The Human Factor: Avoiding Groupthink

How to keep an eye out for the telltale signs of groupthink, and why doing so is key to becoming a safer pilot.

The word groupthink has been coined to describe a common phenomenon in which a desire for harmony overrides a realistic analysis of alternatives. This emphasis on maintaining the group’s cohesion and togetherness can result in bad decisions, because differing points of view are not expressed. The description of the kind of group most susceptible to groupthink sounds like the definition of a flight crew — a cohesive, task-oriented, problem-solving group isolated from conflicting opinions, with an open and directive leader and a lack of any formal decision-making process.

Some of the indications of groupthink are also typical of flight crews:

• Feelings of Invulnerability — Invulnerability is one of the hazardous attitudes that is common among pilots. This tendency toward invulnerability in flight crew members can be strengthened if crew members don’t want to be seen as being weak or afraid.
• Pressure to Perform —** Flight crews often experience pressure from management, customers and other crew members to get to the destination on time.

• Collective Efforts to Rationalize or Discount Warnings — Many of my articles, including last month’s article on confirmation bias, have dealt with the tendency of pilots to discount or ignore obvious warning signs. In a crew situation, this tendency can be reinforced as one pilot convinces the other pilot that an evident risk factor is nothing to worry about.

• Not Speaking Up — Even though one or more crew members think the crew is headed down a wrong and perhaps dangerous path, they may not speak up to avoid upsetting the group’s cohesiveness, because they think the others will get mad at them and ostracize them, or simply because they don’t feel they will be able to consider any other factors and still depart on time.

• The Illusion of Agreement — With one or more people holding back on expressing their true feelings and opinions, a false illusion of agreement can develop.

• Discounting Contrary Viewpoints — If someone such as a flight service briefer or air traffic controller expresses an opinion or provides information that is contrary to the group’s desired outcome, group members may attempt to discredit that person or viewpoint.

Swayed by Others
How strong is the tendency toward groupthink? Studies have demonstrated that a significant percentage of people will give an answer that is clearly wrong because that is what they believe a group of people they don’t even know thinks. When asked later why they picked the wrong answer, many said it was because the group pressured them into doing so, but in reality, no one else said anything other than their answer. Merely observing others choose the wrong answer led the test subjects to feel pressured to do so also.

If test subjects in a room with a few people they don’t even know feel pressured to pick the wrong answer even though no one said anything to pressure them, imagine how hard it can be to speak up in the face of overt pressure from a fellow pilot, let alone the captain, chief pilot or CEO. If the senior person has a very domineering or controlling attitude, or comes across that way, that would make it even harder to speak up, especially for someone who is more submissive and has a hard time standing up to a dominant personality style.

While a group of people who are very similar can easily fall into groupthink, a group of very different people are not immune to this tendency. For example, it has been shown that the amount of risk we are willing to accept is to a certain extent genetically determined. At one extreme are people who are very risk adverse.

They have a hard time accepting even risk factors that are a normal part of flying, let alone launching on a flight in difficult conditions that may make it necessary to land at the alternate airport or turn around. At the other extreme, there are pilots who seek out risk and truly enjoy the adrenalin rush that a tight approach with minimum fuel during a thunderstorm provides. It is easy to see how two pilots who are both adrenalin junkies could encourage each other to proceed into the most outrageous conditions, while two pilots who are both extremely risk adverse could end up canceling many flights when the various risk factors could have been carefully assessed and mitigated.

It would obviously be very difficult for two people with opposite approaches to risk to work together. The risk-tolerant pilot would get very tired of the constant concerns of the risk-adverse pilot even in situations in which the flight has been carefully planned and they have a good alternative course of action available. On the other hand, the risk-adverse pilot would feel like the risk-tolerant pilot was being dismissive about his concerns and not taking them seriously. Depending on the personalities involved, either pilot may decide it is easier just to keep his mouth shut rather than keep irritating the other pilot with his contrary opinions.
Keeping It Frank**
The best way to avoid groupthink is to ensure that the discussion is always open and frank. While maintaining his responsibility and authority as leader, the PIC should avoid saying too much in the beginning, because many people have learned from experience that it is much better to go along with what the boss says and that disputing what the boss says can put your job at risk. Be especially wary when people seem to have very similar personalities and opinions, or when they are very different. Research shows that the best decisions are made by teams that are comfortable with each other, but not too comfortable.

The leader should also ensure that all internal and external opinions are taken seriously and carefully considered. Be alert for any attempt to gloss over or discredit input, especially negative input. If you are flying with someone who has a very different personality or risk tolerance than you have, try to find an opportunity outside of flight operations to address those differences and come to an agreement on how to resolve those differences during flight planning or problem solving. On the other hand, if you are flying with someone who is very similar to you, use aggressive skepticism to force yourselves to come up with alternative analyses or courses of action.

Always be alert for anyone who is not saying anything, since they may be holding back from sharing their opinion. Ask that person directly if he has a different opinion that has not been expressed. Also try to be aware of the effect your words might have, and whether what you are saying supports a conservative approach or might encourage risk-taking.

There are emergency situations in flying that don’t afford much time to go through a long decision-making process, but even in a crisis, it is possible to be alert for the symptoms of groupthink. However, planning a flight or making adjustments en route due to weather or other factors typically does allow enough time to access multiple sources of information and carefully consider the alternatives. The astute leader who wants to ensure the best possible decision under the circumstances will be alert for any signs of groupthink and work diligently to get unbiased opinions from everyone involved before making a decision on how best to proceed.


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