malicious characteristics of groupthink.
Hart, Paul’t. Irving L. Janis’ Victims of Groupthink. Political Psychology, Vol 12, no 2. June 1991. Pp. 247-278. Web. June 21, 2011.