Groupthink = FIFA Fail

images (16)So dear old Mr Sepp Blatter (or Stepp Ladder as one wag put it) has won the FIFA president election for a fifth-term. Needless to say, the decision by FIFA was met with almost universal condemnation by commentators and people in the know. So why is it the case? What is it about the apparent morally out of kilter executive & Mr Blatter’s style of leadership that has created this outpouring of disapproval and disgust? We know that FBI have a huge dossier on FIFA executives and have arrested a number of people for financial wrongdoing; so why do FIFA top brass feel immune from criticism? Well the hoary of theory of Groupthink may have one or two clues.

The theory of Groupthink from Janis (1971 & 1982) has been with us since the 1970’s and has been attached to all manner of historical events where group dynamics has impacted upon decision making. Notable studies include the Bay of Pigs, Chernobyl and the lack of preparedness by the United States services for the Pearl Harbour attacks during WW2. Though applying the theory to FIFA & Mr Blatter may become a little clearer after looking at the main characteristics of groupthink as described by Janis:

  • The illusion of invulnerability – group of people can become over optimistic about events around them & will take unjustifiable risks
  • Belief in the rectitude of the group – Group members think that actions they take are morally correct.
  • Negative views of the opposition –  Can become disparaging about leaders and people from the opposite side of the situation.
  • Illusion of unanimity – A group presents a perception that everyone has been in agreement with decisions, when clearly they may not be.
  • Constructing a protective shield – the group will vehemently defend itself from the views and perspectives of those on the outside.

There are of course many more dimensions to Groupthink.  However you the reader will begin the see patterns and links to what we know about the FIFA executive and leadership behaviours. Clearly, the wheels are now coming off the FIFA gravy train but Mr Blatter’s denial of wrongdoing continues apace. Again perhaps a symptom of Groupthink from the leader. Although the Groupthink theory is not without it’s detractors and criticisms, though there seems to be many parallels in the case of FIFA executive team and leadership.

So utilising this theory how can FIFA start to rebuild with transparency and credibility. I am sure we all have our own views, however, Janis suggests a number of ways groups can avoid the issues and pitfalls of Groupthink.

  • Encourage open criticism of the group and leadership team to evaluate decision making process
  • The leader does not express any personal preferences on the solutions to the problems until the debate has run its course
  • Create a “devil’s advocate” within the group to deliberately challenge the group’s decision.
  • Include people from outside the group to critique the decision making process and ultimate decisions of the group.

Again there are many more, however, creating an open and transparent system of decision making so there is no opportunity for Groupthink or criminal activity may help to rebuild trust in the FIFA board. Though the group has a long way to go before the maelstrom of recent events subside and a new way of doing business can emerge. FIFA may need a revolution before the evolution in their leadership team will have any credibility, though perhaps incorporating a few remedies from Janis and others may well start the open dialogue with World football once more. Remember Mr Blatter “Denial is not a long river in Egypt” so action on stopping Groupthink may well be a good place to start.


Janis, Irving L. (1972). Victims of groupthink; a psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin.

Janis, Irving L. (1982). Groupthink: psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Read more blogs on this and many other career and work related subjects like this at Bright Sparks Coaching

David Dean is an award winning independent Work, Career & Coaching Psychologist, blog writer, work psychology tutor & speaker on areas of psychology that make your career and workplace a better place to be.


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