Insights | Our Thoughts

Groupthink Creates Risk and Can Lead to Crisis

August 2022

Organizations that suddenly find themselves in crisis and then the public spotlight often call us.  Crisis can be paralyzing.  Few people do their best thinking in crisis.  Responding well as a group is even harder and one reason is groupthink.

Frequently an organization’s culture causes people in leadership to see issues the same way.  Groupthink creates blind spots and blind spots can lead to bad decision-making.  Bad decision-making can both create crisis and mistakes in responding to crisis.

A couple of examples come to mind.  Recall the athletic shoe company that emailed Boston Marathon participants, “Congrats, you survived!” following a race held just a few short years after the bombing that killed three and injured more than 250 people.  How about the beverage company that aired an ad during the Black Lives Matter protests featuring Kendall Jenner calming an angry crowd simply by handing a police officer a can of soda?

Both companies apologized following a public outcry.  Consumers questioned how a group of decision-makers at these companies could have been so blind and tone deaf.  Groupthink, and the blind spots inherent therein, clearly contributed.

A National Bureau of Economic Research study published in June found corporate boards have become more politically homogenous.  Among corporate leaders, more Democrats have clustered with fellow Democrats and more Republicans have clustered with fellow Republicans.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this study’s findings.  Our country is generally divided between Democrats and Republicans, between Left and Right, between viewers of CNN and viewers of FOX News.  It’s reasonable to think the larger trend among individuals to associate with like-minded individuals would extend to corporate leadership.

The voices at both ends of today’s political spectrum are driving the debate on the most controversial topics of our time such as abortion, climate change, gender identification and race relations.  As political polarization increases among consumers, the line between political debate and how organizations behave is all but gone.

Consumers (especially among younger generations) increasingly expect companies to choose a side on societal issues.  This expectation presents an enormous risk for business and their brands.  Whether organizations opt to take a side or try to stay out of the fray, the risk of alienating customers is nearly inevitable.

The greatest risk of groupthink is the inability of decision-makers to recognize their collective blind spots, which exposes organizations to crisis and hinders their ability to respond well to crisis.  Our focus is to flag these trends as an area of increased risk for organizations.

At Sound Counsel Crisis Communications, we help organizations prepare for, respond to, and recover from crisis.  Our crisis preparedness program helps clients identify their blind spots and vulnerabilities.  We also specialize in helping clients navigate and recover from crisis by advising what to say, how to say it, and making good on promises.

If you’d like to learn more about how to ensure your organization is adequately prepared for crisis, please visit our website or contact us at [email protected].