Welcome to this, the last of the nine part series on dangerous mindsets. From the feedback I’m getting, this series hit some chords with readers. I appreciate the kind words about my observations and the advice I’ve dispensed throughout this series. In this installment I’m going to talk about the Synergist – the person who seeks others who are like-minded and tends to side with their compatriot’s point of view regardless of the presence of mounting evidence that refutes the position of the like-minded.
This can impact situational awareness because the synergist may be so hell-bent on agreeing with other like-minded individuals that he or she overlooks important clues and cues that indicate something may be going wrong. Let’s explore this phenomenon.
Two or more things working together to achieve a result that is independently unobtainable. In the world of situational awareness this may manifest itself as two individuals who both have flawed situational awareness yet neither knows it and they agree on what is happening. Or, it could be that one team member has flawed situational awareness and it is combined with the accurate situational awareness of another team member, resulting in a overall diluted awareness of what is really happening.
Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon where a group of individuals are so focused on the important task of reaching agreement or so concerned about avoiding conflict or confrontation that they agree simply for the sake of agreement. A responder or team member arrives on the scene and makes an assessment that is not consistent with the next arriving responder or team member.
The second, in an effort to reach agreement quickly or to avoid conflict, simply takes the position of the first arriving team member and adopts it to be his or her own. This can be a very dangerous mindset because the second team member may very well see critical things that can impact scene safety but avoids speaking up because appearing agreeable or avoiding conflict is more important.
This phenomenon was, in part, to blame for the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster that occurred on January 28, 1986. If interested, here’s a link where you can read more about the findings of the Presidential Commission Report on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. In a nutshell, there was so much pressure put on the launch team that the engineers who knew the “O” rings were not rated for a cold weather launch did not speak up. The shuttle launched. The rings failed. And history was made. Afterwards, the engineers admitted their awareness of the concern but noted they felt pressured to support the launch – to reach agreement and avoid conflict.
A mind is a terrible thing to waste
There are some people who will avoid conflict at all cost. They are either afraid of the dialog that will come from conflict, afraid of getting into trouble for speaking up or they have such a strong desire to get along that speaking up is not an option. They may be very knowledgeable, yet do not speak up. This person may, or may not, after the fact, give an indication that they knew things were going bad.
Sometimes a person can be so strong minded that their opinions influence others around them in damaging ways. They may or may not realize they have this effect on others. Those impacted by this type of person may think it’s less confrontational to avoid disagreement or they may also be concerned if the strong minded person has former authority over them. Regardless, they choose synergy (harmony) over speaking up.
Like minded people can also suffer from an association bias. This bias occurs when two or more people who associate with each other and like each other’s opinions find themselves feeling their decision is “more correct” because there is agreement about the decision. Apply this bias to situational awareness and a group who thinks they have a common shared situational awareness might assume it to be correct even though it may be flawed. This can be very hard to detect because everyone may be in agreement on what the situation is. When, in fact, some may have agreed only for the sake of being agreeable.
Birds of a feather
There’s an old saying that notes ‘birds of a feather flock together’, meaning the like minded tend to congregate. This social tendency starts early in life and extends throughout. Elementary school students form ‘clubs.’ High schoolers form ‘cliques.’ College students form ‘fraternities’ and ‘sororities.’ Adults form ‘organizations.’ And seniors citizens form ‘clubs’ again… and so life cycles. Thus, is should not be surprising that within emergency services organizations, the like-minded find each other and congregate both on and off the job.
Where relationships are built, trust follows. This is not, fundamentally, a bad thing. In fact, it is for the most part, a very good thing. But trust should not be blind trust – not in situational awareness. There’s too much at stake. A person blinded by trust cannot form their own situational awareness because, well, they’re blind.
Dr. Gasaway’s Advise
For the synergist, I recommend the approach that Ronald Reagan stated in his dealings with the Soviet Union: Trust, but verify. There is too much at stake for first responders to be caught in the traps of groupthink or association bias. For this mindset, awareness of its existence and open discussions among responders may be the best way to counteract it.
Once a leader acknowledges the potential flaws that can occur in situational awareness from synergistic views, it can be extremely valuable to express to subordinates how important it is to speak up and disagree. Agreement can help an organization accomplish great things and build momentum. But blind agreement can cause all the proverbial lemmings to follow the lead lemming off the cliff.
Some leaders measure their status in the organization by how often and how many people agree with their leadership decisions. Other leaders can become very defensive when anyone disagrees with them, leading the Synergist to follow blindly out of fear. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see how an emergency scene can deteriorate into a catastrophe quickly when everyone is agreeing for the sake of agreement or out of fear. Important clues and cues, indicating the impending disaster will never be articulated by the Synergist. Look no further than the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster for an example of the sobering consequence of this dangerous mindset.
1. Discuss some examples where groupthink or association bias may have contributed to flawed situational awareness in your organization (on or off the emergency scene).
2. Discuss some ways your organization and its leaders can counteract the ill effects of synergistic thinking.
3. Engage the synergist in a discussion about how to respectfully dissent when there is concerns for the decision making of superiors.
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