17 July 2012

Penn State-style groupthink needs its own term

Are you familiar with the phrase "going to Abilene"? It's an aspect of the concept of groupthink. Specifically, it's a paradox where someone in a group suggests a course of action; everyone agrees to follow it though individually nobody actually wants to; the group takes the course of action anyway; and in the end everyone is disappointed, upset, uncomfortable, saddened, or even angered that the course of action was taken. The practical results include opportunity costs and wasted time, money, and other resources, not to mention legal risks.

Note that this is not a problem of a charismatic leader persuading people to dangerous, illegal, or unspeakable acts. It's a phenomenon that occurs when no one wants to rock the boat or go against the grain -- but everyone fails to check the group's assumptions and speak up for themselves honestly.

This is similar, though not exactly the same as, the kind of groupthink that was happening at Penn State, which the Freeh report discusses: a "cocoon" where decisions were made not based on right or wrong, but based on the "Penn State way." Penn State adds a wrinkle, though. There's no charismatic leader, just an overly powerful individual in the organization that the institution's leadership fears to piss off and defers to, in service of a larger-than-life personality and a decades-long tradition (and billions of dollars in revenue).

Other schools, from the tiniest colleges to Penn State's peers in the category of oversized land-grant universities, must have dynamics like this going on. Since "going to Abilene" isn't exactly apt, I humbly suggest a new phrase for dealing with university sports-program groupthink: Going to Happy Valley.

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