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Group-think: The Elephant in the Room


I remember sitting down with Phillip Gibson sometime around 2010 who kindly invited us over for a cup of coffee. This dude was really chilled. I was still trying to get over how kicked back the place was. Fifteen minutes earlier we drove past the Australian Embassy which has security on to the max. Armed guards at the door, a secluded section at the front to inspect vehicles for car bombs before being allowed into the facility and the massive satellite dishes. We pulled a gated residence, gated, spacious and looked pretty good on the outside. "Ok guys, welcome to the New Zealand Embassy!". Heck if I would have not believed our driver if it wasn't for the fact that were were notified in advance about this invitation.

So back to our conversation. There was talk about trade and how meat export were forecasted to be at $NZ300 Million, what we were up to on our visit...then the surprise question of "Have you ever considered working for the government?". My straightforward reply was "But how is that possible, I'm planning on a completely different profession?". His response was pretty straightforward, "Nah its not hard at all, were looking for bright people. Either Masters or high level honours but four years university....Then if you pass our selection. We send you off to our country of interest for language training for two years and now you are set to work in the consulate." He finished sipping his tea and carried on.

"No here is what I am getting at, having you on board is going to saving me having to wait 2 years till you get back from language training. You also understand their culture and I can relate well to you since you're one of us"


The ambassador made it seem pretty straightforward. As mentioned there are many benefits to having an ethnically diverse staff but there was something more important he was trying to get at and that is breaking up group-think. For those that do not know, group-think is the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group, resulting typically in unchallenged, poor-quality decision-making.



For the security environment, this has a significant amount of implications. It can lead to painting a very skewed picture on a given threat. Imagine looking through the problem but in a different colored lens. You will see the world differently. Similarly, where we come from, our experiences and life events shape who we are and the way we tend to problem-solve. The saying "Birds of the feather flock together" is very true and you can see this across a wide range of industries and not to mentioned expats overseas who happen to bump into one another. Humans are social in nature and will tend to hang around their type and those who they share similar hobbies and interests with.

Mark Lowenthal, Intelligence academic and former Intelligence Officer in the US gave this great example. In the Intelligence Community, Americans painted politics on a simple linear spectrum with liberals being on the left and conservatives being on the right with extremists on both sides. When the 1979 Iranian hostage crises unfolded, a new term was coined into the dictionary, "Ultra-extremist" . Looking back to how events unfolded, we can see that this incident took everyone by surprise to the point that it had it was given a new name and added as a new extension on the political spectrum. Now some countries that shared similar views to Iran did not classify Iran as ultra-extremist but rather aggressively reacting to America's role in the region. Some in the Middle East might have labelled the Hostage Crisis as extreme but certainly did were not surprised when the events unfolded the way they did.


Breaking group-think is what prevent strategic and tactical surprise. It is sad to say that the previous example is very relevant to how matters unfolded in the Middle East due to "War on Terror". Failures kept repeating itself and the question I had was how relevant is this group-think idea to the industry?


I put it to the test by interviewing several defence staff ranging from Intelligence Officers to experiences CO's of various ranks. The exercise involved everyone putting their 2cents worth about their previous deployment in Afghanistan and how the American Army Field Manual 3-24 (FM-3-24) was a practical example of counter insurgency in the practice. After all, hundreds of officers put work into it after 10 years of solid work. It can be that bad right?


Here at BCSS, we did something different. We first went to Wikileaks and downloaded something interesting.


THE Alqaeda Manual, SOURCE: Wikilieaks

Now, we put the Al-Qaeda Training Manual "Full Original Electronic Copy in Arabic" next to the American Army Field Manual 3-24 on Counter Insurgency side by side. We noticed that around the 300 page mark of the later, there is no more than one paragraph talking about ethics. Flip over the the first 50 pages of the Al-Qaeda Manual and you will notice an outstanding 50 pages on ethics and Just War Theory!

Just War theory is a foundation to any soldier's training as not only is it taught under the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) part of their curriculum, understanding that the war is justified gives the soldier something to fight for.

Even when scaling is taken into account for both books it was surprising to see how this did not even raise any questions in some students eyes. Some were even still praising the FM 3-24 relevance to the battlefield. I remember being called up by a Lt-Col. to receive "The Academic Slap in the face" since I had no prior experience in the Military or Law Enforcement.



Years later, having already studied and worked in the field, I still look back to this experience "obviously we now know how well FM 3-24 was for Afghanistan now right!". I know very well no there is academic literature as of 2016 that confirms that not only was the campaign a failure in the long-term, the establishment had ample time to fix the problem but refused to do so. As H. Liddle Hart puts it "The harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get an old idea out". That experience that we went through was a classic example of group-think.


Years later, we came across the excellent work of David Kilcullen, former advisor to General David Petraeusas well as having the pleasure of speaking with Leah Farrell, an academic and a former Counter-Terrorism Analyst at the Australian Federal Police. A lot of their work focused on the "What have we done wrong" rather than the "Were doing great". This perspective as well as working with their respective CT practitioners on the ground and continuous work with local experts gave different perspective to their research which helped tackle problems from a different perspective.


Apart from resistance to change and an overall different perspective on life having a say in an organization's group-think, there is one more issue and that is getting local experts on board and into your organization "Defence, Security Intelligence etc.". As one person put it "Why don't we see many of you guys doing this type of security work?"The answer for this is pretty clear in our introductory story to this article. First of all, you have to serve a minimum of 4 years + two more before you know you will have a shot as assisting the ambassador "the assistant we met that day was at least 30 and a PHD so lets say six years minimum". Even if you got through the first six years, how well will you or your family be able to handle the long dreaded rotations? If the financial risk of taking this long academic journey and the impact of family is not stressful enough then what is your government's view on the world?

In Australia and New Zealand, clearly there isnt work or enough work done to get ethnic people on board. The most we witnessed was an invitation from Police HQ over in Porirua, NZ to bring a few youth over in order to check out a career with NZPOL which was a really good starting initiative. The turnout was low but Police understood that they had to start by extending a hand and getting the community to trust them.

Contrast that with the US Embassy in Wellington, New Zealand. The Embassy staff were so well funded that they invited leaders from all communities attend a function which was given by a Muslim-American member of staff of Kashmiri origin authorized to speak on behalf of the Embassy. The outcome was catastrophic with the Muslim audience effectively disowning her. One member even stood up and said "I am Assyrian and Christian to make a point. Explain to me why your people still can't make my country as safe as it was under Saddam?"


In conclusion experience has demonstrated that not only are there financial and organizational constraints that need to be taken into account for the organization but also for also for the individuals that the organization needs to recruit in order to achieve a diverse workforce in order to provide a different perspective when it comes to complex problem-solving. Security staff of all industries need to understand group-think, the negative implications it can have to their organization and put realistic measures in place to help limit it where possible. BCSS understands that there are a lot of organizations out there doing great and professional work. Constantly striving to limit group-think and seeking a different perspective will help give your organization the leading edge as newer and more complicated threats arrive in the future.

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