Mar 12 2010

You might be “group-thinking” if….

Category: Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 8:59 am

Some of this material appeared in an earlier post, but I have some additional comments to make about it, so I’m reproducing the gist of it here.

I see the group-think phenomenon all the time, in the world of university faculty governance and general academic life. There are grandiloquently ill-defined buzz terms, common phrases and references, whose use sometimes seems to stop all thought or discussion, and anyone who questions their use, what they mean, why they matter, etc., is likely to be automatically marginalized. Since the higher levels of government are populated disproportionately by academics, this does not fill me with confidence about our government’s ability to keep an open mind, either.

Group-think results in failure to ask hard questions about the real effects of previous policy and perspectives, and confusion of action with effect.   (The busier we are, the more we must be getting done.)  Some people seem to think “meaning well” is enough, without regard to the actual effect of policy. I see people who, when confronted with the failure of previous policy, seem often to be reflexively in favor of even more of it, believing the real problem was that not enough of it was tried. Sometimes that’s true, but not nearly as often as they seem to think.

Signs that you’re succumbing to group-think:

1) You think it is practiced by the other side, not your side. Fair warning: when most people around you agree with you, it’s probably ludicrous of you to accuse the other side of group-think.

2) You don’t directly grapple with data from the “other side,” preferring to respond to specific data you don’t like with ideological generalization.  Your failure to either directly challenge the data, perhaps also to provide countervailing data, or else to include it in your understanding of a situation, is a clear sign.  You should either show that the data presented by the other side is wrong, or not representative, or include it in your perspective.

3) Your ability to talk about something is limited by your vocabulary, which is highly idiosyncratic and ideological in tone, yet you struggle to give clear definitions to terms you frequently use.   What is an “Islamic extremist”?  What is “diversity”?   What is “critical thinking”?  What is a “moderate”?  And so on.   If you find it difficult to express your meaning using alternate vocabulary, in a clear and unambiguous way, you may be “group-thinking”.

Educational institutions are famous for creating (or co-opting) buzz-terms, fancy sounding rhetoric that pretends to denote something new, when it either denotes the same old thing (which isn’t necessarily bad, but is certainly confusing and misleading), or much worse, it may denote nothing at all.  These terms tend to show up in promotional materials, and are usually used to try to make the claim that, “We’re not like those other schools, because we practice (insert buzz-term here).”   Definitions may even be provided, but they are likely to be more aspirational than operational; that is, they’ll sound nice, and seem to point to something good on the surface, but the definitions will not be something that can be used to decide if the institution is actually DOING the thing claimed in the buzz-term.  Mostly, this phenomenon is an example of the primacy of advertising copy over academic clarity.

When entire academic and/or administrative departments and/or councils are created to manage the implementation of the buzz-term, which still cannot be defined in an operational way (so that you can tell whether or not you’re actually doing it), a tragi-comedy of futile flailing around generally ensues, at considerable expense to the institution, not the least of which may be the lessening of the institution’s ability to carry out its basic mission, the one that existed before the creation of the buzz-terms and jargon.

Unfortunately, buzz-terms (reflecting a sort of “group think” when someone tries to “implement” them) are often chosen to hide as much as to reveal the intent that lies behind them.  For example, the word “diversity” was created at the moment when “quotas” became legally and socially less palatable.

I’ve been on academic “councils” that were tasked with implementing a program of (supply buzz term here).  When I have asked for a definition of the buzz-term, there have been embarrassed glances around the room, followed by someone offering me a definition in the institution’s advertising materials.  When I have asked how we can apply the definition to specific cases and data to see whether or not they exemplify the buzz-term, there has been more embarrassed silence, followed by multi-syllabic obfuscation and more buzz-terms.  That’s because the definition was more about how someone wanted to feel about something, i.e., it was aspirational, not about what the something actually was, i.e., an operational definition that could be used to determine what did and did not qualify as an example of the buzz-term.

Humorously (I guess), the “councils” in which I have done this have sometimes discovered an urgent necessity to meet at a time when I’m teaching class.  This has happened to me more than once.

Once I was told by a “council chair” to just pretend that the buzz term meant something, and get on with it, because WASC (our regional accrediting agency) is coming to evaluate us, and we have to show that we’re doing what we said we’d do.  It doesn’t seem to matter if no one knows quite what that is, or how we’d recognize it if we saw it.  It is group-think carried to a whole new level.  Or maybe not.

More signs that you’re succumbing to group-think:

4) You resist identifying and accepting the ideological roots of your current positions.  In other words, you claim that now you have the right idea, even though those earlier people who thought something like this, who are now out of favor, were clearly wrong.   This can only be carried off, of course, in the presence of a group of people who have all decided not to remember where their current ideas came from, as long as they can all do what they want to do now, think what they want to think now, etc.   When this is pointed out, do you insist that it’s only guilt by association, and you really mean something very different than the discredited person or group that actually created the idea?  Keep telling yourself that, if it helps…  but if the central viewpoint for which previous holders of the position were discredited is the basic root of your own position, maybe it’s time to re-think, instead of group-think.

5) You think the solution to most problems is the consensus creation of a new policy that will require people to act differently than they normally do, and you devise administrative methods to force people to act against their own perspectives and natures in order to implement the new policy.  The “consensus,” in this case, is not likely to be made up of the people upon whom the pressure of authority will be brought to bear.  It’s more likely to be a consensus of some special group that was convened with the express intent of reaching a consensus whose outcome was foreordained by the people chosen to form it.  The outcome is often to make people into liars as they are forced to claim they are doing something that they really aren’t (and possibly can’t), and to create some piece of evidence for “assessment” purposes that will make it look like they are doing it.  In essence, a pay cut has just been imposed, since the workload has gone up without compensation.

6) Bluntly, if you’re in the majority, or in a position of some power in your institution, be very careful.  Group-think temptations are at their highest.   Not that minorities are usually right, any more than majorities… but minorities are constantly forced to confront countervailing perspectives, while majorities often are not.  (Read carefully here…  I am talking about ideological or policy majorities and minorities, not ethnic or racial ones.)

7) If you’re in a leadership role, and you don’t encourage people to present contending positions to you, positively seeking out and rewarding people who have different perspectives just for bringing them to you, you are encouraging group-think in the people below you in the hierarchy, and are probably not thinking too well yourself.  If the only people who ever get promoted are those who agree with you the loudest, you and your institution are in big, big trouble.

While I see all this in academic life (it seems to be a fixture in most schools), and I hear of it in the business world (mostly in businesses that are in trouble, or not dealing well with changes in the business environment), I have little reason to think things are better in the Oval Office, the Pentagon, Capitol Hill or the State Department, whether the occupants come from Left or Right.   You can include in that the state and local governments, school boards, and labor unions of all stripes, both public and private employees.

So what’s a leader to do?

Take careful stock of the points just listed, and evaluate yourself as objectively as you can.   If you discover that any of this describes you, or the systems you’ve helped create, it’s time to repent and reverse course.  You don’t have to do it convulsively with public mea culpas, necessarily…  but you do have to do it.  Create a plan to gradually dismantle things that aren’t working, in some combination of efficiency and compassion for the people who will be affected.  Start gathering input from people who disagree with you, or with some of your policies, and reward them for sharing their reasons.  Let them teach you what you don’t know.  If you aren’t in sufficient command of yourself to be able to withstand some uncomfortable input, you’re in the wrong line of work.  Ask them to recommend books for you, and read them.  If you must, get someone you trust to read some of them and summarize, but do read some of them yourself.  Don’t choose a surrogate reader who already agrees with you about everything.

Discipline yourself to be able to articulate an idea very clearly in an operational way, not merely an aspirational one, before you start creating ad hoc committees to “reach consensus” on something you just wanted to do anyway because you liked the sound of it.  Make sure you’ve thought about possible unintended consequences.  Has some other institution already tried what you’re considering?  How has it worked out?  Would you like your institution to be like that one in other ways?  Is it possible that if you emulate them in one way, then other things you don’t like will come along with it?

Read.  Make sure you know the ideological roots of the underlying ideas that support what you want to do.  Are you really sure you want to get in the same ideological bed?  Ideas tend to travel in families, especially when they flow from a shared worldview.   Be sure you’re comfortable with that entire worldview, because when you marry an idea, you often marry the family.  You don’t want your ideological in-laws to give you heartburn at family gatherings.

One of the saddest things I see is when someone tries to rip an idea out of its ideological family and sneak it into another household where it doesn’t really fit the local DNA.  The only way to cover up the kidnapping is often to resort to group-think, and pretend the idea was locally invented out of the local DNA.

The problem, of course, is that sheep with deer antlers sort of stick out in family photos.