Of the seven communications traditions, the socio-cultural was easiest for me to understand and apply because of its focus on the collective rather than the individual as the most important cog in the communications process. Human interaction forms the basis on which societies are formed and sustained; “People together create the realities of their social groups, organizations and cultures” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p. 55).
I found our exploration of the statement “communication is reality” in Week 1 particularly intriguing, and in hindsight, the concept appears to be right out of the socio-cultural tradition. Communication is the most fundamental form of human interaction there is, and only through communication can people define their reality and ultimately control their existence.
In this tradition, I immediately recognized Groupthink Theory (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, pp.281-283) at work in many of my volunteer and leadership experiences. The theory explores how a group’s cohesiveness, seemingly a positive trait, can contribute to dysfunction and poor outcomes. Among the behaviors that this theory predicted — and which I have witnessed first-hand — are a tendency to invest time and energy in maintaining good will at the expense of effective decisions; failure to get expert outside counsel; focusing on data that supports the group’s view; and vilifying those who are not part of the group.
Groupthink seemed to be evident at times when I served on the board of our temple. Although the members were certainly well-intentioned, the group’s effectiveness was often hindered by institutional inertia, i.e. doing things a certain way because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” There was also a tendency to avoid confronting difficult issues out of concern for maintaining rapport and cohesion among members and with the congregation. Rather than risk alienating long-time staff, lay leaders and/or the clergy, the board often did not act critically and objectively to assess policies and approaches that kept the organization in a weak financial posture over many years. As a result, the temple moved from crisis to crisis with little hope or evidence that the pattern would ever be disrupted.
As chair of the board, I did put into place many of the tactics that Irving Janis, a noted theorist, suggests for solving some of the problems inherent in groupthink (p. 282). I often brought in outside experts for fresh ideas and different perspectives, tried not to offer my opinion on a subject until others had shared theirs, sought counsel from other community leaders outside the temple, and kept a close eye on symptoms to keep them from becoming bigger problems. But there were many other things I could have done to defeat groupthink on the board, such as assigning a members to act as “devil’s advocate” at each meeting, working more in sub-groups, and being diligent about making sure other board members felt accountable and safe in expressing concerns and being “critical evaluators” in the decision-making process (p. 282).