How cooperation can make team players look stupid

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REY ELBO

HAVE you ever noticed this human tendency to imitate others under certain circumstances? I’m sure you have experienced aping people several times, or behaving the same way other people do in a given situation. When you see people looking up, for instance, by reflex you’d also look up to see what the others are looking at, don’t you? Somehow, it appears natural for us to conform to what others are doing.

On YouTube, there’s an excellent example of “conformity” that was used by insurance giant Prudential in its TV commercial several years ago. Watch the conformity elevator experiment video first before reading on so that you may understand the context of this article better. Here’s the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgRoiTWkBHU

If you can’t find that video, simply type the words, “Prudential: Everybody’s Doing It” on YouTube’s search engine and you’re off to another humorous adventure. Done? OK, let’s proceed.

That social experiment was done in 1962 by pioneering social psychologist Solomon Eliot Asch (1907-1996) in partnership with Candid Camera. Asch’s hypothesis was clear – “if a large group (of people) performs something out of the norm or social standard, such as facing the back of the elevator, then a random individual will conform to such behavior” even if that person was unclear about the reason.


In social psychology, “conformity” is about changing one’s behavior to match the action of the majority of people. It’s perfectly fine to do just that. Going with the flow could be interpreted in two different ways: One, we tend to follow the herd in harmless, mindless obedience to the behavior of the majority. And two, we imitate others out of an abiding respect for the concept of community.

The result can be either positive or negative. An example on the positive side is the Japanese perception that it would not be good for an individual to defy the accepted standard or be out of the ordinary as they believe “the nail that sticks out shall be hammered down.” For an example of the negative, when Filipino commuters see a fellow passenger drop a coin on the jeepney floor accidentally, they all tend to look for the dropped coin and try to pick it up and hand it back to the owner, which should be a kind act, right? Yes, unless the kind passenger who finds and returns the coin loses his or her wallet to a pickpocket in the process.

In business, conformity is a valued strategy that comes out with so many names that include co-ownership, consensual decision-making, participative management, industrial democracy, free-rein or non-directive management—all of which can only be done by the extra-ordinary teamwork of people. If you care to learn about one buzzword summarizing them all, you only need to use the term “open leadership.”

Organizations encourage their workers to work like “corporate sperm,” as espoused by Gary Hamel, to help management come up with as many innovative products and services as possible. In the bestselling opus, “The Wisdom of Crowds” (2004), New York Times business columnist James Surowiecki offers a theory on conformity.

He claims that large groups of ordinary people become brighter and smarter than an elite few who may even boast of having MBAs or doctorate degrees. Is this something new? Of course not. An army of average people tasked to solve minor problems every day and everywhere as part of their key performance indicators may prove much better than having a once-in-a-blue-moon idea generated by the so-called elite few, such as bosses with MBAs.

That’s how Toyota beat pioneering car manufacturers Ford Motors and General Motors in the global market.

Unfortunately, excessive conformity could also give people and organizations a lot of trouble. That happens when, for instance, people think it is more important to maintain the group’s cohesiveness than to consider the facts of the case – what psychologists call “groupthink.”

I’m sure you have experienced silencing yourself so as not to challenge the dominant idea of the majority and avoid being labelled as a rebel without a serious cause. In history, there have been many disasters reportedly caused by excessive conformity and groupthink. These include the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 when thousands of people died, due in part to the inadequate number of lifeboats as the shipbuilder believed the vessel was unsinkable.

Another example is the Challenger disaster of 1986, caused by a part of the shuttle being below the acceptable standard, as known then by a few people, none of whom dared to speak up so as not to delay the launch. Now, can you imagine the adverse effects of conformity and groupthink when people in government make decisions and execute them.

Again, as another example: How many foreign affairs bureaucrats are willing to go against China, finance technocrats willing to go against the perceived corruption within their department, or justice officials and police officers against extrajudicial killings, among many other current issues? The unwritten rule is crystal clear. If you don’t want to toe the line, the door is wide open.

Incidentally, there are many social experiments on YouTube about “conformity.” One recent experiment is found on BrainGames on the National Geographic channel, hosted by professor Jonah Berger of the Wharton University of Pennsylvania. Here’s the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9O9SokTTA8

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing on human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to elbonomics@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts on Elbonomics.

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