When he became President in 1961, John F. Kennedy inherited a plan to invade Cuba and depose Communist leader Fidel Castro. 

Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, hatched the plan to arm and train 1,500 Cuban refugees and send them to attack their homeland. 

The newly-elected President shared the plan with his advisors and asked their opinion. Virtually no one spoke out against the plan so the mission was on. 

On April 17, 1961 a CIA trained and financed guerilla army landed on the shore of the Bay of Pigs.  Within three days, the rebel troops were in retreat. Nearly 150 fighters died and more than 1,200 were captured and imprisoned.  

This is now considered one of the greatest foreign policy disasters of the twentieth century…

…and it all could have been avoided if Kennedy’s advisors had aired their concerns. 

Several later admitted they didn’t like the plan, but they didn’t speak up. 

Why not? Because they deferred to the President who was determined to show the world that the U.S. was winning the Cold War. 

They also didn’t speak up because the group seemed to be behind the President, and it’s hard to be the “lone voice” of dissent. 

Kennedy and his advisors were suffering from “groupthink” — the dynamic in which pressure to agree within the group results in a lack of individual analysis and input.  

It happens in the White House “situation room,” and it probably happens in your meeting rooms. 

When it happens, it leads to poor decisions which, like the Bay of Pigs, can be disastrous. 

The good news: You can avoid this fate if you establish the right practices for group decision-making. 

Here are 3 tips to avoid groupthink and make better, collaborative decisions: 

  1. Leaders should not voice their opinion first.  As a Mayor leading Board of Aldermen and community stakeholder discussions and as a business leader running a company, I admit that it was sometimes really hard to refrain from voicing my opinion.  But if the leader speaks first, team members might feel they need to agree and won’t speak up. 
  2. Encourage brainstorming and debate.  Make sure your team understands that everyone’s ideas, thoughts, and opinions are important and welcome.  Remind the group that the best decisions are made after analyzing an issue from multiple perspectives.
  3. Select one person to be the “devil’s advocate”.  It’s important for the group to think critically throughout the decision-making process.  Assign someone to “think like the enemy”, remind the group of worst-case scenarios and challenge the prevailing opinion.

These tips will help you minimize the possibility of groupthink.  But groups generally strive to be cohesive and gain consensus among the members, so recognizing groupthink and trying to avoid it needs to be an ongoing effort.  

 

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