How Groupthink Contributes to Harassment

I was recently challenged by a colleague after a meeting as to whether we had all been guilty more of ‘groupthink’ than was apparent at the time or that any of us would have wished. I’m not sure that I think he was right in his conclusion, but he was certainly right to ask the question. The trouble is, it is such an insidious way to behave. We have all been in situations where you arrive at a meeting convinced the answer to the problem under discussion is scenario A, but by the time the first couple of speakers have gone for scenario X you are left wondering if you want to be the only nay-sayer. Sometimes it feels easier to go along with the majority than appear awkward and out of line. This is a phenomenon psychologists are well familiar with.

Having recently read Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s eloquent book about the teenage brain Inventing Ourselves, I am (even more) aware how adolescents in particular are susceptible to wanting to ‘fit in’ and not go against the consensus of their friends. But we all are guilty of this, to a greater or lesser extent and it can be disastrous. My current evening reading is Margaret Heffernan’s book, published some years ago but since updated, Wilful Blindness, which takes a much broader look at the wide range of situations in which an unwillingness to face up to facts hiding ‘in plain sight’ has lead to devastating consequences. One familiar example would be Harvey Weinstein; another the recent report about abuse of up and coming young footballers at Chelsea and Crewe. People knew but didn’t know.

If the majority of the people are ostriches, why are some people prepared to be whistleblowers? Heffernan gives the example of Steve Bolsin the anaesthetist from Bristol who spoke up regarding the high mortality rate of babies and children undergoing heart surgery. Bolsin had tried more conventional routes to raise the problems he identified, but was brushed off by the hospital leadership and his peers; no investigation was conducted until he went public with the media, at which point it became a ‘national scandal’. Others could have backed Bolsin up much earlier in the process, but hierarchies (and hospitals are full of these) meant that others in the hospital preferred to look the other way rather than risk confronting senior surgeons.

Of course, isn’t this just what happens too often in our universities when it comes to bullying and harassment? I fear that only too often managers, loosely defined, want not to investigate a complaint against a so-called brilliant researcher with multimillion pound grants. Even when investigations are carried out, I have heard one senior university leader bemoan the fact that – despite all the evidence to the contrary – the person chosen to lead the investigation found in favour of the alleged perpetrator rather than the victim. In that situation it wasn’t clear what he, the leader, could do, despite what he thought was a pretty clear case against the senior colleague.

Both Heffernan and Blakemore cite studies utilising the early video game of Cyberball which was manipulated by psychologists to make the volunteers participating appear to be excluded by other players (who were in fact pre-programmed non-humans). After a session of such exclusion their moods were markedly lowered. We like being part of the in-crowd. Apparently we want to conform if the alternative is to be excluded. Conformists are less likely to step out of line and blow a whistle, or support Scenario A in opposition to Scenario X when that is what everyone else appears to be recommending. It is telling that Bolsin had to emigrate to Australia because, having spoken up, he could not find a further position as an anaesthetist in the UK, despite his actions highlighting poor practice having saved many children’s lives at Bristol and elsewhere. Despite this being a landmark action within the NHS. Indeed, one might fear it is precisely because it had been such a landmark case that he had to leave the country.  There is at least one other case (following a whistleblowing story regarding Alder Hey Hospital) where again the whistleblower has ended up leaving the country.

Although I haven’t reached the end of Heffernan’s book to see if this is the denouement (I fear it is not), I would like to think that diversity is one answer to the challenge of groupthink; that in a diverse group there is more likely to be someone who is willing to speak up against actions that other people appear to find no fault with. Furthermore, maybe if you are a minority, you are more likely to feel excluded from the in-group already so there may be less to lose by not being conformist. It would be interesting to know if there is any evidence to suggest ‘misfits’ (minorities in particular, but anyone who for whatever reason is outside the mainstream) are more likely to be outspoken!

Certainly it seems to me that much Heffernan writes about is redolent of what I have written regarding the importance of bystanders, but she is referring more to them in a negative sense: bystanders who stand around and do nothing when they see things go awry, relying on someone else to act. She alludes to research that suggests this behaviour starts at school when children see, for instance, bullying behaviour. As in any organisation this often goes on in plain sight. Teachers do nothing – perhaps thinking children just have to learn to deal with this (we all know how well this can work out in practice) – and other children learn from that observation that doing nothing is OK. Teaching children instead to relate with the victim, to talk to them and check they are OK actually removes some of the power of the bully. The bully, not the victim, becomes the one who is isolated. Lessons for us all there, as we watch bullying occur. Bystanders can, indeed should, help victims even if they are not prepared to intervene directly with the perpetrator.

I have written previously in the Guardian about my own attempts to bring some sort of retrospective justice with regard to the inappropriate behaviour of a senior colleague. I was prepared to speak up publicly. Others, other women, were not. One (more senior than me) told me afterwards she had always just slapped the guy down but had not thought to tell anyone else. Another (slightly more junior) woman assured me the guy was very supportive of women in general and so had equally ignored his inappropriate advances. I don’t think either of these is a sufficient response. I think they should have called him out (both had far more to do with the person concerned than I did, moving more in his circles). His behaviour was well-known but, as Heffernan spells out, the more people know of an issue the less any individual is willing to act.

As I have said, to me this amounts to complicity. We need to find allies and act. We need not to assume that just because no one else is prepared to act, it means that is the best way to behave. We need to be willing not to bury our heads but to challenge decisions. If they are all for the best, the decisions will stand up to such challenges. But otherwise we will, as Heffernan spells out, end up with yet more Enron’s, Harvey Weinstein’s or deaths of Bristol children. Equally, in our universities, we will facilitate bullying, forcing out the less confident rather than the less smart. Collectively we need to do better.



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