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  • Writer's pictureShari Bowles Gibbons

Groupthink, Zombies and the 10th Man Principle

Updated: Jul 17, 2022

One of my corporate boards was evaluating how we could optimize our interaction and maximize support of the CEO. We realized under certain circumstances that we were falling victim to groupthink. This it wasn’t serving the organization so we discussed creating a process around using the 10th Man Principle.

Groupthink is a term coined by Yale psychologist Irving Janis when referring to the decision-making process that led to the disastrous Bay of Pigs incident during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Humans are naturally driven toward consensus, which can serve us well unless this drive comes by suppressing dissent or thorough appraisal of viable alternatives, which leads to bad decision-making.

This term became popular after two notorious events, the Bay of Pigs and the surprise attack that launched the Yom Kippur war of Arab countries against Israel. The process of digesting and acting upon US intelligence in both cases was disastrously incompetent. In the case of the Bay of Pigs, the poor decision-making process was by President John F. Kennedy and his Cabinet, and in the case of the Yom Kippur war, it was by the Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, and her advisors.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger, who took part in the Bay of Pigs decision process, later wrote that “our meetings were taking place in a curious atmosphere of assumed consensus, [and] not one spoke against it.”

President John F. Kennedy was so humiliated by the failure at the Bay of Pigs that he re-worked the entire decision-making process during his Presidency. His new processed mirrored what the Israelis, after their humiliating defeat, would define as the 10th Man Principle.

The 10th Man discipline is one where the group intentionally appoints at least one person to serve as the loyal dissenter.

The term loyal is critical because the process only works if the anchor for the contrary point-of-view is what’s best for the organization: it is debate for the greater good or purpose for the best outcomes versus debate for the sake of debate.

Without realizing it, some leaders can suppress dissent or discourage appraisal of viable alternatives or other points-of-view.

In JFK’s case, he enforced the notion that each participant should function as a ‘skeptical generalist, focusing on the entire problem from a high-level vs. from his/her department’s point of view. He organized the conversations as freewheeling in informal settings without a formal agenda or protocol. They also broke into subgroups that would work on separate alternatives and then reconvene. The group would also meet without JFK so as not to be unduly influenced by his point of view.

I first read about the 10th Man Principle in the book World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks. Brooks was educated as an historian and wrote a clever socio-geo-political thriller that incorporates the idea that Israel is the only country that stays ahead of the zombie pandemic because they deployed the 10th Man Principle. When they received unbelievable intelligence that ‘zombies’ were reported attacking civilians in remote regions of China, instead of dismissing the concept as preposterous as the other countries did, their 10th Man process caused them to dig deeper, which led them to comprehend that this was a real threat and start taking immediate action under this new intelligence.

An interesting side note, Brooks’ intelligent handling of all thing’s zombie helped me to discover that the CDC has used the zombie apocalypses theme to run many successful emergency awareness campaigns that engage new audiences with preparedness messages.

Additional Reading:

Harvard Business Review article by Morten T. Hansen:

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