Tenth Man: The Vaccine to Defeat the Virus of Groupthink in Decision Making.

OCTOBER 6th 2021 MARKS THE 48th ANNIVERSARY of the 1973 Yom Kippur War (also known as the Fourth Arab-Israeli War, Ramadan War, or the October War).

The 1973 attack on Israel took Israeli intelligence by surprise and exposed its intelligence failure. It’s a classic example of how a super-efficient military establishment like Israel’s Directorate of Military Intelligence (AMAN) can underestimate dangers to its national security despite having information about the war plans.

Though AMAN was fully aware of the threat of a full-blown war by its Arab neighbors but chose to ignore it in the wake of conventional wisdom, confirmation bias, and collective assumptions.

They were captivated by their perception that the Arab alliance is unlikely. Other information like lack of arms and training within the Egyptian army, the ongoing holy month of Ramadan, and the assumption that the result of the Six-Day war where Israelis had mercilessly crushed their enemies six years earlier will deter Egypt to launch an all-out war.

They were confident until 6th October 1973 when the Arab coalition led by Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on the Israeli holy city of Yom Kippur.

Learning from the event, the Yom Kippur war revolutionized Israel’s future approach to decision-making. A post-war inquiry was instituted and following the recommendation and learning from the failure- the Israeli intelligence had to change the way it functioned and operated. It formed a new position called the Tenth Man and the option of writing memos with different and diverse opinions and views.

Now, what is the Tenth man?

The Tenth Man is a person or a unit that plays the role of devil’s advocate. In simple terms, it means: If there are 10 people in a room and nine agree to the interpretation of a particular situation or event, then the role of the tenth man is to disagree with the interpretation and point out the flaws in the decision the group has reached with the best possible argument and information.

No matter the scenario, the tenth man has to start exploring alternatives with the assumption that the other nine are wrong. The tenth man then challenges assumptions, highlights inconsistencies, pinpoints biases, and offers a contrarian point of view.

The main objective is to challenge the decision taken on the received information and conventional wisdom. He searches for the information that contradicts the agreement and decision, provides an independent fresh perspective, and shakes the status quo.

Now, just imagine what would have happened if this concept would have been in place in 1973.

Well, AMAN would have formed two hypotheses: the first being the war would not break out, and the second that the war was inevitable and that the enemy can attack any time. Now armed with these alternative assessments, Israel though going with the same decision but would have been battle-ready in case the enemy launches an attack and thus could have avoided the embarrassment of the top leadership.

“The more amiability and esprit de corps,” said Irving Lester Janis, a renowned Psychologist “among the members of a policy-making in-group, the greater is the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against out-groups.”

Can you recall a time when you wanted to be the tenth man, but when you entered the room, it felt that everyone was on board the ship and everyone seems enthusiastic about the decision? Not intend to rock the boat you to decide to board and go along for the ride.

Irving Janis was the person who popularised the psychological phenomenon of “Groupthink.” He highlighted this concept with some interesting case studies including the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion. This American invasion is one of history’s most alarming failures of groupthink and collective decision-making.

Irving Janis wrote a very famous book “Victims of Groupthink” in 1972. In this book, he analyzed various historical group decisions made by the advisers to US presidents.

One of the most famous examples was the Bay of Pigs invasion. The story goes like this:

The year was 1959, Fidel Castro overthrew the then Cuban government in an armed rebellion, installed himself as the head, and turned Cuba into a one-party state. In 1960, then US president Dwight D Eisenhower ordered a secret military operation against Cuba, based on a plan prepared by CIA director Allen Dulles. The objective was two-fold: To use the Cuban exiles in America to revolt against a new communist dictator and overthrow Fidel Castro.

Before the plan could have been executed, there was a change in top leadership.

In 1961 John F. Kennedy became the new president of America. After few weeks, the CIA approached him and apprised him of the plan to invade Cuba. Over the next few months, Kennedy spent days discussing with his highly talented advisory group consisting of some brilliant minds including Robert Kennedy, Robert McNamara, Jr Allen Dulles, and about 45 others.

The invasion was finally approved and took place in Cuba at a swampy location called the Bay of Pigs. This invasion went on to become the most disastrous exercise and one of the most embarrassing foreign policy blunders of all time.

The international reputation of the US suffered heavily. It became the finest example of “Groupthink” failure.

The consequences were so catastrophic that later on, Kennedy is quoted as saying, “There were 50 or so of us, presumably the most experienced and smartest people we could get. How could we have been so stupid?”

Ted Sorensen, another key advisor later wrote in his book that there were “A shocking number of blunders in the whole decision-making process.”

Analysing the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Irving Janis discovered that, though many of Kennedy’s advisor’s felt that the mission might fail, they never voiced their dissent or disagreed. Though deep in their heart and mind they had serious doubts, but they never persisted, partly out of fear of being labelled as “soft” in the eyes of other team members.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr who was one of the advisors present at the meetings said that Kennedy’s senior officials had rushed to consensus and were unanimous to move ahead with the mission. “Had one senior advisor opposed the adventure” he said “I believe that Kennedy would have cancelled it. No one spoke against it.”

Amazingly Groupthink is an enemy surprisingly welcomed in most groups. The logic states that more minds mean better decisions. Also, in the spirit of camaraderie and teamwork, everyone stifles their doubts and rushes to conformation and consensus without fully analysing the available information and ideas. But, if history’s most alarming failures are dissected, they invert the above logic and concept.

Historians, political scientists, and psychologists have blamed groupthink either partially or wholly for other American failures like the Pearl Harbour attack, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the Iran-Contra affair, and even the space shuttle disasters of Challenger and Columbia.

In other words, no matter how intelligent, how brilliant, how experienced, or how influential the people in the room, more minds don’t mean they will make the right decisions.

Rather, the more amicable the group is, the more the desire for consensus, the more the need to conform, the more the wish for acceptance, the more the desire for harmony in the group, the more likely they will end up making bad decisions.

Before the Bay of Pig Invasion, a meeting was convened where Kennedy asked his senior advisors to finally vote yay or nay. All advisors voted yay just because they believed that all others would do the same.

Though the concept of groupthink started with a bad decision in the White House, it is widely blamed for the majority of bad decisions in business which led to global financial disasters and historical corporate frauds.

Even the space program was not immune to Groupthink.

Challenger Space Program.

On June 18, 1986, Washington Post published an article “Misguided ‘Group Think’ Blamed in Decision to Launch Challenger” on the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle tragedy. The story goes like this:

America’s romance with space programs began with the visionary and clarion call of John F. Kennedy calling Americans to put a man on the moon.

This triggered the launch of the Apollo program in 1961 and lasted until 1972. Kennedy’s mission was accomplished and history made on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed Apollo 11 Module and walked on the moon. But, by the middle of the ‘80s American people had become bored and disinterested in spaceflight.

It is a known psychological fact that too much of the same thing and repetition becomes boring. The predictability and repetition lead to wane in the excitement. Television coverage of space missions went down drastically and in short, the romance of the Apollo era was over.

Under pressure to rekindle the flame, NASA launched the Challenger space shuttle on January 28, 1986. To bring in novelty and excitement the seven-member crew included a schoolteacher and mother of two as part of NASA’s Teacher in the Space program.

But the excitement soon turned into tragedy and the dream turned into a nightmare when just 73 seconds after Challenger’s launch an explosion occurred and the space shuttle plunged into the Atlantic Ocean. It was for the first time in its history, NASA had lost the entire crew of seven astronauts on a mission, while the nation was watching.

Soon after the accident, a presidential commission was instituted to look into the reasons and identify the root cause of the disaster. The finding tabled by the commission said “a serious flaw in the decision-making process leading up to the launch.”

One of NASA’s officers Lawrence Mulloy told the committee members that the launch decision was a result of misguided “Groupthink.” as they hurried and relied on inadequate data and information to go ahead with the launch thereby compromising the safety of its crew members.

Also, other investigations and case studies conducted thereafter were unanimous in the conclusion that the cognitive bias phenomenon of Groupthink was evident in the whole decision-making process.

The lesson for businesses is that any group that takes decisions is vulnerable to this virus of groupthink. Never be too happy if there is group cohesiveness in decision-making. Though possible that cohesive decisions are made fast and quick, with a high level of consensus and agreement.

Remember a quick decision doesn’t always mean a great or right decision. When diverse viewpoints, alternatives, and critical feedback are overlooked, poor decisions can arise.

But fortunately, there is a solution: The Tenth Man.

The idea of Tenth Man is to defy the virus of groupthink, encourage the voicing of alternative opinions, encourage people to speak out their minds, share different perspectives, welcome critical feedback, and dissent, and listen to contrary viewpoints. The real solution is the ultimate goal or priority rather than pleasing the entire team.

Top or group leaders often forget that their true role is not just being a decision-maker, but to facilitate and empower their team to make the right decisions and the only way to do this is to listen to their teams’ diverse viewpoints, objections, critical feedback, and concerns.

In the Challenger disaster, on the very fateful day, engineers acting as the Tenth Man recommended the management to stop the launch as the temperature was not favourable.

But one of the management top officials went to the extent of saying that “this is not a decision for engineers; it’s a decision for managers.”

America and NASA paid a heavy price for ignoring and side-lining the Tenth Man.

Businesses and organizations badly need the Tenth Man especially in this era of egoistic personalities.

As a leader and an organization encouraging and install the Tenth Man in your group. In this way decisions to be made by the team as a whole can go a long way in preventing Groupthink.

This is an extremely important concept and I would love to hear from you!

If you have your own story of Groupthink, then Please do share your feedback and opinion in the comments section below!

Happy Decision-Making: Install A Tenth-Man.

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