Since all church policy is set by our oligarchical leadership, group decision making is a valuable topic to understand how policies are formed and transformed over time. I’ve been reading a book called In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business by esteemed psychologist Charlan Jeanne Nemeth. It’s an interesting look at group dynamics in decision making, and why groups sometimes fail to consider all options. The book presents a few surprising insights confirmed by studies such as:

  • A dissenting view is more powerful and persuasive when it’s a minority view–whether it’s right or wrong.
  • Playing “devil’s advocate” is ineffective, because we know it’s pretend. Only authentic dissent persuades group decisions.

In other words, although people find the majority opinion compelling, they also feel invested in considering an authentic dissenting opinion. Since the bloggernacle was build on dissenting opinions, this is great news for those of us who find ourselves disagreeing with majority opinions from time to time.

The message of this book is not that we should create dissent, but that we should permit dissent and embrace it when it is not present.

Another chapter in the book, “Group Decisions: Often in Error, Never in Doubt,” discusses how “groupthink” happens and what conditions contribute to these types of ill-advised decisions. In describing decision-making in councils, says:

In councils you gather input and then work together to come to unanimous consensus.

“Straining for consensus” is the definition of “groupthink” according to Irving Janis who coined the term. It is “the model of bad decision-making.” Janis adds that “groupthink” is:

“the mode of thinking…when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant…that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.”

Obviously, making a decision involves eventually coming to some consensus to move forward. The issue is whether alternatives are sufficiently considered to avoid making errors in judgment. Is the focus on “gathering input” or on “coming to consensus.” Janis studied infamously bad group decisions like the Bay of Pigs invasion to analyze how groups fall into the trap of seeking consensus without sufficiently evaluating alternatives. Here are the group traits that lead to poor decision making:

  • Cohesion
  • A directed leader
  • High stress
  • Little optimism in the group for better alternatives to the leader’s position

These are the group’s conditions, which then in turn lead to the following symptoms:

  • Stereotyping out-groups
  • The illusion of invulnerability
  • Self-censorship
  • The illusion of unanimity
  • Direct pressure on dissenters (self-appointed “mind guards”)
  • Rationalizations
  • Hubris

The outcomes of these symptoms are:

  • An incomplete survey of alternatives and objectives
  • Poor information search
  • Selective bias
  • A failure to examine the risk of the preferred choice

All of these lead to a quicker than ideal rush to agree to a solution that the leader prefers, but that is not well evaluated for risks. Regarding the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy infamously said “How could I have been so stupid as to let them proceed?” Well, the answer is that they were simply agreeing with his strongly stated preference, one that his brother Bobby ensured others knew not to oppose. And according to the book:

It does not take stupid people to make stupid decisions.

Of the conditions that create groupthink, the most important is a directed leader who openly expresses a preference for a specific outcome. That one occurrence will cause a cascade of other symptoms as group members seek to demonstrate loyalty to the leader in an effort to improve morale and group cohesion.

So what does that mean from a church governance perspective? It means that when you have a directed leader with a strong opinion, the group tendency will be to support that leader’s agenda and to suppress dissent in the interest of cohesion and morale. This is particularly true if the issue under discussion:

  • is stressful
  • doesn’t have clear alternatives that are better
  • involves out-groups
  • is complex
  • doesn’t have a clear champion whose ideas differ from the leader’s

We are at an interesting time in church leadership having just ended Pres. Monson’s decade of tenure during which time (particularly toward the end) he was not leading with vigor to Pres. Nelson’s tenure. Our new church president has many ideas and strong views he is eager to put into practice. As a former surgeon, he is used to being decisive and directing a team. As we saw in the Wikileaks, members of the quorum of the twelve receive information on various topics that interest them and that are related to church policy, but how that information is gathered, presented and considered is related to the dynamics within the decision-making group. And all groups have to watch out for the rush to a confident consensus which is usually related to group dynamics more than it is related to the quality of decision.

Group processes, by and large, conspire to suppress the very diversity of viewpoints that we seek. As we interact with others, we start to develop a shared view of an issue. Whatever differences we have in the beginning become fewer. It is not just that we want to conform or to agree with the majority opinion. It is that the group interaction itself has particular patterns that conspire to limit the range of information considered by the group. It is our desire to seek agreement, coupled with some common group processes, that contributes to poor decisions. . . By their nature, groups move in the direction of consensus. . . . The consensus then intensifies the belief in the correctness of the position.

Dissent is the antidote to the bias toward convergence that exists in groups:

When we are exposed to dissent, our thinking does not narrow as it does when we are exposed to consensus. In fact, dissent broadens our thinking. . . . The implications of dissent are important for the quality of our decision-making. On balance, consensus impairs the quality of our decisions while dissent benefits it.

In my own corporate background, we used to talk about the effectiveness of a decision using this formula:

Quality of Idea X Buy In = Effectiveness

The gist was that even if the idea chosen wasn’t the best one, the real magic was in the ability of the people executing the decision to make it happen. This mindset fought against the tendency of a leader to dominate with a strong opinion, focusing instead on gathering input.

When individuals in a group are too focused on belonging to that group, they don’t take the risk of offering a dissenting opinion. That belonging comes at the price of our pretended agreement to ideas we might not actually support.

Paying this price often leads to unreflective thinking, bad decisions, and reduced creativity, not to mention boredom, vulnerability, and deadened affect. . . . All the while, we are in these deadening meetings and interactions where many people are often a bit fake–often opportunistic.

Why would people follow the group into error? In manufactured experiments, it was found that 37% of members in a group will follow the majority’s incorrect judgment rather than their own, just to fit in. That percent is higher when the task is more difficult or ambiguous, and among individuals with lower self-esteem or who have a high degree of investment in belonging to the group. They fear rejection by the group more than they fear being wrong with the group; there is safety in numbers. But even one vocal dissenter creates room for individual liberation from the hold of consensus.

If we want church decision-making to seek the best decisions and not just consensus, here are some conditions that need to prevail:

  • Dissenting views within the Q12
  • Individuals willing to present information that contradicts the preferred solution
  • Time and space to evaluate options (not forcing issues for quick decisions)
  • Providing clearly better alternatives
  • Reducing complexity and ambiguity in ways that enable understanding

What do you think?

  • Are decisions made in church governance more or less prone to groupthink than other groups? Is it a bigger risk with an active and vigorous church president, or absent that does someone fill this role anyway?
  • Does our focus on hierarchy hinder good decision-making or enable it?
  • Do you think dissent provides valuable input into our decision-making process? Can you think of examples?