Pundits have already begun wondering when the Saddledome will be renamed the “Sutterdome.”
“The face of the franchise” is a title usually bestowed on a star athlete: the high scoring center, the hard-hitting defender or the impenetrable goaltender. In Calgary, Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff have often shared the honor over the past decade.
The truth, however, is that Darryl Sutter was the face of the Calgary Flames during his tenure. In the wake of his early successes and subsequent deification, Sutter was handed the keys to the franchise and given carte blanche to re-make it in his own image. Sutter friends and loyalists were eventually installed from top-to-bottom throughout the organization. When Brent was hired in 2009 as the Flames head coach, he joined brothers Darryl, Ron and Duane in Calgary’s front offices, for example.
The urge to surround oneself with trusted allies isn’t, in and of itself, worthy of condemnation. It’s an impulse indulged by most people in power to one degree or another. If carried to the nth degree, however, The result can be an overly homogeneous culture where conformity to the group and it’s leader can suppress innovation, distort information and skew decision making. My contention, therefore, is that Darryl’s towering presence post-cup run and his ensuing establishment of a monolithic “Sutter culture” was a non-trivial contributor to his eventual downfall.
Humans are social creatures and have a tendency to conform to communal pressures or norms. For example, In his famous “vision test” experiment, Soloman Asch showed that people will tend to go all along with a strong consensus, even when competing evidence to the contrary is obvious:
In the basic Asch paradigm, the participants — the real subjects and the confederates — were all seated in a classroom. They were asked a variety of questions about the lines such as how long is A, compare the length of A to an everyday object, which line was longer than the other, which lines were the same length, etc. The group was told to announce their answers to each question out loud. The confederates always provided their answers before the study participant, and always gave the same answer as each other. They answered a few questions correctly but eventually began providing incorrect responses.
In a control group, with no pressure to conform to an erroneous view, only one subject out of 35 ever gave an incorrect answer. Solomon Asch hypothesized that the majority of people would not conform to something obviously wrong; however, when surrounded by individuals all voicing an incorrect answer, participants provided incorrect responses on a high proportion of the questions (32%). Seventy-five percent of the participants gave an incorrect answer to at least one question.
In another seminal study, Stanley Milgram showed that people are willing to suspend personal judgments at the behest of an authority figure. Participants in the experiment were told to administer electric shocks to other ostensible volunteers in increasing 15-volts increments, eventually rising to potentially fatal levels. He found a majority of the participants (65%) followed through to the 450-volt shock peak when prodded by “the experimenter”, despite grave misgivings and (feigned) screams from the victim.
Consensus and expertise are clearly two of the strongest ways to increase conformity. In The Social Animal, Elliot Aronson notes that conformity is better induced in a group if it consists of experts. The power of perceived expertise is echoed in Dan Gardners latest book Future Babble when he discusses the seductiveness of perceived confidence:
The confidence heuristic…isn’t necessarily a conscious decision path. We may not actually say to ourselves “She’s so sure of herself she must be right!” It’s something that happens at the edge of consciousness or even without any awareness at all…We simply hear the person speak and suddenly we have that sense that, yes, she is probably right.
Confidence, expertise and consensus – all powerful factors in conjuring conformity in groups.
Not that conformity is necessarily a bad thing in group endeavors. In fact, conforming to team goals and coaches expectations is venerated in sports in general and hockey in particular. Hockey culture is one that is profoundly masculine in it’s tone and timbre: players are expected to be stoic and selfless; to “play through pain” and battle every shift. Violence is not only expected but lauded. The consistent war analogies that appear in hockey analysis and commentary are not coincidental. The two worst pejoratives to hurl at a hockey player are selfish and soft.
As such, the game tends to organize itself around a basic “war time” model: rigid top-down formations with decision makers doling out orders to troops. And into this milieu stepped the deified Darryl Sutter…
“Charisma” isn’t a word that is often used to describe the Flames erstwhile general manager. To be charming or charismatic usually means to be an engaging orator with the power to please or delight. Sutter, however, was the antipode of such things with his short, curt manner of speech and open disdain for the media. Ironically, His tactiurn nature is precisely why he was such a compelling figure in Calgary initially. Unbending and unapologetic in his manner and methods, Sutter seemed the ideal inoculation against the years of fecklessness and failure that had infected the franchise previously. He was in action and in attitude a man’s man and the archetypal general to the troops in the war-like culture of the NHL. The aspects of his personality that are so often parodied now in light of his failures were actually celebrated earlier as signs of confidence, expertise and strength. He was clearly a man who was completely sure of himself and, at first, there was little reason to doubt that esteem.
Sutter therefore aroused fervent devotion in town in part because of his surly demeanor, not in spite of it. Combined with the legitimacy he garnered through the various success and factors I have detailed previously, the table was set for him to become an unquestioned autocrat within the organization.
Confirmation Bias and Groupthink
In Greek tragedies, the fatal flaw of the doomed protagonist is often hubris, or extreme pride. That insight has proven to be an universal truth of the human condition, although not because the gods tend to punish arrogance as the Greeks suggested in their mythos. The true downfall of pride is that no man has perfect knowledge nor is perfectly rational. The human mind has various biases that tend to privilege that which we already know (or assume is true) while simultaneously ignoring facts that are inconvenient or inconsistent with our beliefs. The heuristic is called the confirmation bias and it affects everyone from simpletons to geniuses. This tendency is actually adaptive in some ways: it allows our cognition to stay on even footing by making facts permanent in our thoughts and lessens gullibility. On the other hand, it can lead to stubbornness and irrationality when what we believe isn’t accurate.
Naturally, most people are more or less forced to deal with competing facts and potential cognitive dissonance frequently, so assimilation of new information and ideas eventually occurs even if it’s initially resisted. Problems crop up, however, when a person is insulated from negative feedback of their decision making or actions by power and group dynamics.
Which brings us to Groupthink, a concept developed by Irving Janis in an attempt to understand the failure of American foreign policy to predict disasters like the Bay of Pigs and Pearl Harbor. He found that in highly cohesive groups, consensus and agreement became overarching goals irrespective of other considerations. Fidelity to the group’s decisions is favored above individual creativity and potentially competing strategies, information or explanations. This leads to an environment that is openly hostile to diveristy of thought or methods.
The three conditions of groupthink are: directive leadership, homogeneity of group members background/ideology and isolation of the group. The resultant symptoms of groupthink include:
- Illusion of invulnerability
- Illusion of unanimity
- Unquestioned belief
- Direct pressure to conform
- Stereotyping opponents
- Rationalizing warnings or competing info
- Mindguards or members who actively censor competing info
Groupthink is confirmation bias writ large. Conformity run amok. Earlier I noted that conformity is not necessarily a bad thing when goals are simple and a high level of cohesion is optimal. That ceases to be true when issues become more complex or strategies are longer term. Information gathering and ruthless attention to feedbacks (ie; results and what they mean), including failures and bad news is required. It’s one thing to send the troops over the next hill. It’s quite another to project the consequences of, say, invading another country. Similarly in hockey, it’s one thing getting the guys to trap or finish their checks. It’s quite another to build rosters, project performance, negotiate salaries, etc.
Groupthink isn’t merely the uncritical nodding heads of obsequious yes-men. The process is far more insidious than spineless underlings simply agreeing with the boss out of fear. It is a dynamic that systematically prunes and shapes information to make the groups final judgments seem perfectly singular, rational and without challenge. As was noted above in the Asch experiments, people tend to abandon even obviously reasonable judgments in the face of perceived consensus. Imagine, then, smart men one after the other agreeing that the shorter line is indeed longer while debasing suggestions to the contrary. The emperors new clothes may be invisible but they are nonetheless resplendent. It is agreed.
This relates to Darryl Sutter and the Calgary Flames in obvious ways. The organization ticked all the groupthink boxes during his tenure: highly directive leader, homogeneity of group members, rigid top-down organizational structure, perceived expertise, confidence, consensus. Owing to his apparent infallibility early on and resultant power within the franchise, there’s no question Sutter was rather uninterested in suggestions he might not be right now and then. His passive aggressive hectoring of the press, even in the face of perfectly reasonable questions, was a frequent public display of Sutter’s penchant for minimizing or rationalizing failures while simultaneously dismissing opposition to his work as stupid or ill-informed.
With these factors and his actions in retrospect, it’s safe to infer that Darryl fashioned himself an echo chamber and considered any other sound he heard to be noise. Unfortunately, no man, however knowledgeable or intelligent, is infallible. Darryl’s establishment of a “Sutter Kingdom” in the Flames organization made him deaf to the evidence of his short-comings, skewed his perspective and inevitably hampered his ability to make rational decisions.