I am sitting in the auditorium at IESE Business School listening to Margaret Heffernan speak about her book “Willful Blindness”. She is a wonderful speaker, sharing both clear framework of ideas and specific personal experiences.
I have scribbled about 5 pages of notes on her material, but will limit this blog post to discuss two dangers of human beings when in hierarchical groups (ie companies, governments, bureaucracys, schools, etc!)
The human being is evolutionarily designed to follow orders, and to fit in. He is more likely to give the leader the answer he guesses that the leader would like to hear, and that he believes the rest of the group would agree with. It is something that operates at a deep, unconscious level in our brains – and good leaders must work hard to help break these habits – otherwise you will always be the last to hear what is really going on in the world.
Fitting In: Conformity
Solomon Asch showed a group of 8 people two sheets. One sheet showed 3 lines of differing lengths. The other sheet had one single line. The group were asked to identify which of the 3 lines was the same as the single line.
The trick was that 7 of the group were collaborators of the experimenter. They were to indicate a “wrong” line as the same length line.
The question: would the eighth person, the real person, choose the obvious correct answer… or would they conform to the “wrong” answer that all of the others had provided?
What do you think? What would you do? How would it feel after watching 7 others each indicate a “wrong” answer? Would you have the strength to stick to your convictions?
Over 75% of individuals gave a “wrong” response, conforming to the group.
“We do not like to be wrong, but we never want to be alone” Margaret Heffernan
The strength of the human desire to conform is very strong.
Submission to Authority
One of Solomon Asch’s students was Stanley Milgram. He is famous for his experiment where he showed that 65% of people were willing to administer a fatal electric shock to another person when they were “asked” to do so by an experimenter in a white coat. The full experiment is described here on wikipedia.
Stanley Miligram said that in situations with authority figures “we switch from wanting to be a good person, to wanting to do a good job”. Our moral frameworks do not work when the “boss” is in the room. We seek all possible signals of body language, coded words, question framing to seek to understand what answer the “boss” would like to hear. If the boss gives any direction, sets the agenda – then the team will submit and conform to answering this way.
What can we do to reduce the Automatic Conformity and Submission?
As leaders of people, Margaret described 3 options to get innovation, the full creative brilliance out of people:
- Don’t show up to (some) meetings – let them run without you
- Set up parallel teams to investigate ideas – keep them separate, but not competitive
- Act as a tester of hypothesis: Ask “What would we expect to see if your hunch/intuition/idea was right?”