31 Aug 2017 20:20 IST

The power of conformity

Studies show that even the strongest of leaders give in to conformity, not controversy

Leaders are frequently advised to trust team members, and this is truism; those who don’t pay a price. In fact, most organisational challenges arise from a lack of trust.

While trusting is non-negotiable for leaders, there is an exception: when it comes to seemingly loyal, but toxic followers. We see such people in all walks of life, not just in corporates.

Douglas MacArthur once remarked, “A general is just as good or just as bad as the troops under his command make him.” John F Kennedy, bowing to pressure from his advisers, made a gross error of judgement when he allowed escalation of American intervention in Vietnam in 1961. If an accomplished leader like Kennedy could be misled in this way, pity the plight of lesser mortals in corporates! No matter how smart we are, we become susceptible to the influence of people around us. The higher we go, the greater the possibility of this happening.

Conforming to populist ideas

Even as leaders attract able and strong followers to work for them, they need to know where to draw the line and set boundaries. Although leaders generally pride themselves on their willingness and ability to make unpopular decisions, research consistently shows that even the strongest of leaders give in to conformity, not controversy. And the pressure to conform is proportionate to the degree of agreement amongst the followers around you.

Psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments in which he showed the participants a vertical line and asked them to judge which of the three other lines is most similar in length to the test line. Those participants who made the judgement on their own identified the correct line 99 per cent of the time. However, almost 75 per cent of the other participants who answered as part of a group, where fake participants had been coached to pick an incorrect line, made at least one wrong choice and over 30 per cent of them stuck to the wrong choice.

What is important is that the participants picked the wrong choice without any pressure from the fake participants. Such is the power of conformance!

Power of social proof

Most business decisions are urgent, complex, ambiguous and, often, made with insufficient information. This encourages leaders to depend on the views of others, largely their subordinates. Not surprisingly Washington Post commented in an article: “The ethical and capable individuals who served on the Boards of WorldCom and Enron turned into credulous, compliant apparatchiks more focused on maintaining congeniality than maximising long-term profitability.” Even studies on influencing and persuasion strongly suggest the power of “social proof” in choosing, or not, to support important decisions.

People, by nature, tend to be what psychologists call ‘cognitive misers’, preferring the short-cuts of thinking over considered examination. Another reason why leaders fall victim to conformity is their worry about undermining their employees’ commitment. Leaders also get fooled by flattery and become susceptible to making errors of judgement.

Follow your intuition

How can leaders avoid making such blunders? Smart and careful leaders pay attention to the single but “shy voice” in the background or even to their own internal doubts as to whether the collective recommendation is the right thing to do or not.

There are other ways too. Some of them are:

- Make sure people disagree. Alfred Sloan, the legendary Chairman of General Motors, was known for this ability, even at his board meetings.

- Cultivate a band of truth-tellers. These are people who tell you what you need to hear, rather than what you want to hear, even if what they say is unpopular or unpalatable.

- Trust your intuition. If you get a sense you are being manipulated, trust your gut and do your due diligence.

- Delegate, but do not desert. A time-tested adage: trust, but verify.

- Be a bit paranoid about collective advice. When a bunch of loyal followers strongly recommend a course of action, be a bit wary of it and subject such advice to independent scrutiny.

Since the executive suite is always short of time and in a hurry, leaders often ignore these principles. But it is better to be safe than sorry. Once followers realise that the leader is careful and independent, they become more careful too.