Not All Training is for Students: Recognizing and Preventing Groupthink in the Skydiving Community
When we discuss training in the skydiving community we usually refer to training students or teaching experienced skydivers new techniques. However, we seldom discuss how to train our staff so they are safer and more effective. By grooming your staff you can make your drop zone more enjoyable for your customers and in turn, make your business more profitable. Today, I would like to discuss a psychological situation that can affect the staff as well as other skydivers. That situation is known as Groupthink.
What is groupthink?
Simply put, it is a condition that occurs when a closely cohesive group has a tendency to make bad decisions because the group pressure becomes so great, everyone starts to ignore moral judgments and sound decision making. Groups that are more susceptible to this phenomenon are tightly cohesive, have a similar background, and have a lack of clear rules for decision making. As for me, I cannot think of a more cohesive group of individuals with, similar backgrounds, than a group of skydiving professionals. Please don’t get me wrong, it is not a bad thing that we are a cohesive group of people. We just need to be able to recognize when our staff, or group, is beginning to fall into a groupthink mentality.
So, what are the symptoms of groupthink?
In 1972 a social psychologist named Irving Janis identified eight symptoms of groupthink. As you read through these I ask that you think to yourself about a time where you actually witnessed one or more of these at a drop zone.
1. The feeling of invulnerability – Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
2. Collective rationalizations – Members ignore warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
3. Beliefs in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
4. Stereotyped views of “outsiders”– Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
5. Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
6. Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
7. Illusion of unanimity – The majority’s view, and judgments, are believed to be unanimous.
8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.
I’m sure most people can relate to a few of these symptoms and to make it perfectly clear, just because you see one or two of these does not necessarily mean that a groupthink situation is going on… but then again it could. Since we know the symptoms, what can we do to prevent a groupthink situation, or to try to remedy the effects of a situation already happening?
Let’s start by defining what we call a group. A group can be something small and organized like a team. It can be a little bit larger such as the staff of a DZ. Or it can be a group of people with a common cause such as free flyers or belly flyers. Now, let’s address the problem. One way to help prevent group think from setting in is to designate a member of the group as a devil’s advocate. This person will be the one to think outside the box and to ask the questions “what if” and “why”. The devil’s advocate should also suggest alternate plans or ways of doing things. It is important that the devil’s advocate does not just go through the motions, but makes meaningful suggestions and the group discusses them. This will keep everyone’s head focused on moral and safe decisions and not just out of habit dismiss all suggestions.
Another preventive measure is for the leader to set aside an amount of time to survey warning signs. To define the leader, it can be a team coach, the DZO/DZM, but at a minimum it should be the S&TA. This doesn’t have to be a big formal inspection, just a time to walk around the DZ so you can hear and see what people are doing and planning. In this case, someone will probably hear signs of groupthink before they see actions. Listen to what people are planning. Listen to what they are encouraging others to do. At the same time take note on how their words and actions are affecting others, especially the less experienced skydivers.
Finally, for members of the group; you should all routinely talk to someone from outside the group that is trusted and has a valued opinion. These talks should be one-on-one and preferably not with the same person. This will give you a fresh point of view and help you to make the best decision, not necessarily the one that goes along with the group.
By keeping an eye on each other not just by doing gear checks, but by letting people know when you start to observe behavior that could lead to unsafe practices, you can help make our sport safer. Let’s face it. Being a skydiver means taking calculated risks. We need to work together to keep the odds in our favor.
Thank you DrDom, I appreciate your comment.
I notice in our sport that we talk a lot about people taking their time and learning correctly. I understand that once someone is out of the door there is nothing we can do to save them from themselves, but I have always wondered why some new jumpers feel like they are actually encouraged to do unsafe acts. I don't know if this is the reason why, but I have seen the groupthink mentality many of times and I have to wonder if it does play a role in the safety of our sport.
Does anyone have any comments? I would love to hear them.
I don't know that newbies are "encouraged" to be unsafe, but the groupthink often suggests "if I can do it, I don't see why it would be difficult for you"...
Frequently I run into skydivers that think from their own ability and perspective vs the ability and perspective of the person they're communicating with.
Thank you Douglas.
When I say that newbies are "encouraged" to be unsafe I am not referring to people saying "come on and just do it" although that does happen from time to time.
I think that we encourage them (and yes, I am including myself in this) by what we say and imply. Comments like "I refuse to jump a canopy that big", I know that the BSR says to do that, but we are all big boys and girls" and the one that makes me cringe, "Belly fly? Yuck. Who does that any more?" The answer to the last one is newer skydivers that are not yet ready to free fly.
Of course, these phrases must be taken into context. We will always have fun with each other, kid each other, and of course, there is nothing wrong with letting someone know you don't want to jump a student rig. I just think (again, just my opinion) that we need to watch what we say and how we say it. The friendly ribbing can turn into a groupthink situation where newer skydivers could feel pressured to try something they are not ready for.
Your absolutely spot on about being encouraged to do "unsafe" acts in this sport, to some extent anyways. As a skydiving body, or organization we as a group reward risk taking. For many this is a difficult concept to grasp but at it's heart we reward risk taking and make illusory correlations with experience. Such as when we receive our first "License" we now allow jumping in more hazardous conditions. Higher wind speeds, lower activation altitudes, night jumps, etc.. So your spot on when you point this out as a group in a sense we reward increased risk. The lower pull altitude is one example where we clearly increase risk by falsely justifying a non-existent correlation between the license you carry and the time we have available to perform our emergency procedures, if ever necessary. In effect we reward risk taking and in fact have sanctioned it. Especially considering the incident statistics which generally make this a non-debatable issue. Other factors to consider are the fact that as "rating holders" there really isn't any feedback for performance in teaching. Nor is there any standard we can hold our instructors too. Only in skydiving can you get a rating to teach in a week and then as an instructor, really not ever have to worry about maintaining your skills as an instructor again. This is yet another example of group think, the idea that "continuing education" isn't necessary. Whether it's necessary or not really isn't the question , the question really is more about what works or doesn't, without continuing education and or some meaning full standards and review we condemn ourselves to this sad state of affairs forever. And please don't confuse Groupthink as a Psych process with the fact that we as social beings receive much of our information from those around us, such is the power of example. This creates enormous issues with a majority that lets others think for them. You should be proactive and question the do's and don'ts of this activity we call skydiving, you , me, all of us should be making evidenced based decisions and until we have greater standardization, increased continuing education, and feedback loops that actually provide meaning full data to base our decisions on, well,...groupthink will rule for a long time.
Good article and hopefully effective. One other aspect of group-think that can be dangerous is reduced accountability. One person alone may be cautious of their actions and what advice they give or withhold, but in a group with a collective voice, that personal accountability is greatly reduced. This can allow a bad decision, action or advice to have less consequence. Example; "Hey, it wasn't my idea, we all agreed." Don't be afraid to speak up. Just a thought from a newbie. Cheers!
Thank you ChrisD for the nice comments. You also bring up some great points. One in particular is about developing our instructors and keeping their skills up. In fact, that just happes to be the next article I want to write. It is taking me a while because skydiving, although a big international industry, is not made up of large franchises but mostly small independent dropzones. The key here is coming up with a suggested program that will increase safety and productivity while, at the same time, not impeding current operations (not to mention wording it in such a way that the message is recieved positively).
I welcome any suggestions or ideas you may have. Feel free to PM me if you like.
Thank you MrSnipes, and you are right on the money about the dangers of reducing accountability. If a groupthink mentality evolves everyone will think it is "everyones" idea however, no one will come forward ad say "I thought ti was a good idea at the time." Like you said, don't be afraid to speak up! If someone is afraid to speak up in the group, at least talk to someone who in respeted and trusted outside of the group and ask their opinion.
As I like to tell people; When it comes to skydiving safety, there is no such thing as a do over.
Blue Skies my friend.
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