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Groupthink at the Secret Service

By: :: Published: October 21, 2014

The recent White House invasion by a knife-wielding veteran is reminiscent of historic events like the Challenger Space disaster, Fukushima, the Gulf Oil Spill and many other tragedies where someone spotted warning signs but could not get his or her voice to be heard. In this case, the breakdown wasn’t spawned by leaders dismissing diverse views, but by failing to create a culture where agents are forward-looking, unbiased, challenging assumptions and learning from mistakes. Both are dangerous — and potentially deadly — symptoms of groupthink. 

These situations raise two fundamental questions:

  1. How does a leader dismiss the observations of officers describing potentially high risk, dangerous and literally explosive situations?
  2. How is it possible that highly trained, elite officers are unable to effectively communicate what they saw and heard at a time when everyone should be on high alert? 

That’s groupthink at work. It’s a common bias that afflicts teams, whereby individuals tend to conform to a prevailing view, even if they don’t agree with it. Team members are afraid to challenge authority and opt to stay in a “safe” zone that’s dominated by one or two strong opinion leaders. The glaring problem here is the Secret Service is supposed to be keeping the President and First Family safe, not worrying about their own psychological state or job safety. Nothing illustrates how troubling this is better than the fact that agents find it easier to be whistle blowers than to challenge the dominant view of those in command.

It’s clear the Secret Service needs a new brand of leadership — one that’s strategic, open-minded, forward-looking and focused on creating a culture of learning from previous failures versus sweeping them under the rug, hoping they will go away.

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