Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Danger of Groupthink in Schools

As much as I continuously tout working together as a positive solution for education, there is a dark side that we are more vulnerable to than many other profession: groupthink. It explains what I think may be our gravest obstacle to progress: a continuous leaping from bandwagon to bandwagon rather than simply moving forward.

Groupthink, as explained by workplace psychologist Dr. Jennifer Newman on CBC earlier this month (Early Edition, April 3), is a kind of group peer pressure that leads to bad, even unethical or immoral decisions. Teams that lack diversity are most in danger of falling into groupthink and educators, given their very similar education and mindset (by and large, a certain kind of person chooses the profession), are a fairly homogenous group. Add a strong leader, either a charismatic or autocratic one, and the danger of groupthink increases. This is further exacerbated, in education, by the fact that most of us have never left school – high school to university and back to school as a teacher – because we are good at “doing school”, that is, doing what we’re told.

Groupthink begins, of course, from a positive position. We want to do the right thing. We want to improve. We want to get beyond talking in circles, dithering, and scattering our energies to move forward. Perhaps where the switch to groupthink occurs is at the point where we believe that to work together effectively we must have consensus and cohesion above all else. Dr. Newman points out that this focus leads to “dehumanizing others”: it is “us” – the cohesive team – against “them” – the dissenters.

The team then builds its coherence around a set of beliefs about what’s right and what actions ought to take place, gathering information and opinions that shore up their beliefs – and ignoring what doesn't. As the “evidence” stacks up, the team begins to believe that they have right on their side and grow what Dr. Newman calls “unchecked arrogance.” They have no need to listen to the dissenters: they are right. Even if some people on the team have a niggling feeling that something is wrong, they don’t speak up.  They want to be team players.  And more insidious, they fear rejection or even job loss. In fact, instead of dissent, the opposite happens: the team starts to hold back any information that doesn’t fit, and what pioneering groupthink researcher Irving Janus termed a cadre of “mind-guards” actively keep dissenting information back from the leader or team.

It’s hardly surprising that another symptom of groupthink is an illusion of invulnerability – whatever the team does will work because they are in the right! They succumb next to collective rationalization: if something doesn't work out as envisioned, it can be explained by the fact that “the others” are not being team players. After a while, as the group continues to shut out, exclude and guard against dissenting voices, the illusion of unanimity grows: “everyone” agrees (at least anyone who is anyone – or wants to keep the job).

Perhaps it isn't so dangerous in times of plenty. But now, “in difficult financial times, when hard decisions must be made” (the pat phrase), continued lavish spending on the in-group’s projects and special positions means deeper cuts everywhere else, even at the expense of foundational programs: libraries, for example, special education, the basic support for classrooms from secretaries to educational assistants to custodians, books, teaching supplies.

It is unsurprising that after a while, when the wildly optimistic promises are unfulfilled and the unchecked bad decisions (these deep cuts made to key programs, positions and resources to continue to fund the team’s vision) begin to erode the well-being of the enterprise, the in-group is dismantled.  Unfortunately, all too often, they are replaced by yet another strong leader who promises that the problem will be eradicated:  he or she will build a cohesive team!

And we begin again.

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