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United Airlines issued a report last week outlining changes in policy to prevent another incident like the one that occurred in April.  After violently removing a passenger from one of their flights, their response to the situation was less than ideal.

“I breached public trust with this event and how we responded,” Munoz told The Associated Press. “People are upset, and I suspect that there are a lot of people potentially thinking of not flying us.”

United Airlines is finally admitting they didn’t respond effectively to the situation.  Earlier, I talked about what this incident can teach us about public relations.

I can’t stop thinking about this situation, though.  I want to know why it happened.  How it happened.

Between United Airlines and the Kendell Jenner Pepsi Ad, there have been some high profile mishaps in the marketing universe.  Pepsi created an ad intending to show they were cutting edge, on the edge of social change.  As soon it aired, public outcry demanded it be removed. It was seen as racist, elitist, and everything that is wrong with our society.

I don’t think I’m alone in wondering how they got there.  How did the in-house Pepsi team sit in a room and approve that ad?  Why did it take United Airlines so very long to realize the error of their ways?

I Have a Theory

Have you ever heard of groupthink?  First defined in 1972 by Irving Janis, this communication theory illustrates when a group comes to a unanimous wrong decision despite facts that point to a different outcome.  Basically, the group cares more about group cohesiveness, approval, and everyone feeling “good” about the decision and being “right”.  Options get overlooked, opinions are left unsaid, and critiques are withheld.  This often leads to terrible results – some famous examples include the Challenger disaster and the Bay of Pigs invasion.

I believe groupthink played a large role in both United Airlines and Pepsi’s decision making.

It makes you wonder – are you guilty of groupthink in your organization?  What about tunnel vision or having a myopic outlook?  All things that work together to create a perfect storm of bad decision making.

Groupthink Quiz

Here’s a quick quiz to help you determine if you are guilty of groupthink – answer yes to one of these questions and maybe it’s time to put some preventive measures in place.

  1. Are people in your organization afraid to offer an alternative opinion that goes against the majority? How do you know that they are not? Do you have anonymous survey data to back that up?
  2. Do most of your meetings seem very harmonious with absolutely no discussion or disagreement? There can sometimes be too much of a good thing.
  3. Do you avoid bringing in an outside opinion or perspective? When’s the last time that happened?
  4. Does the leader of your organization give their opinion before everyone has chimed in?
  5. Do you assume silence by any member means they agree with the majority?

Why It Matters

In the case of United Airlines and Pepsi, the outcome of their bad decision making has been quite devastating.  They are now dealing with the following:

  • Dramatic drop of stock prices immediately following the incidents
  • Negative publicity
  • Demolition of their company image
  • Legal ramifications
  • Potential loss of future revenue

To grow as an organization, it’s important to take constant stock on both your internal and external communication strategies. Sometimes, that adjustment is a slight pivot, and other times it requires a giant leap in a different direction.

Groupthink has led to some terrible outcomes for companies and consumers. Don’t be the next example of what not to do.