From historic military meltdowns to last week’s barbecuing of the Kielburger brothers by a Commons committee, being too nice to ask hard questions invariably risks organizational catastrophe, Robert Joustra writes.
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There is a famous psychologist named Irving Janice, at least as famous as academics can be, who pioneered the study of “groupthink” on politics. His most famous case was exploring the chain of events that involved the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, where American trained and equipped ex-pats were dropped into Cuba to overthrow Castro. It was something of a dumpster fire.
But the lessons were many and might have come to mind listening to the testimony of the Kielburger brothers this past week as they discussed how their WE organization got into the fiasco with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government. The key lesson is this: the higher the esprit de corps – the more the people making decisions like each other, agree, even socialize together – the worse their decision making will probably be. The reason is simply that people want to be liked, they don’t want to rock boats in their social circles, they want to be well regarded, especially by people they in turn like or respect. Disagreements cause friction, confusion, even sometimes ruptures in those relationships. This is true at almost all levels of decision making. Nobody is exempt, but it is especially true of moralistic, philanthropic organizations.
These organizations – like WE - suffer under what we might call a double-burden of groupthink. In any business or government agency people can like each other, be agreeable, keep their heads down to keep the peace. The paradigmatic case study is, after all, the Bay of Pigs; funding and outfitting a violent coup is hardly the context of social do-gooders or evangelists. But in mission-heavy, not-for-profits, likeability isn’t the only casualty if you speak up. Contrary voices come off as troublemakers and underminers.
This is what Matthew Cimone described when he joined the organization in 2007. After spending months travelling to schools talking about his time in Africa, he got more and more questions about how the money was being spent. He asked for more tangible details about who was building what, and how it was being built. He got resistance. He pushed harder and was told: “Clearly you have an issue with the organization."
But WE’s entrepreneurial nature, and the near cult-like status of its founders also added a third burden of groupthink, a common one for those of us who follow or work with faith-based not-for-profits: devotion. Lynn DeCaro, who watched the rise of WE for years and did a Master’s thesis on WE in 2011, described how people were mesmerized by the brothers. The rapture, she said, precluded serious scrutiny.
“They really do have this way of drawing people in,” she said. “I can only describe it as evangelical.”
WE is really a case study in problems that plague organizations of their kind: they are routinely victims of their own groupthink, saddled with high likeability, mission fidelity, and cultish devotion. These are the triple threat that few, if any, especially religious organizations, can truly evade. Add on top of it the plague of religious “niceness,” hard questions and real concerns from stakeholders or employees are almost never the order of the day. Maybe your kids go to school together. Probably you share the same church circles. There’s a good chance you’re related to someone, or care about someone who is related. Dissent is buried before it has walked its first step. It’s nearly unthinkable.
WE’s story is not a scandal just because it’s so unlikely. It’s a scandal because it is entirely likely. It may even be inevitable.
It takes enormous, special effort, on the part of organizations like WE to cure the disease of the Bay of Pigs. With so many factors moving against it, the odds of the Kielburgers even hearing dissent or disagreement were low. There was no need to stamp it out. The organizational culture did that long before.
In the long run, though, this is how that story ends: spectacularly, just like the Bay of the Pigs. It may seem “nice” and it may seem sociable, it may even seem pious and trusting, to stuff our non-profit anxieties and skip the hard questions. But, ultimately, it’s the fastest way to degrade and destroy the institutions we care about.