At the height of the Cold War in 1961, a small group of determined politicians who believed unshakeably in themselves, brought the world to within a twitch of nuclear Armageddon.
On paper it seemed like a good idea. America’s Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba was designed to overthrow Fidel Castro’s Soviet-leaning regime. It was more than a humiliating failure for President Kennedy. Fearing another assault, Castro appealed to the Soviets for defensive support who willingly set up a battery of nuclear missiles just ninety miles from the Florida coast, bringing every US city within striking distance. Thus ensued thirteen unlucky days which nearly ended in World War Three. A deal was struck finally, and Kruschev agreed to remove the missiles in return for the US accepting the existence of communist Cuba and humiliatingly, removing its own nukes from Italy and Turkey.
Who lost most? Answers on a postcard…
The Bay of Pigs fiasco became the focus for a psychological examination of why people continue to do things that are patently wrong-headed, misguided and unwise in the face of overwhelming evidence that they shouldn’t. By insulating itself from criticism and vigorously suppressing any alternative voices, the Kennedy administration had become blind to its own recklessness. Arguably Tony Blair, George Bush and their advisors suffered from the same myopia when they launched the Iraq invasion, another military disaster waiting to happen.
Thinking the Same Way
Irving Janis coined the term ‘Groupthink’ to describe the phenomenon of irrational decision-making among close-knit groups. What happens is that individuals within the group feel a strong pull to conform, to back each other up, and to avoid outside influences which may challenge their comfortable consensus.
It is cosy being part of a friendly, mutually supportive, stable team in which members are unquestioningly loyal to each other, where there is minimal conflict. While it might feel good for all kinds of psychological reasons, this is not a healthy situation in which to find yourself. There is a tendency to closed-mindedness, to stereotype alternative viewpoints as spiteful, meddlesome and biased, to label dissenters as treacherous trouble-makers or even bullies. When the group begins to believe unquestioningly in the rectitude of its behaviour and values, when important decisions are waved through without argument, and when alternative viewpoints are greeted with affront and outrage, you know you are in trouble.
Groupthink happens in companies, political parties, in quangos, among military planners and in local councils, just about anywhere where small groups of like-minded individuals are working in a closed environment. It is most likely to occur where these groups inhabit situations where they perceive themselves to be under threat, real or imagined, and so feel insecure and defensive.
Ledbury Town Council Does It Again
There is more than a touch of groupthink in Ledbury Town Council just now.
At last night’s Finance and General Purposes Committee (23 October), the reaction of two councillors who hold positions of power in the Council was intensely revealing.
In considering some pages of accounts, Cllr Liz Harvey proposed that the format of the information could be improved, that the information was confusing and difficult to interpret, particularly for members of the public. A sensible, diplomatic response might have been to agree to have a look at the matter and explore ways of making improvements if possible. Not a bit of it. Bristling, the chairman, backed up by the Deputy Mayor, waved the comment aside and said that he could see no problem. End of discussion.
Later in the meeting, I raised some concerns about the training budget for Town Council staff. Last year and this, the budget was £2000, about 2.7% of the salary total. It was being proposed that this remain at the same percentage in future years. Not only did the overall figure look to be on the low side (5% of salary would be a rough norm in the wider business world), but given the scale of challenge in coming years with additional responsibilities handed to the Council, and an election in 2015 involving a new intake of councillors, I suggested it would make sense to invest more generously in staff learning and development.
When that suggestion was slapped down, I pointed out, unhelpfully it seems, that there appeared to be a problem in this area given that less than a third (£618, representing 0.9% of salary expenditure) of last year’s training budget had been actually spent, with a similar trend in evidence this year. Why, I asked, were staff not being encouraged to take up training? Why was the training budget so underspent? Was this not a failure of HR management given the centrality of having highly motivated, fully equipped people at the heart of the Town Council?
My comments were fairly pithy, but they were well meaning in that our office staff are the Council’s single greatest asset whom I believe should be fully supported in their professional development. Not managing to spend even a modest training budget such as ours, cannot be counted a success, except that is, if you think training people is a waste of money.
To this, I was told at some length by the Chairman Paul Winter that he took ‘great exception’ to my comments. I should not use words like ‘failure’ and other emotive language, he scolded. I was wrong to suggest that people were not free to take up training opportunities (something I didn’t say nor imply). There were nods of agreement around the table. Hadley is at it again. Causing trouble. How very dare you! And no thanks, Cllr Winter added, he wouldn’t be requiring my input in helping to undertake a training needs analysis which aligned staff learning with strategic organisational priorities, an area in which I am professionally qualified. A raw nerve had clearly been accidentally touched.
No it’s not pleasant being bombarded with bad vibes, secure in the knowledge that my name is once again confirmed as mud by the ruling elite. I don’t expect colleagues always to agree with me. Over fifty four years, I’ve had my fair share of being attacked by badly-informed and short-sighted people. What I do expect, is at least a semblance of objectivity in the way decisions are made, a willingness to take on board alternative ideas. It’s why I’m involved in this small town politics thing: god knows it takes a lot of valuable time and energy, is emotionally exhausting and perennially frustrating. This is the town I live in and care about. Damn politics and dancing on egg-shells, I want to see right by Ledbury.
Back to groupthink: if Ledbury ever needed a diverse range of new voices to inject some critical thinking, dynamic creativity and strategic acumen into our affairs, it is now. The town is facing a set of formidable challenges – rampant building development, public service cutbacks, cracks in our community cohesion and an unsustainable local economy. The last thing we need is a small inner circle of old-hands deciding what’s best, regarding alternative views as politically subversive, listening only to each other, believing completely in their own narrow, entrenched world-view.
Last night’s meeting was a case study in obstinacy, closed-mindedness and overweening control. There needs to be a change of mindset.
There will be once again howls of outrage at this piece. You know what? This voice, at least, will not be suppressed. Troublesome I may be, but I won’t be buying into the cosy establishment consensus that has run Ledbury for decades. It's dangerous. Far better to run with that pesky thing called democracy.