In the corporate world
Swiss companies have long prided themselves on their good governance practices.17 However, the collapse of a number of Swiss companies since the 2000s piqued the interest of scholars. One of the best known instances of this phenomenon is Swissair declaring bankruptcy and protection from creditors in October 2002. Previously one of the world’s ten largest airlines, Swissair was thought to be so financially stable that it was commonly referred to as the “Flying Bank.” The case of Swissair’s bankruptcy demonstrates the impact of groupthink on poor management decisions. Specifically, the relevant symptoms of groupthink were beliefs that Swissair was invulnerable, mindguarding, and beliefs in the group’s morality, or superiority.
Major changes were made to European air travel since the 1980s.17 Airlines struggled to establish “hubs” where lots of passengers could be realized by linking intercontinental and regional feeder flights. In order to do this, intercontinental alliances were forged and European airports like London Heathrow and Paris Charles de Gaulle were substantially developed. In Switzerland, Zurich airport was planned to become one of the ten largest European airports, and the expansion of Swissair to become Europe’s fourth largest airline was critical to this plan.
Due to Swissair’s reputation, the company felt a sense of superiority regarding expansion plans. Swissair pulled out of a potentially lucrative alliance with other well-known airlines that could have helped its expansion, because of hesitations over sharing control.17 This meant that Swissair no longer had the option to hear the opinions of other successful groups in their industry, a form of mindguarding that allowed for groupthink. Additionally, the CEO of Swissair decided to resize the executive board, eliminating experts in the airline industry and only having members that were politicians and finance professionals. On top of this cut in expertise on the executive board, outside experts on the European and Swiss airline industries were also not consulted. As identified by Janis, external expertise is necessary to eliminate groupthink in group decisions. The cut of board members resulted in the remaining members lacking expertise in the field, while being homogenous in background, norms, and values.
Swissair’s financial crisis had been building up since 2000, when it recorded a financial loss for the first time in its 70-year history, at an amount that consumed almost all of its capital reserves.17 Passenger numbers remained well behind expectations and the beginning economic recession meant that Swissair was unable to continue financing its expansion plans, make up for its existing debt, pay for fuel or even pay its airport taxes. Ultimately, the CEO felt that he and his board members were more than capable of making the necessary company decisions, and the smaller size of the board made the group more vulnerable to groupthink and conformity.
In politics and the military
Groupthink is commonly applied to historical political events, and can be used to evaluate the War on Terror.18 The War on Terror was a military campaign launched by the United States government after the September 11 attacks, led by President George W. Bush. Ultimately, President Bush was authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those whom he felt contributed in any way to the attacks, in order to prevent future acts of international terrorism against the United States. One country involved in the War was Iraq, then led by Saddam Hussein. Described as a shift from cautious restraint to accelerated urgency, the United States’ actions toward Iraq have been considered largely to be the results of groupthink.
Specifically, five symptoms of groupthink have been identified.18 Interpreting silence as agreement, members of President Bush’s core group didn’t challenge his premise of broad military retaliation, resulting in an illusion of conformity. Additionally, any members who questioned the policy specific to Iraq were pressured into agreeing, resulting in an internalization of the policy. Mindguards were also used to drive conformity, such as President Bush himself asking those who were hesitant to “put on [their] war uniform,” and ensuring everyone involved in the campaign was not exposed to contradictory messages. In the case that there was still hesitancy, self-censorship occurred in response to conformity pressures and rationalizations of the War. As the plan specific to Iraq in the War of Terror developed, members who originally held contradictory opinions may have genuinely shifted ideologies as a result of groupthink. Thus, instead of viewing Iraq as an isolated threat that required a modest regime change policy – as had been done prior to 9/11 – the core group in governance at the time shifted its focus to support the militarized and extreme War on Terror.