Short time. Great inspirations.


Your colleagues silently disagree with you. How can you make them speak up? (Part 2)

speak up_mouse with microphoneTips and tricks for leaders to reduce conformity in their team.

The old saying goes: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” True enough: on one level, conformity – people’s natural tendency to do as the others do – is a great thing. It helps us to be in harmony with our environment. It helps us to form cooperative groups by harmonising our behaviour with others.

On the other hand – as we saw in last week’s article – a high level of conformity can be a great burden in a workplace. It can cause team membersto stay quiet at meetings even when they disagree which can result in catastrophic decisions.

Conformity can also be the killer of innovation. People’s desire to stick to the mainstream opinion instead of challenging it will prevent innovative ideas from surfacing and being implemented.

Therefore leadership techniques that reduce conformity and make people speak up are worthy of any manager’s attention.

How do we pressurise each other to conform?

In Asch’s experiments we saw how and why people modify their opinion to fit the majority view in a series of simple decision-making situations. In real life, however, we usually face more complex problems than Asch’s three lines.

In his experiments in 1981, Schachter simulated these more complex situations by forming debate groups and observing the groups’ behaviour when there were differences of opinion.

In Schachter’s debate groups, most of the members were “genuine” participants. But in every group there were two “stooges”, whose job was to be non-conformists. Once a shared group-opinion was formed within the team on a given topic, the two non-conformists were to represent the opposing view. Schachter was interested to find out how groups would react to such non-conformists.

There were a few behavioural patterns that emerged in almost all the debate groups:

  1. People try hard to convince the non-conformists to change their mind. Team members spent a lot of time and energy trying to convince the two non-conformists to share the majority opinion. In most groups there was a clearly distinguishable stage where most of the group’s attention was focused on the two non-conformists.
  2. The team even increases this effort at the signs of emerging conformity.The group’s effort to make the non-conformists conform increased when one of them showed signs of changing his mind (one of the stooges’ role was to let themselves be convinced after a while).
  3. If the non-conformist won’t budge, the team will eventually choose to ignore him. Once it became clear that the other non-conformist team member would not change his opinion, the group behaviour changed dramatically. From focusing all their attention and energy on him, the group went to the opposite extreme: people basically stopped communicating with the non-conformist. They didn’t regard him as the member of the group anymore.

It seems that the inherent need of teams to have a uniform opinion is so great that individuals put a lot of effort into achieving this state. However, if they fail to make it happen and the non-conformist sticks to his opinion, the group “excludes” him, thus creating an impression of uniformity of opinions.

In the face of such big pressure, no wonder “non-conformists” often choose the easy way out and keep their opinions to themselves. So, when it comes to managing conformity at the workplace, it is never enough to encourage individuals to speak up; it is at least equally important to teach the team to accept, respect, even value non-conformity, and how to regard differences of opinions as an asset.

What can you do as a leader to make your team members speak up?

What can a manager do to decrease the level of conformity in his team and build a culture where different opinions are openly shared and used as a resource for better decision making and innovation?

  • Provoke alternative ideas. As a leader, don’t fall into the trap of being relieved when there is no argument. If there is no argument, it often means that not everything is put onto the table. Asking questions like “Before we make a decision, is there anything we haven’t considered?” and “Have we considered every aspect of the problem?” might encourage some wannabe but silent non-conformists to come forward.
  • Don’t wait for too long. The longer the discussion goes on without everybody expressing their true opinion, and the closer the team seems to finalising a decision, the more difficult it becomes for individuals to step up with an opposing argument. The perceived social risk gets higher – after all who wants to be the person to halt the process when it’s almost complete. As a manager you should find a way to open up people relatively early in the process.
  • Use the Six Thinking Hats method. In De Bono’s Six Hat Model, the author recommends a structured approach in which a team can consciously look at a problem from 6 different perspectives. The method broadens the team’s thinking process and helps to get a more rounded view of the problem. It also gives the opportunity for the less vocal members to express their opinion, because the hats work as a “justification” for a certain type of opinion. For example, when we are working with the black hat, everybody has to come up with the negatives, the opposing arguments. This way, what used to be a risky social behaviour (expressing a negative opinion) will become the group norm for a period of time.
  • Stand by the non-conformist. In the Asch experiment it was clearly shown that the presence of even one supporter decreases conformity a great deal. You can be that supporter. If somebody plucks up the courage to go against the mainstream view, stand by them. Even if you don’t necessarily agree, you should support the principle of somebody representing a minority opinion.
  • Detect and deflect social pressure. If somebody comes up with something different, protect them from the classic ways groups handle non-conformists. This can be done by making the team aware of the pressure they are putting on representatives of the minority opinion.
  • Think long term. To start with, it is likely to be you who gives non-conformists the necessary social support and who monitors the group’s behaviour for destructive patterns. By doing this consistently, however, the team will learn how to cope with the natural frustration that goes with non-conformity, how to offer support to each other, and how to come to value differences of opinions.
  • Be aware of cultural differences. In a multicultural environment in particular, the level of conformity can vary a lot. In some more individualistic cultures, such as the British, American, Danish, Belgian, etc., stating your opinion and sticking out of the crowd is much more natural than in some more collectivist cultures, such as Japan, Korea, or India.
  • One-on-ones. Some people are more susceptible to social pressure and therefore find it more difficult to speak up in front of a group, especially if they disagree with the mainstream view. On the other hand, they might be comfortable sharing their thoughts in a one-on-one setting. Thus, it can be useful to schedule regular one-on-ones with your colleagues, when you can discuss relevant issues and seek their opinion. In my experience once somebody has already told their boss what they think, they will be more likely to express that thought in a larger group setting.

So what is the level of conformity in your own team? Does everybody freely share their views? Are your meetings full of lively, energetic arguments in which everybody participates? If not, it might be worth trying some of the techniques suggested above.