Debunking Debanking

Business Psychologist Dr Dawn Nicholson looks at this recent issue through the prism of ‘groupthink’ and her research on improving group decision-making.

  "andre-taissin" by Andre taissin.

‘Amidst the recent NatWest “debanking” furore, much has been made of the fact that 10 of the 12 NatWest Board have banking backgrounds and the possibility of ‘groupthink’ impairing their decision-making. 

There are numerous symptoms of groupthink. Groups prone to groupthink operate under the illusion of invulnerability: creating a sense of excessive optimism, which may encourage more extreme risk taking. Group members discount warnings and fail to reconsider their assumptions – known as “collective rationalization”. Furthermore, group members have a misplaced belief in their inherent morality: a belief in the rightness of their cause and ignorance of the ethical/moral consequences of their decision. They hold stereotypical (often negative) views of those outside their group – this cushions them from the need to engage with conflicting views and opinions beyond their own circle. 

Direct pressure may be applied to group members who try to voice dissenting views. This can lead to self-censorship, where group members deliberately fail to express doubts/deviations from the perceived group consensus. Absence of alternative views can lead to the group acting under the illusion that the majority view and judgements are unanimous. 

Self-appointed “mind guards” may also operate within the group – protecting the group – and the group leader – from information that is contradictory to the group’s view and decisions and which could disrupt the group’s cohesiveness. 

In our research, we designed and tested a new mental simulation intervention to improve decision-making outcomes. The mental simulation – a twist on “let’s pretend” – asks groups to project forward and imagine the decision they are about to make (but not yet ‘baked in’) has gone badly wrong. That assumption of failure opens up the decision-making process, causing the group and its members to go back and more fully interrogate and challenge the decision, and the information underpinning it. Taking this alternative perspective – imagining the worst-case scenario – enables new information and thinking to emerge in the group. Applying this to the decision (application is key!) allows the group to improve their decision-making. We found groups who mentally simulated the failure of their decision showed better decision outcomes than those who did not. 

The mental simulation has a further benefit. Asking group members to imagine failure, then highlight all possible reasons why, allows for dissenting views and perspectives –  arguably it even rewards these views, since expressing them may save the group from a disastrous decision. 

It’s critical we get decision-making right, particularly when stakes are high. . . ‘ 

Discover more by reading this article ‘I’ve Just Been Pretending I Can See This Stuff!’ published previously by Dr Dawn Nicholson with Tim  Hopthrow, Georgina Randsley de Moura and Giovanni A. Travaglino on ‘decision-making’.