Do you know someone who imperilled or sacrificed their marriage for work?


In my last blog, we saw how wonderful groups are – that collaboration is a marvellous thing, both in its results and also in its intrinsic pleasure. But groups are also really dangerous to our wellbeing.

In the summer of 2008 the Japanese Ministry of Health certified that a 45-year-old engineer working on Toyota’s Camry project had died of karoshi. Official Japanese statistics record between 100 and 200 deaths from this disease each year, though unofficial estimates put it over ten thousand. Karoshi means death from overwork.

How alien to Westerners. But then again, maybe not. Do you know someone who imperilled or sacrificed their marriage for work? Compromised their values? Lives somewhere they don’t like? Or has a miserable life – and makes loved ones unhappy too – through staying in a job or social group too long? There can be forces acting within hubs that are not in our best interests.

Fidel Castro’s troops stormed into Havana in January 1959 to popular acclaim. The Batista dictatorship they overthrew was feared and hated. Originally, Castro was pro-democracy and pro-American. In April 1959 he visited New York, ate hamburgers and hot dogs with the locals, saying “I don’t agree with communism. We are against all kinds of dictators.”

But President Eisenhower refused to meet Castro. Before long, Fidel made overtures to the Soviet Union. The CIA responded by drawing up a plan to topple him. When he became President in 1961, John F. Kennedy gave the invasion plan the green light. Fourteen hundred Cuban refugees were to land at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, which would be the start of a popular rising against Castro.

The invasion happened, but the anticipated popular revolt did not. Castro’s forces easily defeated the invaders, while in Havana the victory was widely celebrated.

This came as a real shock to the American intelligence community and to Kennedy and his advisers. Yet curiously, before the invasion, Princeton’s Institute of International Social Research had conducted an opinion poll in Cuba, finding “overwhelming allegiance to Fidel Castro.” They survey was published and copies sent to the US government. The findings were completely ignored.

Watergate presented a similar tale. When five employees of CREEP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President, were arrested trying to break into the Democratic National Headquarters on 17 June 1972, President Nixon and his close advisers were not unduly alarmed. They were running a massive slush fund out of Mexico, financing campaign fraud, spying and sabotage, and the fund could easily cover buying the burglar’s silence. Nixon won a landslide victory in the 1972 election, and it was only through a series of accidents – and through Nixon bugging his own conversations in the White House – that Nixon was eventually forced out of office. On 9 August 1974 he became the first US president to resign.



But the really interesting thing about Watergate is that for two years none of Nixon’s inner circle dissented or shown any signs of regret or conscience. They were all hugely loyal to the President and admired his work. Even Henry Kissinger, the distinguished Secretary of State who was not involved in Watergate, predicted that history would forget about the affair and view Nixon as a great president.

What the Bay of Pigs and Watergate exemplify is ‘groupthink’ – the desire for unanimity, when thinking alike becomes a virtue; the division of the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’; the insulation of the group from all outside evidence; and a belief that if the groups sticks together, it can shrug off outside criticism. Groupthink is not thinking at all, but an emotional quality. It is the extreme form of empathy, of people bonding together. It is a paradox that groups of highly intelligent people can make such stupid decisions. They would not have made them as individuals.

Beyond groupthink, there is authority. As psychological experiments have shown, we naturally defer to authority, even at the expense of our humanity. Another dark force that multiplies within groups is conformity. Most of us don’t like to rock the boat. Then there all kinds of reasons why we may be reluctant to leave a group even when we know it’s bad for us. Which leads to overwork, to compromising our principles, and to corporate cults of various kinds.

Groups appear to exert “gravity” – a force that binds us into the group and makes it hard to break free. We become afraid to take an independent line. We may spend months or years working or living in a group where we are unhappy and don’t feel useful. The worse hubs are often firms, where economic and emotional forces combine to tug us in malevolent ways. Being wired to connect may mean we’re just not wired to disconnect. Empathy, loyalty, consensus and shared values – all wonderful things – come to have horrible consequences.

We are not as powerful as individuals as we like to think we are. But if we are aware of the gravity of hubs, we have a better chance to break free. Unhappiness or a guilty conscience can be repressed. An infinitely better solution is to leave the group immediately. There are so many groups with which we can choose to collaborate. We can even set up our own formal or informal group. It pays to be as discriminating in our choice of hubs, and as demanding of them, as they are of us. We can experiment, to find groups where we are truly part of the same network in body, mind and spirit, where we share the same values and aspirations, and where our individuality is not curbed, but rather enhanced.

So – we need to be super-selective about the groups we join, and make sure that we are not stopped from thinking for ourselves.

Now group are one thing, but there’s another element of networks that is much anarchic, fun, and potentially rewarding. The idea is the “strength of weak links” and I say it is one of top five useful business and social laws and one of the most neglected. Tune it at the same time next week to learn about something really explosive – for your work, and your life.


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