Homogeneity doesn’t lead to smoothness
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
About 20 years ago, a young man took control of a famous company and hired graduates from Seoul National University to fill 70 percent of his new hires. After a few years, the company experienced a serious crisis in managing personnel affairs, as all the elite employees wanted to deal with the most promising areas of the business. When their demands were not met, many of them left in a huff. Since then, the company started to recruit employees from more diverse backgrounds. The company now takes pride in its competitiveness. In organizations, someone must do the less glamorous work. It seems counter-intuitive, but if a company’s workforce is homogenous, things will not run smoothly. A lack of diversity directly leads to poor decision-making and performance.
There are no clear standards on diversity, and they can vary according to job and organization. But if homogeneity exceeds 70 percent, any organizations are considered lacking in diversity. The same applies to running a government. The ruling Democratic Party’s defeat in the March 9 presidential election owes much to a critical lack of diversity in the composition of the Moon Jae-in administration, which fell into the trap of groupthink.
The Moon administration’s relentless drive for income-led growth, the phasing out of nuclear reactors and fiscal expansion all originated with its groupthink in tandem with confirmation bias. Groupthink leads to the irrational “escalation of commitment,” or the commitment bias, defined by Stanford Profs. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, often referred to as the fathers of behavioral economics. If you are immersed in the commitment bias, you press ahead with a wrong idea even though you know it’s wrong.
Given the unpredictability of human psychology, such unreasonable behavior can be understood. In the Ukraine war, Russian President Vladimir Putin is engaged in massive civilian massacres quite reminiscent of the medieval era. That is a clear example of the dire ramifications of groupthink. No one in the Kremlin advises Putin to stop the war, according to U.S. intelligence authorities. Groupthink is that dangerous. A mechanism to mitigate such human nature is diversity.
The Moon administration’s unique style of appointments solely based on ideology explicitly showed the bad effects of groupthink, as exemplified by the tears of a Blue House spokesperson. While delivering Moon’s message to the press after the ruling party’s election defeat, Park Kyung-mi burst into tears when she conveyed the president’s “congratulations to the winner and his supporters” and “consolations to the loser and his supporters” on Moon’s behalf. She became overly emotional and left the podium for six minutes before returning to finish her reading.
Her feelings of despair over the DP’s defeat can be explained by a sense of loss in synchronization with the ruling party’s election defeat by a razor-thin margin. But we have never seen it before.
The incoming Yoon Suk-yeol administration is not free from such risks, either, as suggested by his nominations for Cabinet ministers. 10 out of the 19 nominees for top posts in his administration, including the prime minister, graduated from Seoul National University and their averages age is 60.5. 16 of them are men. We have never seen such a dearth of diversity in the composition of a government.
The Lee Myung-bak administration was full of senior officials who graduated from Korea University, came from the Yeongnam region, and were members of the Somang Church. The Park Geun-hye government was filled with graduates from Sungkyunkwan University and Kyunggi High School and those who passed state-administered exams for judges, prosecutors and other government officials. Their narrow talent pool made the presidents turn a deaf ear to opponents.
Yoon has embraced Chung Ho-young, the nominee for health and welfare minister, despite alleged favoritism received by his two children for admissions into a medical school. Yoon can only achieve social integration and harmony when he appoints top officials with diverse backgrounds. He must not forget the weakness of a homogeneous group.