B.C. NDP groupthink puts MLA Jenny Kwan in a difficult position
In 1972, social psychologist Irving Janis coined the term “groupthink”. It describes how people in a group make poor decisions because the “members’ striving for unanimity overrides their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action”.
According to Janis, when this occurs the group’s mental efficiency deteriorates; alternatives are ignored; and irrational actions are taken that dehumanize other groups.
Some of the characteristics are an illusion of invulnerability, where the group is excessively optimistic, leading them to take extreme risks. A collective rationalization sets in, which leads members to discount warnings.
Janis also noted that in the throes of groupthink, members believe in the rightness of their cause, and ignore the ethical or moral consequences of decisions.
Direct pressure comes down on dissenters, who are discouraged from putting forth arguments that don’t sit well with the group. This leads to self-censorship and an illusion of unanimity. Members protect the group and the leader from information that contradicts the group’s cohesiveness.
Is this starting to sound like the B.C. NDP under Carole James’s leadership?
This afternoon (December 5), the longest-serving member of caucus, Vancouver-Mount Pleasant MLA Jenny Kwan, will face the consequences of her behaviour at an NDP caucus meeting in Vancouver.
This will occur because Kwan and 12 other members of caucus (there are 14 if you include Bob Simpson) didn’t conform to the group’s belief that the best course of action was to go into the next election without first holding a leadership convention.
Like many whistle blowers, the dissenters tried to make their case internally. They went to James with a letter and attempted to engage in a confidential discussion. It blew up in their faces when their views were rejected out of hand.
One dissenter quit as caucus chair and another dissenter quit as the party whip.
Later, they were publicly shamed at the NDP provincial council meeting. That's when the members of the group—in full view of the media—wore yellow scarfs to indicate their support for James.
It’s not uncommon for organizations to try to crush whistle blowers.
“Some whistle-blowing episodes start internally and escalate until, as voices rise in discordance, they are heard outside,” SFU professor Mark Wexler writes in his textbook Confronting Moral Worlds: Understanding Business Ethics. “In others, the whistle-blower sees that the organizational culture is not supportive of dissent and thus whistle-blowing may move to, say, the media or a professional association before it is fully appreciated by the powers within the organization. In both internal and external instances, the distinction between a complaint and whistle-blowing rests on the fact that in the former there is no effort made to use ”˜public shaming’ or the involvement of third parties to pull the perceived wrongdoer into line (bold-faced added).”
On December 3, former NDP cabinet minister Paul Ramsey was one of these third parties trying to bring the dissenters into line, saying they had a choice to support the leader or leave.
Whistle-blowing event is the trigger
Wexler writes that the first stage in the process is a “whistle-blowing event”, which is the trigger. The leader's banishment of Simpson without a caucus meeting may have met this standard because it violated the norm for dealing with a situation like this.
“The event, in the eyes of the whistle blower, is an act of wrongdoing committed by those in the organization that benefit at the expense of others,” Wexler notes.
The whistle blower is appalled by the triggering event, but lacks power on his or her own to rectify the situation. Wexler emphasizes that the whistle blower often fails to have a full understanding of the forces lurking beneath the surface.
The next stage is making a decision to "pull the trigger", as Wexler puts it, and publicly voicing concerns. Many remain silent at this point, fearing for their careers.
Stage three involves taking action. There are numerous choices at this point. Does the group go public or have an individual make the case?
In their internal efforts, the NDP dissenters approached James as a group. That failed.
When it came time to go public, a decision was made to put forth Kwan as an individual. The downside of this approach, Wexler notes, is that the organization may try to frame this as a “psychological idiosyncrasy”.
NDP MLA John Horgan, for instance, characterized Kwan’s actions as “childish”.
There is also a choice to blow the whistle internally or externally. Another decision involves doing it anonymously or publicly.
“Making one’s identity known in the act of whistle-blowing lends a sense of principled dissent and clarity of motive to one’s behaviour,” Wexler writes.
The next stage in the process is assessing the reactions of others. And the whistle blower must be prepared for a vicious response from the organization.
“Essentially, the strategy is to plant in the public record a red flag regarding the character and thereby credibility of the whistle-blower,” Wexler states. “The tacit or unspoken question is whether or not this self-nominated whistle-blower is a trustworthy interpreter of complex events.”
The appropriate response for the whistle blower, Wexler advises, is to stick to the facts and not battle the character innuendos, which loosens the person’s focus.
”The neutralizers recognize this potential countermeasure and often seek to isolate the whistle-blower,” he adds. “This second strategy emphasizes taking the whistle-blower out of contact with potential allies.”
Moreover, those who are sympathetic to the whistle blower may also find themselves demoted or dismissed.
One of the dangers for the organization is making a martyr out of a defeated whistle blower, according to Wexler's book. That’s because punishing the dissenter can lead to a public backlash. The martyr can become a rallying point for future generations who seek to protest.
Today, the NDP caucus has a choice. Do the NDP MLAs really want to make a martyr of Kwan? Or do they discard their groupthink and try to resolve this situation in a constructive manner, even if it necessitates the resignation of James as leader?
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.