Groupthink can warp our decisions on major projects, as we have seen in Boise

Bob Kustra
Bob Kustra

The recent public policy survey conducted annually by the Boise State School of Public Service reported some new and surprising results in how Treasure Valley residents view the recent spate of growth. A sizable majority (72 percent) believe that the pace of growth is too fast. A record number of residents questioned the pace of growth, compared to previous years. In 2016, 50 percent of residents believed growth was too fast, and in 2017, 55 percent declared the pace of growth too fast.

For years now, Boise has been proud of its growth, crowing at every new development that rises from the ground, but now it is all too common to hear residents complain about too much growth, too fast.

Oftentimes, organizations discover that a style of leadership that worked so well in growing an organization does not work as well when changing circumstances require a more thoughtful, stable and conservative approach to growth. New leadership can bring skills and competencies into play that, in the city of Boise’s case, might result in more success at bringing residents together rather than bulldozing projects through that seem to tear them apart.

The term “groupthink” was coined by a Harvard professor years ago to demonstrate just how short-sighted group decision-making can be when groups fall victim to the social pressure of a group searching for a solution. We often warn our teenagers of the dangers of peer pressure, but adults can also fall prey to social pressures in group decision-making.

Too often, while searching for the ideal solution, members of a group are consciously or unconsciously attempting to minimize conflict and lean toward conformity. As consensus builds around a solution proposed by the leader, it becomes more difficult for another point of view to surface, more difficult for an outlier to propose an alternative that accomplishes a similar objective the group has set for itself. Creative and independent thought is stifled in ways that objective analysis and viable alternatives are shoved to the side.

Two issues here in Boise show how groupthink can distort the decision-making process, resulting in public policy that is needlessly expensive and ignores more viable options.

First, the new baseball/soccer stadium proposed for the city of Boise. With a valley up against mountains on the east, it’s obvious to even the casual observer that growth — managed or otherwise — is moving westward beyond Boise. So why a new stadium and all the traffic it brings just west of a Boise downtown when there are other options with less impact on traffic and congestion in the city’s core?

Another consideration is the extent to which a city should assist a private developer with public financing. In cities across America where professional sports have pressured city and state to use some form of taxpayer dollars to fund their private enterprises, there has been considerable debate as to why city tax dollars should benefit owners of sports teams. It’s time for that discussion here in Boise.

The library is another case of groupthink overwhelming the decision-making process. A new and very pricey library designed by one of the most expensive architects from the other side of the world is hardly the only approach to addressing the future of libraries in a digital world where cyberspace is increasingly the gathering place for readers and researchers. (Why not choose Boise or Idaho architects as every one of the last four building projects at Boise State have utilized?) One can only imagine what aesthetics could be built into a major renovation of the existing library, for far less money, and with The Cabin’s current site in intact.

The removal of The Cabin from its current space seems the perfect example of how “groupthink” reigned over City Council thinking. Instead of imagining and proposing a new or renovated library with The Cabin in its current location, groupthink cut short what could have been a much more analytical decision-making process where conformity to one approach does not rule the day, but other ideas are solicited, encouraged and considered.

This year proves to be a defining moment for the city of Boise. The two issues commanding the most attention are the stadium and the library, but those are only harbingers of debate to come over the issues of leadership, decision-making and the value of community input as Boiseans decide the city’s future.

Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Readers Corner on Boise State Public Radio and is a member of the Statesman editorial board.