Is Groupthink Crippling The Oilers' Organization?

photo by Kata Dosa, via Wikimedia Commons

Last weekend, David Staples published his transcript of an interesting interview with Craig MacTavish. It provided some insight into the inner workings of the front office and some of the general thoughts of MacT himself.

Derek Zona wrote a good piece on groupthink almost four years ago. He took a slightly different approach on the topic than I (value of advanced stats in hockey), but right now, I'm less interested in measuring performance of the players and more interested in measuring the performance of the front office.

In his interview with Staples, MacT provided a bit of history of the relationships within the front office. We've also caught glimpses of the decision making process during episodes of Oil Change. As I've watched, I've had the same nagging questions:

  • Is anyone challenging front office decisions?
  • Is the culture of the organization discouraging dissenters from speaking up and arguing an unpopular view?
  • Can staff who dissent keep their jobs long enough to have an impact?
  • Does someone who doesn't toe the implied team line have any credibility?

In a team environment, I understand the value of bringing together a brain trust to mull decisions, weigh pros and cons, and make decisions. From an intelligence perspective, it's a fair practice that gives everyone an opportunity to speak their mind. In its most effective form, the group is: 1) composed of people from varied backgrounds with often divergent viewpoints, and 2) facilitated by a strong, impartial party who can moderate when necessary and distill arguments down to their basic components for proper evaluation.

Without those two basic, but important, components, there are at least two pitfalls that can derail the value of such a practice.


First, groupthink. All members of the group get a long, like each other, think the same way, finish each other's sentences and it never occurs to any of them that another viewpoint could even exist, let alone be considered. It's very real and it's self-sustaining because we are most comfortable and happiest when we're around people who think like us. Most people don't like conflict, so they avoid it.


Second (and related to the first), fear of being unpopular. Each member of the group is employed by another member of the group. They want to keep their job and they don't want to be seen as a contrarian. If the boss is in the room, they may not feel like they can safely express (or fight for) their true belief.

Is this what happened to Ralph Krueger and Tom Renney? These were guys from outside the organization who saw things differently. They didn't know that there were unwritten rules and they didn't care about the existing culture and preferences of management. They saw weaknesses and had ideas for solutions, but weren't given the time or opportunity because they thought differently from the rest of the front office. If that is, in fact, what happened, greater damage is done. For those left behind, it reinforces the belief that if you disagree, you'll get sacked.

In the case of Krueger, he thought and saw the game differently from MacT (who admitted as much after he fired Krueger). Mac interviewed Eakins and saw a younger version of himself. He liked what he saw (obviously) and he hired him, but not as an associate coach. Bye-bye Ralph. Not that Ralph was necessarily an exceptional coach, but he brought a different perspective to the table and he didn't get a fair shake (also admitted by MacT).

I wish I had more than assumptions about Buchberger and Smith, but based on the performance of the team and the fact that MacT likes them. There's a good chance that they all subscribe to the same philosophies and perhaps they never question each other about anything that actually matters.

Otherwise, the team might have drafted Murray (or even Galchenyuk) over Yak - (they needed a defenseman and centre more than another smallish winger). Maybe they would have traded Gagner's rights at the end of last season. There are numerous other speculative examples of "should'ves", but I'll leave that to others to comment.


Since Eakins is such a disciple of Roger Neilson, it's possible that he's able to recognize groupthink and stop it in his tracks. Maybe he even has the credibility with MacT to have the influence to make a difference. It's early to tell if this will remain a problem going forward, but I suspect that groupthink has played a substantial role in the Oilers' front office in the past decade (at least).

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