Groupthink. The term was coined by Irving Janis to describe a very pernicious group decision-making dynamic. Wikipedia defines it as: “A psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences. Groupthink requires individuals to avoid raising controversial issues or alternative solutions, and there is loss of individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking.”
While it has a number of characteristics, two of the most prevalent ones are self-censorship and mindguards. Self-censorship occurs when members of the decision-making team refrain from making suggestions that are counter to the prevailing consensus of the group. This is because a person might not want to rock the boat, is afraid of being criticized by other members of the group, or feels that if the majority of the team thinks a certain decision is correct then they must be right since they are the majority.
This occurred in the run-up to the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Engineers who were concerned that the projected launch temperature would be too cold to launch due to the O rings, ultimately stopped expressing their concerns and concurred with the majority that it was okay to launch.
Mindguards are people who discourage team members from disagreeing or questioning the consensus. They are the ones who will attack or ridicule any dissenting opinions, thus undermining any critical analysis of alternatives. This characteristic of groupthink was very evident in the decision-making process leading to the ill-fated invasion of Holland in September 1944, known as Operation Market-Garden. Intelligence officers who challenged the assumptions that the attack were based on were quieted or, as in one specific case, ordered to go on leave. Mindguards on Montgomery’s staff ensured dissenters would have no say. Tragically, thousands of Allied soldiers paid the price for Montgomery’s folly.
The dangers of these factors were already evident to Moshe in this week’s parsha. Moshe hoped for an honest appraisal on the part of the spies. However, he realized that there was a danger they might err in their evaluation. However, he knew that he could count on Yehoshua to give an honest evaluation no matter what and, hopefully, counter any potential damage the spies might do. According to the Targum, Moshe was nonetheless concerned. He knew Yehoshua was very humble. He therefore changed Yehoshua’s name from Hoshea to Yehoshua to strengthen his resolve.
The commentators ask what Yehoshua’s humility had to do with Moshe’s concerns about the spies’ report? Rav Greenberg in his anthology Iturei Torah quotes two explanations that answer this question. Reb Mendel of Riminov suggests that Moshe was concerned that at the moment of truth, when Yehoshua needed to challenge the spies, his innate humility would deprive him of the will and fortitude to speak up. Moshe was afraid that he would simply remain silent as the spies spread their lies. Rav Avraham of Socachov suggests that it wasn’t so much that Yehoshua would be intimidated and silenced by the spies, but rather that Yehoshua, due to his humility, would assume that the spies were right and he was wrong. He would therefore subordinate his opinion to that of the majority. In contemporary terms, Moshe was afraid that Yehoshua would fall victim to mindguards and self-censorship. By changing Yehoshua’s name Moshe hoped to ensure that Yehoshua would speak his mind.
Unfortunately, the spies prevailed despite the efforts of Calev and Yehoshua to counter their arguments. But their small success helped Moshe save Bnei Yisrael’s future even though for the present they were to remain in the desert. Yehoshua’s avoidance of the pitfalls of groupthink helped prevent a total national disaster.
Leaders must heed this lesson. They must ensure that groupthink does not poison the dynamics of their decision-making process. Every group consists of individuals. A leader should never let his team members forget that they are individuals.