MANY decades back, the New York fire department’s rulebook stated that all firefighters were required to place a ladder against the front of a burning building before doing anything in an emergency situation. That’s one primary rule known to all firemen.
So there was a fire at one time. The fire brigade arrived. And the lieutenant of the brigade noted the fire was raging at the back of the building. Rather than waste precious time putting the ladder against the building’s façade as required by the rules, he ordered the crew directly to the back of the building to put out the spreading blaze.
The fire was put out quickly, minimizing the danger and potentially saving lives and valued property.
One of the fire department’s inspectors was in the area, doing his job of seeing to it that things were done in accordance with the rules. He noted the absence of the ladder against the front of the building and began disciplinary action against the brigade lieutenant, who solicited the help of the employees’ union, resulting in a court case being filed against the management.
In court, the defense lawyer for the lieutenant asked the rationale behind the requirement of putting up a ladder against the front of a burning building as required by the rules. No one, not even the head of the fire department knew the answer. Then the lawyer brought in a historian who testified that nearly a century earlier, in New York, there were no paid, full-time firefighters.
All fire brigades were volunteers, funded and maintained by several non-profit organizations. Knowing this, all insurance companies agreed that it was a good industry practice to pay only one fire brigade – the first one on the scene of the fire. Imagine the big amount of losses to the insurance carrier who was constrained to pay all fire brigades from elsewhere, including those who came in late and did token assistance.
This brought up a legitimate question: How would the concerned insurance company know which fire brigade was first? The first to arrive would put up its ladder against the front of the building!
Over several decades since the obsolescence of the volunteer fire brigade, no one had questioned the department’s policy manual. No one had ever asked the questions: “Why do we have this rule? Why are we following it? What for?”
I’m borrowing that story from Carol Kinsey Goman, author of “Creativity in Business: A Practical Guide for Creative Thinking” (2000 version) to emphasize the problems of social conformity. In psychology, social conformity refers to “a type of social influence involving a change in belief or behavior in order to fit into a group. This change is in response to real (involving the physical presence of others) or imagined (involving the pressure of social norms / expectations) group pressure,” says Saul Mcleod in simplypsychology.org.
Social conformity is also known to many of us as yielding to group pressures. To give you a humorous and interesting tick on this principle, check YouTube on “Social Conformity – Brain Games” and “Prudential: Everybody’s Doing It.”
It’s normal to copy what other people are doing, except that it also brings us to what Rolf Dobelli refers to as “the calamity of conformity,” when we become blind followers. After all, you don’t want to be branded as a boat rocker or an evil, non-conformist, no matter how you try to soften its impact when you warn your colleagues that you’re only playing the role of a devil’s advocate for the greater good or the advantage of an organization.
With the calamity of conformity, “you don’t want to be the (eternal) naysayer. Moreover, you might not be 100 percent sure why you disagree, whereas the others are unanimous – and far from (being) stupid. So keep your mouth shut for another day,” writes Dobelli in “The Art of Thinking Clearly” (2013).
Also known as “groupthink,” social conformity happens because “a group of smart people makes reckless decisions because everyone aligns their opinions with the supposed consensus.”
Imagine the calamity of conformity when you don’t challenge the status quo because you’re following blindly the rules of the boss, or you’re impressed with the wisdom of team members who graduated with Latin honors from exclusive schools, or you simply want to be friendly with everyone, even with those whose thinking is full of nonsense.
So, therefore, what would you do? Even if you find yourself surrounded by alleged intelligent people, you must speak your mind, no matter how unpopular you end up to be. Ask at least five whys, make it 10 or more than 20, so that the proponents are led to their stupidity. And if you’re the boss, appoint a devil’s advocate and rotate the job among other team members. You’ll be glad you did.
If that happens, when people are encouraged, much more required to challenge existing management policies and practices, then they’ll be comfortable with the role. Sooner than you can imagine, there will be no more passive participants in your group. Management guru Peter Drucker (1909-2005) was right: “The most common source of management mistakes is the emphasis on finding the right solution, instead of asking the right question.”
In conclusion, let’s penalize people if they don’t ask intelligent questions, or much better, burn them in effigy if they can’t explain themselves rationally.
Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to email@example.com or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts on Elbonomics.