So, in our continual quest to crack the big question, “what is it that’s so screwed up here,” I have enlisted some thinking from a 2005 Yale Alumni Magazine article by Jeff Sonnenfeld (given to me anonymously).

In his article he assesses the shortcomings of “groupthink” which, he suggests, leads to decision making “malfunctions.” We certainly have had our share of those. So, maybe there’s something for us here.

His point is that in both the private and public sectors, “dysfunctional group processes … [can] undermine vital dissent and independent thinking.”

On a local government basis, we have seen the sell out of the city’s interest in developing Brown Field into a regional air cargo facility that could have employed many thousands in good jobs, put another big infrastructure project on the ground in a city that does almost none, and take a withering and expensive asset of the city and turn it into something good for us all. That didn’t happen, of course. But, more to the point here, just days before that (in)famous vote in September of 2001, council support was virtually split even on the issue. In the end, the mayor went sideways on the project (not important to go into the why of that today), and then every other councilmember, including the supporters, went that way with him. Why?

When Enron executive Sherron Watkins warned that the company “could implode in a wave of accounting scandals,” the other execs rallied around the CEO’s limitations on the investigation so that the result of the investigation report raised no serious concerns. That was literally just before the entire company collapsed. Why?

In 2002, when Diann Shipione warned the mayor and council, orally and in writing, of the now all too certain financial collapse of the city from pension and financial manipulations, save Donna Frye (whose “no” vote cost her something fierce), everyone else voted to support the pension scram. Why?

Why wouldn’t some of them have said to themselves, “this might be a good time to ask some questions, and maybe vote no on this goofy stuff? It will probably pass anyway because the other guys aren’t thinking this way, but for me – I’m voting no.”

Why doesn’t that happen?

The answer is “groupthink.”

As described by Sonnenfeld,

the priority of maintaining cohesiveness and solidarity can become more important than evaluating acts realistically and objectively. The members’ strivings for unanimity … override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.

Welcome to San Diego, home of government as a “big happy beach party.”

It happens everyday in San Diego government, and its laziness and danger is evidenced in our current financial condition.

According to Sonnenfeld, the symptoms of this affliction include:

insulation from outside expert opinions, fixation on single paths with no contingency planning; an illusion of invulnerability; collective rationalizations; the denigration of outsiders; and, a coercive pressure on dissenters.

Seen any of that around here lately?

Sonnenfeld states that in each case of moral abandonment, there was no real absence of recognition of wrong; “There was no absence of regulation with clear purpose, no lack of accounting rules with overt intentions, no lack of corporate codes of conduct.” He goes on; “the resolution of these … problems is not through more laws.” It is through creation of “elements of governance: a climate of trust and candor; a culture of open dissent; individual accountability; access to leadership talent; regular evaluation of performance; and, a ruthless purge of those with conflicting personal or commercial agendas.”

In this system, he says, “devil’s advocates can be celebrated.”

Amen to that.


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