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In previous posts on groupthink (this is the last) I’ve tried to show it’s potential dangers, but that isn’t to say that I think that groups or teams are bad.  Just the opposite!  As one of my graduate school professors said to me (who was very much into groups),  “Yes, Ron, community is necessary for spiritual growth, but only if the group is healthy.”  Healthy or not, people do gather, and because of the relational baggage we carry, or the emotional wounds from our past, our stories often collide as we experience one another.  Nevertheless, good things can come out of these collisions if there are those within the group who are committed to Christ-like solutions.  Groupthink methods can certainly help control these collisions but there is a better way.  Teamthink.  Neck and Manz (1994), coined the term, but it’s characteristics can be seen in scripture.  They defined it as, “effective synergistic thinking within the group.”  Unlike groupthink, teamthink is characterized by these traits:  

  • Encouragement of divergent views 
  • Open expression of concerns/ideas
  • Awareness of limitations/threats
  • Recognition of member’s uniqueness
  • Discussion of collective doubts  

Acts 15 offers us an example of these characteristics at work.  A conflict arose in the church of Antioch because the more traditional Jewish believers wanted the Gentile followers to obey the law of circumcision.  I won’t get into the theological implications of law and grace, but instead consider the way the group resolved the conflict by cooperating with the Holy Spirit and each other to reach a decision on the matter. 

  “Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’  This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.”- Acts 15:1-3 

First notice the phrase “sharp dispute and debate”.  Though it is rare that you’ll ever “convert” anyone by arguing with them (though it does happen), there are times when such debates are necessary.  Labeling as divisive those who are contending for core issues of faith is misguided.  Paul and Barnabas were not being divisive.  Those promoting wrong doctrine and encroaching on the liberty of the non-traditional Antioch church were the cause of the division.  Elsewhere, Paul actually speaks of “Those who cause division because of their wrong doctrine”, but encourages Timothy to rebuke them sharply and to correct them. 

  “Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.’  The apostles and elders met to consider this question.  After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: ‘Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe.  God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.  He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.  Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?  No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.’  The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.  When they finished, James spoke up: ‘Brothers, listen to me.  Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself.'” -vv. 5-14 

Notice that the concerns of all parties were heard.  There was “much discussion”, and there was no attempt by the apostles to pull rank or distance themselves from the less powerful, least represented Gentile members of their group.  “God who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.  He made no distinctions between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.”  What is amazing to me is how we today, who do not have the credibility or authority of the early apostles, lack their humility when we try to wield more authority over people in our faith communities than they were willing to force upon their own in their day.  

  “It is my judgment therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.  Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.  For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”  Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, two men who were leaders among the brothers.” – vv. 19-22  

Here we see the “us” in consensus.  They did not dismiss the concerns of the more established or powerful group.  They acknowledge the legitimate threat to the faith and their standing within the religious traditional Jewish community, but addressed them biblically, appealing to cultural sensitivity.  Love, even under the pretense of liberty, does not needlessly cause others to stumble.    

  “Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing.  It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements:  You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.” -vv. 27-29 

 Once again we see an appeal to be sensitive to the legitimate concerns of the other group, concerns that were rooted in both scripture and culture.  It was with this in mind that they set reasonable limitations on the Gentile community that did not place on them unnecessary religious burdens or violate their liberty in Christ. 
 
In making these decisions, the group and their approach was no less “spiritual” because they did not have a “Word” from God, though they would have responded to one if the Spirit had chosen to direct them in that manner (which, ironically, was common in the Antioch church).  Nor did the leader come down from the mountaintop, having heard from God for all the others, while they all compliantly obeyed (though God does speak through others, the “word” is still judged for authenticity).  Nor was it less relational because they disagreed sharply.  Peter and Paul were not subversively undermining the church because they broke with the status quo of the more influential majority group.  They took a stand on biblical grounds regarding what they understood to be essential.  Though their experiences among the Gentiles were unique, they were recognized as credible, and rather than being dismissed as “just another opinion”, it added to the realization of a new harmony and, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”.  Wait a minute!  The Holy Spirit?  How did He get in there?  When did He show up?  You mean with all these leaders fighting for their view of what is right, all these people with all their stories and experiences, their opinions, their traditions, their liberty, their you name it; with all this religious testosterone in the room, the Holy Spirit was there the whole time helping, leading, and trusting them to work it out according to His heart and mind?  Yep. 
 
So, here in scripture we see a positive example of decision-making in a group context.  Not just another technique or opinion of man, but a lived out, New Testament example from those who came before us.  
 
When it comes to team work and decision-making, a thinking team is better than groupthink, and… “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit”.  Let me know what you think.
 
Roc 

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Please forgive my slowness in posting lately.  It isn’t for lack of interest, but a round robin of cold and flu symptoms at home.  I have had some time to let some thoughts germinate, and if it comes out rather random, well, I’m not feeling particularly clear headed these days. 

First, in light of what I’ve already written about the dangers of groupthink, for the intensely independent readers, I would like to point out that I do believe in community, and it is my intense desire to be a better, more authentic member of the Christian community as I understand it in scripture: A body of believers,  “One Anothering” each other, caring for one another, ministering to the needs of one another, breaking bread and sharing their spiritual gifts with one another, impacting their community around them with one another, sharing their food and belongings with one another.  Basically, sharing life with one another.  Little of what I just described actually happens in a church meeting on Sunday mornings (we have professionals who are hired to do those things), but I do believe in the assembly of the body of believers, though I maintain that it will look different for various communities (especially if a church community is dedicated to living out what I described above).

I also believe in leadership.  Please do not make the mistake of mis-interpreting my previous posts on groupthink and the wrong kind of leadership as being a rebellious take on legitimate authority.  I’ve been misunderstood in the past, sometimes understandably, other times either in an attempt to discredit the message and the messenger, or in reaction to some point that struck too close to home.  Note: If it appears as if I’ve been aiming at you, I’m not directing what I’ve written at anyone in particular.  To quote a former pastor of mine: “I’m not shooting at you.  You’re simply in the line of fire.  Get out of the way.”  The Church needs servant leaders.  Spiritually gifted men and women, of proven character, sound in doctrine, who know how to walk along side their brothers and sisters, not lord it over them; a person of strong faith, who understands the way of the cross, the way of sacrificial love; leaders who are in touch with their own weaknesses and transparent about their failures, so they are comfortable with the weaknesses and failings of others as they grow in maturity.  Leaders like that take time to cultivate, but once they are, they can be trusted, and their faith should be imitated, and their authority within a church community should be recognized. 

Regarding community, another word that has repeatedly come to  mind, but I’ve resisted using until now, is consensus.  Community, team, relational, communal, consensus; these are all words that have grown in popularity in recent years with entire theologies built around these themes coming to the forefront of theological discussions.  What we mustn’t lose  sight of is that consensus does not begin with man at the center.  Christ and discernment of His will, His purpose is the goal of every community. 

By consensus, I do not mean uniformity, but harmony.  I’ve met leaders (and too often have been one) who preferred that others would be more like them rather than more of who they truly were.  Using  music as a metaphor, we want to be a part of a group that’s playing the same tune.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  A group cannot “play” together unless they’re playing the same tune.  Some leaders, however, mistake the unity of playing the same tune as meaning that everyone must play the same note.  Certainly, a group playing a tune by insisting that everyone play the exact same notes on their instruments will ensure that everyone is playing the same tune.  But this kind of “unity” is neither reflective of skill or maturity.  It allows for no thematic variations, or emotional nuances brought about by the interplay of major and minor chords that make music, or any relational dynamic, so thrilling, memorable, and yes, at times  even dangerous.  Nor does it allow the interplay of musical themes (people’s own stories or sense of purpose) into the mix because things might get “complicated”, and yet these are exactly the kinds of complexities life brings us, complexities that small-group and organizational leaders must learn to conduct. 

The very meaning of the word consensus is to harmonize, and ironically, you cannot have harmony without differences.  It is when notes are played that are different, but sympathetic to one another in arrangement, that harmony is created.  These differences allow a simple tune to be transformed into a beautiful composition.  In the same way when a group honors differences while seeking to be like minded (sympathetic), embracing the diversity of gifts within the group, listens well, and speaks the truth in love, then harmony can be achieved.  But it takes skill and maturity for a conductor (leader) to orchestrate complex arrangements or a diversity of gifts within the Church Body (ultimately it’s the work of the Holy Spirit).  Many leaders simply resort to control mechanisms or more traditional, or authoritarian forms of leadership simply because it’s easier (I’m not the only one, am I?).  That does “work” in a pragmatic sense, if one is forceful or charismatic enough, but when groupthink is the result, it’s a song sung off key. 

My question is, “How can a leader avoid groupthink, and co-operate with the Holy Spirit in facilitating harmony within a community unless they themselves learn to sympathize with the instruments and notes (struggles, strengths, gifts weaknesses, callings, stories, etc.) that others in the group carry within them?” 

It may not be linguistically precise for me to do this , but I like to think of consensus in this way: Con (means with or part of) + sens (sense or awareness of) + us (others I am relating to or interacting with).  Consensus: with a sense or awareness of others.  Doesn’t that sound better than simply trying to get everyone to agree with you?  Or allowing the group to be controlled by those who want consensus simply as a means of thwarting true Godly authority.  Consensus is about including informed others who’s strengths can and should be brought to bare on issues of discernment or decision making.  We see this in Acts 15 at the Church of Antioch when a groupthink posse from the more established church in Judea tried to dictate to the  gentile converts who did not feel bound to the same traditional restraints. 

 I’ll wait until my next and final post in the series to unpack their conflict and we’ll see the creative way the leaders overcame groupthink, and in co-operation with the Holy Spirit helped to “orchestrate” harmony in the community.  

Peace,

Roc 

I’m busy today conducting a workshop, so I might not be able to post Part 3 of the Groupthink series until tomorrow. There is, however, this old tune by the Police that’s been running through my head called Miss Gradenko that speaks to the issue. I won’t bother explaining it, I’ll let the song and this video speak for itself.

Peace,

Roc

“MISS GRADENKO” 

The two leaders always had a tenuous alliance with each other.  They were both leaders with a sizable following and with great influence, and neither fully trusted the other, but their shared religious history and ambition for power and influence kept them working in collusion to expand their kingdoms. 

So the two “Kings” called a summit where they conferenced.  “Abe”, the first leader, said to “Josh” the second, “Let us partner together, and our combined strength can be marshalled to extend our influence into the surrounding kingdoms”.  Josh thought it a great idea and assured Abe that his network and followers, would support the venture, “But first, let us seek to hear from God, and see what He thinks”.  Abe had already decided that it was a good idea, even if it wasn’t a “God” idea, but in order to appear to be inclusive of the other leader’s suggestion, he summoned his team of company prophets.  All 400 of them.  Why so many?  The shear number of voices, all giving confirmation, must have been an overwhelming sign of the spirituality and rightness of the leader, and confirmation that He was God’s man.  After all, a consensus of 400 prophets must certainly be of profit to “the kingdom”.  So Abe called his prophets, all 400 of them, and asked (more like, declared; he was the leader after all, and had already decided), “Shall we combine forces and extend my, uhh, our kingdom?”  The prophets (who do not profit) all said “You betcha’, if God be for ya who can be against ya and stuff, praise God”, and other such spiritual sounding catch phrases. 

Now Josh wasn’t impressed by all this pretence, and though he was as much in collusion as Abe, he sincerely wanted a true word from God, no matter how it contradicted their plans.  After all, he was a pragmatist, not a fool! 

“Isn’t there a true prophet of the Lord around here instead of a bunch of yes men?”  At this comment, Abe began growing a bit agitated.  Josh was his invited guest, “The least he could do is show a little respect in honor of my authority” he thought to himself.  But he needed Josh, so he found it expedient to defer to his wishes.  “There is another guy, but he’s a lone ranger, and doesn’t know how to submit to authority (submission and authority were big issues for Abe).  He doesn’t fit in with the rest of the group, and is always negative and critical of my directives, not to mention my company of prophets.  He’s always talking about orthodoxy (right doctrine), orthopraxy (righteous acts), and orthocardia (pure and righteous heart/desires).  We don’t need all that intellectual theological stuff!  Always talking about idols of the heart and repenting of this or that.  It’s a downer, we don’t need that negativity.  And he has issues with authority.  Oh, did I say that already?” 

Nevertheless, Abe turned to his associate and said, “Email Mikey!”  And for added affect, “And bring him to me!”  When Mikey arrived, the associate coached him as to what kind of “word” he was to give in keeping with the spirit of the other prophets.  “The leaders are all in agreement (at least none have spoken up in disagreement), the prophets have all offered similar opinions, and this venture is going to happen anyway, it’s already in motion.  So, don’t be presumptuous; let your word be in harmony with the rest of the group so that there will be unity.  Don’t be divisive! “

“You must be trippin’!”, said Mikey.  “That’s not how I roll.  I’m just a mouthpiece.  A messenger just like you!  What the Lord speaks, that’s what I’ll say, and I won’t be flippin’ and twistin’ it to appease anyone.”

Always the non-conformist”, the associate groaned to himself.

“Mikey, should we go into ‘battle’ and extend our territory?”, Abe asked (he had already made up his mind; he was the leader after all).

“You betcha”, he said wearily, like one who has played this game way too many times.  “If you go into “battle”, or pursue this course of action, or venture, or whatever you’re callin’ it, God will give you good success…”, and in his best Monty Python rendition, “and there will be much rejoicing, Hooraaaayyy!” 

Abe got the intended message.  “How many times have we gone through this?  Tell me what you really think!  What do you hear?!  We want the truth!!” 

Mikey’s first impulse was to assume the most militaristic posture he could muster and shout back, “You Can’t Handle The Truth!”, but thought better of it.  However, because Mikey recognized and honored true authority (the position, if not the man), he did what all true servants of the Lord do: he submitted by speaking the truth as the Lord had spoken!  “The Lord showed me all your people scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the Lord said, ‘These people have no leader.  Let every man withdraw to his own house'”.  

“Aaaand there you go”, said Abe.  “Always so critical and negative!” 

Mikey continued delivering the word of the Lord.  It was plain that Abe and Josh’s venture was to end in disaster, that is if Mikey’s word was true.  When Mikey finished, Abe’s senior or “master” prophet, slapped him in the face, and scorned the word he had given.  “Who do you think you are?  When did God leave us to speak through you?”  Mikey had accused him of being deceived and of lying to himself and others, and that was when the “senior” prophet slapped him in the mouth.  Abe, then had Mikey disciplined for insubordination, and once again placed him on ministerial probation.  This would send a message to any of the other prophets in case they were ever tempted to risk humiliation by speaking the truth and contradicting the group and their leader.  Mikey would be restricted from public ministry until he either got with the program, or his word was proven false.  But he wouldn’t.  And it wasn’t.  His word, just like this story, was true, and the word of the Lord came to pass just as Mikey said it would.  In the end, the 400 prophets Abe gathered to himself did not profit him.  Not only did he lose the honor and power he so coveted; he also lost his life.  

If you haven’t already figured it out, yes, this is a true tale, although I have taken some dramatic license in the telling of it.  It is the historical record, found in 1Kings 22:1-39, of Israel’s Kings Ahab (Abe) and Jehoshaphat (Josh), and the Lord’s prophet Micaiah (Mikey), and his encounter with Ahab’s company of prophets.  These prophets did not profit the king or his subjects because they were all ensnared by groupthink.  All of the Eight symptoms mentioned in my previous post, Groupthink Part 1: Harmony or Conformity, can be found in their story.  And it ends disastrously.  Please find the time to read this cautionary tale.  The telling of it gives a vivid example of the dangers of groupthink, whether it’s regarding a nation with a leader like Ahab, determined to go to war and the religious leaders who rally around him, or a church leader with a team of members or company of “prophets” who do not have the courage to speak the truth in love for fear of reprisal, or who perhaps choose not to do so in hope of personal reward, or promotion. 

On that note, I’ll leave you with these words from A.W. Tozer: 

“God has always had His specialists whose chief concern has been the moral breakdown, the decline in the spiritual health of the nation or the church. Such men were Elijah, Jeremiah, Malachi and others of their kind who appeared at critical moments in history to reprove, rebuke and exhort in the name of God and righteousness… Such a man was likely to be drastic, radical, possibly at times violent, and the curious crowd that gathered to watch him work soon branded him as extreme, fanatical, negative. And in a sense they were right. He was single-minded, severe, fearless, and these were the qualities the circumstances demanded. He shocked some, frightened others and alienated not a few, but he knew who had called him and what he was sent to do. His ministry was geared to the emergency, and that fact marked him out as different, a man apart.”

Indeed.

Ron

Groupthink: A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action. -Irving Janis

Philippians 2:2- “Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.” -Paul the Apostle (and “Chief” of sinners) 

Today I’m beginning a series of posts on Groupthink and other relational issues, especially within the church community.  The issues I will touch on pertain to group dynamics in any organizational structure whether it be a family, business, political party, or school club.  I will, however, focus primarily on relationships within a church or other ministry context because there is something about religious groups that make them particularly susceptible to the dangers of Groupthink.

Irving Janis, who in the 70’s conducted extensive studies on Groupthink, was able to identify eight traits that were common to this group behavior:

  1. Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.
  2. Rationalising warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
  3. Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.
  4. Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, disfigured, impotent, or stupid.
  5. Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”.
  6. Self censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
  7. Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.
  8. Mindguards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

As I read this list I couldn’t help but think of the recent elections and how each of these traits were symptomatic of the presidential campaign, and when I warned others of what I saw, I personally experienced numbers 2,4,5, and 8 on a regular basis.  It is within the church, however that I’ve routinely experienced this dynamic.  There are many reasons for this.  A core ethic of followers of Christ is unity.  We are to love one another, care for one another, pursue peace with one another, and to be like-minded.  Many of us within the Body of Christ take this to mean that all conflict is bad, critique is divisive, and dissent is an act of disloyalty.  Of course that is not what Paul meant when he urged us to be of the “same mind”.  He was not encouraging us to the form of “Groupthink” described above, which isn’t really “thinking” at all (in the biblical sense of the word).  Nor is this type of “Groupthink” the loving thing to do.  It does not reflect Christ’s nature or attitude.

“Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.”

I won’t get too technical, but when Paul says be “like-minded” he is using the Greek verb phroneō, “to think,” and in some translations autos is added to phroneō and is translated “of the same mind”.  Paul’s appeal is not for thoughtless uniformity passing as harmony.  He wants us to have the same opinion or attitude regarding something in particular, something specific that makes for true harmony; something that produces unity in diversity.  The unity the world offers is a counterfeit to the harmony that Christ calls us to live out in community even when we encounter diverse viewpoints on a course of action, or are learning to live with, and care for those of another ethnos or group.  In either case we are called to be of “like-mind” and  “one purpose”.  How are we to do this?  

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” 

Of course it’s easy to see how our government has failed in this area.  Partisan politics makes it is extremely difficult for our leaders to acknowledge the value or worth of their opponent and their views for fear of losing power and influence within their own group.  They avoid critiquing the assumptions of their own group for fear of losing credibility or position.  But isn’t it strange that we see this same attitude among Christians even within our churches, denominations, and para-church  organizations? 

The eight symptoms of Groupthink are rendered less potent when leaders model Paul’s command to show others preferential treatment, and when they create a culture where the truth is spoken in love and differences are honored.  Groupthink becomes less the norm when we put away the vanity and selfish ambition that would cause us to use others for our own gain or self-preservation, or when we choose not to discredit and render “invisible” and voiceless those who disagree with us.  When we resist the urge to insist on uniformity of thought and opinion on secondary issues as a prerequisite to belonging, people are then free to be authentic, and creative in their expression of bold love toward each other because there is no longer a fear of reprisal or loss of relationship.    

So, consider the list above.  Have you encountered Groupthink in your group or sphere of influence?  Are you a leader who has enabled or even encouraged Groupthink, or have you been victimized by this manipulative practice?  Perhaps a little of both?  I would love to hear your thoughts, because in parts 2 and 3 I’ll give examples of what Groupthink looks and sounds like in practice, the effect it has on the spiritual and emotional life of the people within the group, and some practical suggestions on how to help yourself and others find freedom.     

Ron

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