Avoiding group think

Do you think you can get this one right?

In 1951, Groups of eight college students were given a paper asking which two lines were the same. They each called out which were the two lines. Except 7 had been told to intentionally give the wrong answer. The remaining student agreed with the 7, giving the wrong answer, over a third of the time. If the student was on their own, they were able to get it right 100% of the time. They knew the right answer, but they gave the wrong answer in order to fit in. Asch, the man who devised the experiment, observed: “That intelligent, well-meaning, young people are willing to call white, black is a matter of concern.”

Our capacity to sacrifice our beliefs in order to fit in is well documented. The book ordinary men by Christopher Browning documents this to its most horrific consequence. It documents the experience of a group of 503 very ordinary, middle-aged men. It could easily have included you or me. In 1942 they were sent to Poland to keep the peace after the German occupation. They were not soldiers. Just regular policemen. This group of men were given an order to murder a village of 300 jews. The commander cried when he told the group they “had to.” But, as he cried, he said no one would be forced to. Anyone could refuse to join in without punishment. One man stepped forward. Out of 503. When he didn’t get shot, another 11 stepped forward. A village of men women and children were killed that day. Also, just like you and me. The group of men were responsible for the murder of 87,000 Jews over the next 11-months.

Only one man of that group never killed a single Jew. He didn’t have any reprisals. He also didn’t have 87,000 murders on his conscience.

But you would be the one, right? There is a 0.2% chance (1 / 503). Knowing this gives us an advantage. Knowing our nature, we can choose now what decision we will make then. After you give in to the small things that you find wrong but convenient, it becomes much easier with the big things.

I know what you are thinking! “Well this is a cheery post for a Wednesday afternoon!” I know, but perhaps it enables just one of us to stand-up?

As leaders (but really as humans), it is up to us to model behaviour we can be proud of. Our teams can see that they belong to a group that allows dissent so that the best decisions can be made, rather than squashes dissent so the group think can prevail.

So what is your hill to die on? For me, I refuse to say things I don’t believe to be true, no matter the pressure and no matter the “prize.” I’ve quit 2 jobs because I no longer believed in what we were doing. I refuse to be bullied. This last one cost me £16,000 a couple of years ago. Best money I have ever spent.

But also, sadly sometimes I have come away from a situation thinking, why did Is not say something, or worse why did I say that? I resolve to be better.

The two matching lines are A and B, do you agree?

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