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Don’t Let Groupthink Tarnish Your Brand

By Larry Checco

Tuesday, October 26, 2007, the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency, better known as FEMA, held a press conference—of sorts.   Wild fires were burning out of control in Southern California.  At least 1,500 homes had been destroyed and over 500,000 acres of land burned from Santa Barbara County to the U.S. Mexican border.  Nine people died as a direct result of the fires; 85 others were injured, including at least 61 firefighters.   Tragic, newsworthy events. 

Evidently FEMA was desperate to get information out to the public about the assistance it was providing, as well as to “spin” what the agency believed was the good work it was doing to help victims. 

Reporters were notified a mere 15 minutes before the start of the event.  It should not have surprised anyone at FEMA that none were able to attend this quickly assembled “news” event.  

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The briefing itself had all the markings of a legitimate press conference. FEMA's press secretary at one point cautioned that he would allow just "two more questions," then called later for a "last question."   In appearance it all seemed authentic enough.

The problem was that in the absence of any legitimate press, those who were posing the questions were FEMA employees—including the agency’s deputy director of public affairs, as well as its director of external affairs!  They planted themselves in the audience to query their own agency’s Deputy Administrator with questions The New York Times would later call "decidedly friendly,” such as "What type of commodities are you pledging to California?" "What lessons learned from Katrina have been applied?" and "Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?”

Of course, to the great embarrassment of FEMA and the administration, this was all quickly unearthed and endlessly reported by the media, in particular The Washington Post.  In the end, FEMA was forced to issue an apology, calling it “an error in judgment.”  Then-Homeland Security Chief, Michael Chertoff, put it more bluntly when he said it was the “stupidest” thing he’d ever seen in government.

But the question remains: How did this public agency, whose reputation, or brand, was already in tatters because of its dismal response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina just two years earlier, expect to get away with this ruse?  After all, this happened in Washington, DC, the center of government and the world’s biggest fishbowl, filled with predatory media outlets constantly on the prowl for just such bureaucratic snafus.

Where was the rational, common-sense braveheart sitting at the conference table while this plan was being hatched who should have been frantically waving his or her arms and shouting, “This is not the right thing for us to be doing.   Our agency is already suffering from the public’s lack of trust in our ability to carry out our mission.  If and when this gets discovered (and how could it not!), it’s not going to help our reputation.  It’s only going to reinforce the public’s distrust and perception of our ineptitude.”   


The Cascade Effect

What most likely happened at FEMA during that fateful meeting might be described as the result of groupthink, or “information cascade.” 

The problem often starts when people make their decisions in sequence rather than all at once.   In his book entitled “The Wisdom of Crowds,” author James Surowiecki says that “The fundamental problem with an information cascade is that after a certain point it becomes rational for people to stop paying attention to their own information –their private information—and to start looking instead at the actions of others and imitate them.” 

I would add that this type of negative cascade effect is exacerbated in organizations where senior and mid-level managers would rather be seen as authoritative figures, obeyed and followed, than transformative leaders who, when presented with constructive criticism, take it into serious consideration and possibly alter their mindsets.

An information cascade is similar to groupthink, whereby a group of people manifest conformity in their thoughts and behavior, especially an unthinking acceptance of majority opinions.

Groupthink reinforces collective thought, not so much from a base of common sense, or rational thinking, but because of a strong hierarchical pecking order often in combination with peer pressure, which often results in the inability to speak truth to authority.

The Inability to Speak Truth to Authority

The simple fact is that when trust and the ability to speak one’s truth to authority are leached from the environment, many organizations either fail in their missions or create emotionally unhealthy workplaces, which result in bad decision making.   In toxic environments like these, it doesn’t take long to reach a tipping point where negative groupthink and the information cascade replace common sense.

What Can be Done

This is an organizational cultural issue that starts with leadership style.  What can be done to ameliorate a toxic work environment?

  • Allow staff to speak its truth to your authority without fear of reprisal or retribution.  Often the best way to have this happen is to tell staff that they will not suffer from being frank, both with you and each other, about problems they see, but that disagreements should be expressed politely, without heat, with evidence, and preferably in private rather than public.
  • Avoid bully management.  This style of management may work to meet short-term tactical deadlines but damages morale, and thus has a negative effect not only on achieving long-term strategic goals, but also on the staff’s ability and willingness to think in more daring, creative ways.
  • Solicit the opinions of others.  Employees, even if their demands are not met, at least want to know that they’ve been listened to and that what they say will be given serious consideration.  Listening can often diffuse tense workplace situations and environments.
  • Be open to change.  Ideological thinking may not be the best strategy, especially in fast-changing times.  Be open to, rather than threatened by new ideas that come from employees.
  • Be respectful of staff.  Again, as stated previously in this book, “Thank you” are the two most undervalued words in the English language.  Coupled with “Good morning” and a smile every now and then, saying “Thank you” can often relieve a lot of daily office tension—and produce better, and more honest, decision making—and consequently, better brands.

Larry Checco is president of Checco Communications.  The above article is excerpted from his latest book Aha! Moments in Brand Management: Commonsense Insights to a Stronger, Healthier Brand. Larry is a nationally recognized public speaker, workshop presenter, and consultant on branding and leadership.  His first book, Branding for Success: A Roadmap for Raising the Visibility and Value of Your Nonprofit Organization, has sold thousands of copies both here and abroad.

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