Decision-Making Traps: Groupthink and Other Quagmires

In June of 2005, the majority of Americans were dissatisfied with the progress of the war in Iraq. The United States appeared to be caught up in a quagmire, with American lives and resources locked into place as a result of decisions that had been made on the basis of flawed intelligence and faulty assumptions. At a policy lunch held for Republican Senators, Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska seized an opportunity to voice his concern to the president about the way decisions were being made at the White House. Hagel, a conservative, tough-minded Vietnam veteran, had come to believe that Bush’s decision-making process was increasingly insular, and the product of a small group of like-minded advisors who effectively shielded the president from contrary opinions on Iraqi and Middle Eastern affairs.

Bob Woodward chronicles the exchange between the President and the Senator in his 2006 book State of Denial:  Senator Chuck Hagel worried that George Bush was receiving a narrow band of inputAfter lunch, Hagel walked out with Bush and they went off to a corner.

"Mr. President," Hagel said, "let me ask you a question. I believe that you are getting really bubbled here in the White House on Iraq. Do you ever reach outside your inner circle of people, outside your national security council?" Then he added the obligatory softening. "This is not a reflection on, in any way, or an assertion of inadequacy. That's not my point here. I think it's important for presidents, especially in a time of war, to get some other opinions - of people that maybe don't agree with you, or you don't agree with. Call them in. Sit them down. Listen to them. Do you ever do that?"

"Well, I kind of leave to that to [National Security Adviser Stephen] Hadley."

"I know that your national security adviser talks to people, but do you talk to people?"

"Well, maybe I should talk to Hadley about that."

"I think this is very important, Mr. President, that you get some outside opinions here. Just to test your theories and how you're doing." Hagel mentioned themes from histories and biographies he had read. "When a nation's at war, the president is under tremendous pressure. You go deeper into that bunker, and I don't think that's good for you."

Hagel offered to put a list of people the president should talk to in order to understand the full array of opinion regarding the war. Bush’s response to the conversation was to ask Hadley to call Hagel in for a talk with Hadley’s own team. Hagel did his best to express his concerns about the need for increased attention to security, training, governance and infrastructure in Iraq, but left the meeting unconvinced that his concerns would reach the president, or touch the decision-making process. He told US News & World Report that “the White House is completely disconnected from reality.” As Woodward points out, Hagel’s private assessment was much worse: “The administration had no strategic thinker.”

Another book published in 2006, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, examines the political and leadership style of Abraham Lincoln, as he guided the United States through its period of greatest crisis, the American Civil War. Unlike Bush, Lincoln made a point of surrounding himself with his political rivals, naming William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Edwin M. Stanton, and Edward Bates – all of whom had opposed Lincoln in a bitterly fought presidential race – as members of his cabinet. Despite initial misgivings, this unlikely team learned that Lincoln valued their opinions, would consider and reflect on their disagreements and challenges, and would not stick unnecessarily to preconceived notions. Goodwin attributes this ability to manage disagreement and lead an effective decision-making process as perhaps Lincoln’s greatest strength as he led a troubled nation.

In both Lincoln’s Civil War era and Bush’s Iraq era, we see decision-making at the highest level with profoundly significant consequences. No leader can make strategic decisions by him or herself; rather they must guide and ensure a process of decision that entails:

  • ·Framing and asking the right questions
  • ·Gathering trustworthy and useful intelligence
  • ·Ensuring reasoned and open debate before coming to conclusions
  • ·Making sure that lessons learned from each decision process and its outcomes are brought to bear as subsequent decisions crop up

The story of another presidency shows how initial failures of decision-making process, when examined with a true heart for learning and improvement, can lead to subsequent success. In his seminal 1982 work, Groupthink, Irving Janis chronicles the early days of the John F. Kennedy’s administration. At the time, JFK’s circle of advisors was viewed as an exceedingly bright group, with backgrounds in both Ivy League institutions and the highest levels of corporate board rooms. They were destined to make, though, one of the most egregious foreign policy decisions in American history. Kennedy’s historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., said that “Kennedy would sometimes refer incredulously to the Bay of Pigs, wondering how a rational and responsible government could ever have become involved in so ill-starred an adventure.”Janis’ notion of “groupthink” provides insight into why groups of smart people often do such dumb things.

When Kennedy assumed the presidency in early 1961, a grand idea was already on the table, crafted and refined during the previous Eisenhower administration. Only a few years after Castro and his brand of communism took over the island nation of Cuba, CIA Director Allen Dulles and others in the intelligence community put together a plan by which a group of Cuban exiles, already stationed and training in nearby Guatemala, would return to Cuba by means of invasion, which would in turn spark revolt against Castro and his communist regime. The plan resulted in a true disaster. With Kennedy’s approval, 1,400 Cubans did land in a swampy area of Cuba called the Bay of Pigs. As they approached the landing site, many looked over their shoulders, searching for the expected American military might in the form of fighter planes and naval destroyers. This help never arrived. The Cuban expatriates were quickly defeated by Castro’s military. About 1,200 men – almost all of those who had not been killed – were captured and led off to prison.

To say that America was embarrassed on the world stage by this debacle is to say the least. Adlai Stevenson, America’s highly respected ambassador to the United Nations, was caught in an unknowing lie, as he showed “evidence” to the United Nations that the U.S. was not connected to the incident. The facts were soon known to the world. In a nutshell, the United States had encouraged an invasion of a sovereign nation by its former citizens, supplied the equipment and means of conflict, promised assistance to these proud and brave Cubans, abandoned them to failure, and finally denied involvement.

As Kennedy himself wondered, how could we have done something so stupid? That is where the notion of groupthink comes into play. In point of fact, several members of Kennedy’s advisory team had knowledge that, once shared, might have put a halt to deliberations and planning for what we now call the Bay of Pigs incident. As an example, Kennedy and his advisors assumed that the entire operation could be conducted in a clandestine manner, maintaining an illusion of American non-complicity. Indeed, as Kennedy was first told about the plan, he was assured that no one would ever know that the United States was responsible for the invasion of Cuba. Today, of course, it seems ridiculous to assume that secrecy could be effectively guarded during such an epic event, as surely CNN and others would be stationing themselves at the beachhead, ready to videotape the incident which would inevitably have been leaked to the press. Keep in mind, though, that these decisions and events were framed in a different day and age, the 1950s and early 1960s. The notion lingered among Kennedy’s advisors that America would not be held accountable so long as no American joined in actual battle. Not one of Kennedy’s bright group of advisors challenged this assumption.

Captured by Castros's Military at the Bay of Pigs, these Cuban exiles await their fate

As another example, the Kennedy decision-making team had been led to assume that upon failure of the immediate invasion, a contingency safety plan of sorts would be in place. Originally, the invasion had been planned for another landing site, near the Escambray mountains. Should they encounter significant resistance upon landing in Cuba, the men could escape into the mountains and establish themselves as guerilla fighters. When the U.S. Navy advised that a landing in this rocky coast of Cuba would be impossible, the landing site was changed to the Bay of Pigs beaches. The fact that this area was surrounded by swamp, and approachable only by one main road, effectively canceled out the notion of a contingency escape from the battle field. Kennedy and his advisors were not informed of the significance of this change in point of attack. As a group, they continued to assume that contingencies and back-up plans were in place, despite the fact that individuals present at Kennedy’s table were well aware that this part of the plan had been dropped.

Instead of raising their doubts and concerns, key members of Kennedy’s team failed to disclose critical knowledge to the others. Others failed to “cross-examine” Dulles and the CIA in a manner that might have dislodged the faulty assumptions underpinning the plan. Why? As resident historian, Schlesinger found that these people did have the opportunity to share this key information, and that they were not intimidated by Kennedy himself. Rather, they wanted to be seen as “team players,” and did not want to be seen as the one to rock the metaphorical boat. Surely, they thought, if JFK and others are on board with this idea, it must be a good one. They were fooled by the appearance of unanimity, as many left their doubts unvoiced. As Schlesinger witnessed, “our meetings took place in a curious atmosphere of assumed consensus.”

As the history of the short-lived Kennedy administration unfolded, the president would face another foreign policy challenge in the year that followed. In this case, Kennedy was determined to learn from experience and lead a more effective process of decision.

On October of 1962, reconnaissance flights over Cuba revealed the presence of missiles capable of firing nuclear weapons at the continental United States. The weaponry was of obvious Soviet origin, and it was soon determined that more missiles were en route to Cuba on Soviet ships. The situation was immediately deemed untenable by the Kennedy administration, and events now known as the Cuban Missile Crisis ensued. Relations between the United States and the U.S.S.R., led by Premier Nikita Krushchev reached a breaking point.

Mindful of the extremity of possible consequences, and wary of another Bay of Pigs-style decision, Kennedy took measures to ensure a more open and enlightened decision-making process. He invited a broader group into deliberations, making sure that a wide variety of interests and expertise were represented. He did not attend several key meetings, in hopes of encouraging debate unencumbered by his presence. Kennedy and his advisors did decide to act boldly, ordering the American navy to “quarantine” Cuba with a naval blockade, directly signaling to Krushchev that they would not allow Soviet ships to reach port. Communications and negotiations were nuanced, though, and ultimately allowed the U.S.S.R. some concessions that would allow Krushchev to “save face” in the Kremlin and within the Eastern Block. Just as social psychologists study the Bay of Pigs decision as a case study about poor decision-making, they examine the Cuban Missile Crisis as a point of history during which strategic leaders made decisions in the right way.

 We can all learn from history.  As today’s events become parable-like vessels of wisdom. As much as possible, we can:

  • Craft decision-making processes by careful design, rather than by default.
  • Take the time to thoughtfully frame decisions, making sure to ask the appropriate questions.
  • Consider multiple alternatives, avoiding a rush toward one choice that seems initially obvious.
  • Gather sound intelligence relevant to the decision, and make sure that people with knowledge are heard.
  • Make sure that a diverse and thoughtful group of people are engaged in the decision-making process.
  • Listen to contrary opinions.
  • Make sure that decisions are well communicated and understood by those who will implement the decisions.
  • Monitor and track the progress of events, with an eye to revising decisions to fit changing circumstances.