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Your colleagues silently disagree with you. But why don’t they speak up? (Part 1)

Faras_Saint_Anne_silenceQuiet disagreeement at a team meeting

At the Monday morning meeting there is a loud, energetic discussion about the new plan. However, Sally, one of your most talented colleagues, is quietly sitting there. She has quite a few doubts about the feasibility of the plan itself. She doesn’t really believe in the whole thing. But she doesn’t say anything. “It’s just not worth speaking up,” Sally might say to herself.

Tom, in the other corner of the room, has very similar thoughts. Yet he doesn’t really feel like contradicting the others. Taking the role of the annoying person who slows down a discussion that seems to be going so smoothly – well, it is not very appealing to him. So Tom just sits there quietly, waiting for the meeting to finish.

Sally and Tom stayed quiet at the meeting. But it doesn’t mean they agreed. Far from it.

From time to time we all find ourselves in Sally’s or Tom’s position. We would rather not stick out from the crowd by voicing a different opinion. We don’t want the limelight, the extra attention, the possible negative social consequences. We would rather just “blend in” at that given moment.

But let’s look at this from a manager’s point of view. If the desire not to stick out is so great, how is a manager going to make sure that there is a real discussion, followed by genuine agreement between team members? How can they make a good decision when some people won’t share their true opinions? This is especially so if among those quiet ones, there are some really clever, talented people whose opinion would matter a lot.

People tend to conform to the majority opinion – even if it is clearly wrong

asch conformity linesLook at the picture on the right. Can you tell which comparison line is exactly as long as the standard line on the left? Is it 1, 2 or 3?

It wasn’t too difficult, was it? But how about a situation where there are six other people in the room all confidently saying that the solution is number 3?

Most people assume that they would give the right answer (which is number 2, by the way), irrespective of the social pressure. However, this is not what a psychologist found.

In his famous experiments of the 1950s, Asch found that 75% of the people give at least one incorrect answer in a series of 12 trials if they are surrounded by six others who all give the same wrong answer (and who all deliberately chose the same wrong line).

Participants were interviewed following the trials. At the interview psychologists told them that all the others in the room were “stooges”, told to give the incorrect answers. Then they asked the participants why they conformed to the majority opinion.

There were two common reasons for going with the crowd:

  • “I wasn’t sure anymore; maybe the others were right” – Informational influence: Some participants started doubting their own judgement and thus went with the majority. This is informational conformity, when the majority opinion causes you to change your perception, opinion or judgement.
  • “I didn’t want to stick out” Normative influence: Other participants reported that they knew the right answer all the way through, but it would have been uncomfortable or embarrassing for them to voice a different opinion. They were not convinced by the majority, but nevertheless conformed to the majority behaviour.

The roots of the two types of conformity might be different, but the outcome is the same: by siding with the majority opinion, people give the wrong solution to the problem.

Why should managers care about conformity?

Asch’s experiments (and many other experiments since) have shown that people have a natural tendency towards conformity.

For team leaders this can pose a great danger: during team discussions some members might be reluctant to speak up, voice their reservations, and express their alternative ideas. In the face of a strong consensus forming among other colleagues, either:

  • they become uncertain – “what if I am wrong?”  (informative influence); or
  • they want to avoid the uncomfortable role of the odd one out (normative influence).

This can lead poor decision making, even in a team of talented individuals. There are some classic historical examples to show this.

Let’s learn from Kennedy’s mistake

J.F. Kennedy’s and his advisory group’s decision to invade the Bay of Pigs in 1961 is regarded as one of the classic cases of such “groupthink”. As it later turned out, some of Kennedy’s advisors did have serious doubts about the idea of invasion, but they didn’t speak up. The pressure towards uniformity and agreement was too strong in the group. The result was a catastrophic decision.

After the fiasco, JFK revamped his team’s decision-making process to encourage critical evaluation and counterbalance the natural tendency towards conformity.

You, as a leader of your own team, might want to consider the same.

Only by identifying conformity – and by counterbalancing it as and when necessary – can you ensure that before an important decision is made, all sides and aspects will have been considered.

So how can we “manage” conformity, how can we encourage people to speak up in order to improve the quality of our decisions? See part 2 of this article next week.