• Avoiding Groupthink in Nonprofit Partnership Negotiations

The Importance of Critical Voices

As a life-long skier, one of my greatest joys is skiing the back country — out of bounds of a ski resort on a fresh powder day. This is where a skier finds fresh, untracked snow that has not been groomed by the ski resort. But this is also where there can be significant danger of avalanches. For this reason, the standard is, in addition to being prepared with appropriate avalanche training and equipment, to always ski with a group. It is assumed that in a group, there is the advantage of analyzing the conditions with the combined wisdom and experience of those venturing out into this uncertain terrain, minimizing the risk of getting into trouble.

I recently had the opportunity to meet an accomplished skier and outdoor writer who was with a group of very experienced, professional skiers when caught in an avalanche with tragic results. She has written about the experience from the perspective of groupthink. She describes how this group ventured away from the boundaries of a ski resort to experience fresh snow that had been accumulating for several days. The excitement of skiing these conditions overtook the knowledge, skills, and critical thinking of these otherwise cautious individuals. All the signs of a potential avalanche were there, but members of the group reinforced one another’s desire to “go for it,” and they ended up leaving their best thinking at the gate leaving the ski resort.

We are susceptible to groupthink in many facets of life. For example, a company has a new idea for a product that is very exciting to those who came up with it, but in the excitement the company may fail to thoroughly analyze the market for the product, or whether there is a competing product that is better or less expensive. Similarly, the housing market in 2008 was a mass example of groupthink in which home buyers and banks were all very caught up in the belief that home values would continue to escalate forever. Looking back, this had tragic results for more than just the buyers of homes that soon lost up to have their value, or the banks and investment firms that collapsed — the entire economy was impacted by the consequences of groupthink.

In the work we do at La Piana Consulting, we see that nonprofits are just as vulnerable to groupthink. For instance, in nonprofit merger negotiations, it is often the case that as a negotiations committee does its work considering the issues, excitement about the potential of the partnership builds. Committee members can get caught up in this excitement and energy for creating something greater than the sum of its parts, especially when it has the potential of enhancing the accomplishment of their mission: serving more people in need, improving the programs that impact the lives of clients served, increasing the ability to change social policy for the better are all things worth getting excited about. But that excitement must be tempered with the critical questioning necessary to truly reach a decision that is appropriate.

This is why we use a negotiations process that encourages disparate voices at the table. We want a healthy level of skepticism and individuals willing to challenge the decisions and recommendations of the group in crafting the merger agreement. It is only with these critical voices at the table that we increase the potential for decisions that are going to be in the best interest of the organizations involved.

Ultimately, we want all participants in a nonprofit merger to be energized by the potential of the new partnership, and the process benefits from having multiple brains working through the issues, adding to the creative process. But those involved need to be disciplined in continually asking themselves whether the excitement of the potential is impacting their ability to critically examine all facets of the issue. The group
process needs to avoid getting caught in an avalanche of groupthink.

Tags: nonprofit consulting, organizational culture

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