article8 min read

How to build a positive workplace culture

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” – Edmund Burke

No one likes a ‘yes’ man. No one wants someone who just mirrors them, a toady, obsequious assistant who just smiles and nods. We know that this kind of person does nothing but fuel our own ego and fails to develop us. But, at the same time, we like being agreed with, being right and correct. We like people conforming to our beliefs but we know that it isn’t always productive to simply ‘agree’ for the sake of conformity. However, encouraging and empowering someone to disagree with you, although nice in theory, is sometimes hard in practice, as is responding positively to an oppositional reaction. Why is saying ‘no’ so hard and ‘yes’ so easy?

Well, it is partly because we are psychologically programmed to conform. In the 1950s, Solomon Asch conducted experiments based on his belief that conformity reflects a relatively rational process in which people construct a norm from other people’s behaviour in order to determine correct and appropriate behaviour for themselves. His experiments involved male students in groups of 7 to 9 who thought they were participating in a visual discrimination task. They took turns, in a fixed order, to call out publicly which of the three comparison lines was the same length as a standard line. Not all of the participants were naïve though; in fact, only one person was a true naïve participant and he answered second to last. The others were experimental confederates instructed to give erroneous responses on twelve focal trials: on six trials they picked a line that was too long and on six trials they picked a line that was too short.

The results of the experiment were intriguing. There were large individual differences, with about 25 percent of participants remaining steadfastly independent throughout and about 50 percent conforming to the erroneous majority on six or more trials. The average conformity rate was 33 percent. When Asch asked people why they conformed they confessed uncertainty and self-doubt as a consequence of the disagreement between themselves and the group, which gradually evolved into self-consciousness, fear of disapproval, and feelings of anxiety and even loneliness. Participants generally viewed the group’s decision, although blatantly incorrect, as more correct than their own accurate analysis. A small minority even reported that they actually saw the lines as the group did.

A 1969 study with even more unnerving results tested whether a naïve participant – who was sent into a room to complete a questionnaire with two confederates – would evacuate the room when it began to fill with an ambiguously dangerous smoke despite seeing the confederate notice the smoke and not leave. Only 10% of subjects actually reported the smoke to an authority and most stayed in the room, copying the behaviour of the confederates. This shows that togetherness reduces fear even when the danger isn’t reduced. Paralleled to a business context, this means that even if things are going badly and people are aware of the fact, they might not say or do anything for fear of causing rupture.

These accounts suggest that one reason why people conform may be to avoid censure, ridicule, and social disapproval – things that stimulate a real fear, a genuine threat response. Although inhibiting, this response is natural because inclusion, as opposed to exclusion, has a real evolutionary benefit; in groups we are safer and stronger.

But it also partly shows how, not just by intimidation or by other directly threatening acts but also by indirect pressure from a large ambiguous group that represents ‘the norm’, bad practices can gain valency and become normalised in a society. Just look at the banking crisis. No one significantly challenged the wayward behaviour of those in authority and a culture of greed became normative. If people don’t object to potentially destructive norms, for fear of challenging the group consensus, for fear of ridicule and disapproval then the problem worsens and the colluders become equally culpable. To exacerbate this further, if leaders and those with authority act in a threatening or intimidating manner, then they will encode on people’s amygdala and even the thought of meeting this threatening authority – let alone actually confronting or questioning their command – activates a threat circuit.

Another reason for not challenging the norm might stem from what psychologists call ‘the bystander effect’. This refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present, understanding that responsibility for action is shared between the group yet relying on the ‘assumption’ that someone else will act or ‘speak up’. The probability of help is inversely related to the number of bystanders. These theories all expound how humans are naturally averse to noncomformity, ‘standing out’, and unnecessary action, eager to remain part of the majority even if the majority is wrong. This has severe consequences because, as Edmund Burke said, ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’

What can we learn from this?

Since people are so powerfully inclined to conform to group majority and authority whether good or bad, and since we know that conformity isn’t the key to growth and diverse thinking is more productive, it is important that we encourage a culture where ideas – however old and deeply embedded – can be freely questioned and challenged.

This notion relates to ‘creative abrasion’ a concept that extols creating an environment of diversity where opposing approaches are allowed to clash in a collaborative space as a successful way to foster innovation. An example of this process is how Steve Jobs hand-picked a team of engineers to create the Apple Macintosh and completely separated them from the rest of the business. The people he chose were intentionally diverse in their personalities. He hired poets, historians, musicians who also just happened to be great engineers. In doing so he formed a team with conflicting cognitive biases, decision-making, problem-solving processes, and left/right brain thinking. Instead of a group of same-thinking individuals ‘rearranging their biases’, as William James might put it, Jobs encouraged dissonance and diversity.

Prioritising diversity and inclusion are key to a company’s culture, not only because they facilitate creativity and growth, but also, because they ensure the health of a company. What do I mean by this? Well, it ensures an idea doesn’t become too embedded in an organisation’s DNA and either stagnates, stifles, or limits the company’s breadth; it ensures that a company doesn’t become an echo-chamber; it ensures that power doesn’t fall into the hands of a few narrow-minded or didactic individuals within a group; and it reduces the risk of groupthink: when the desire for harmony or conformity in a group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Diversity, inclusion, and the openness to question can positively change a culture.

Many organisations are looking to change their culture. Like multinational banks, still sullied after the crisis, and the police force in America, plagued by institutional racism. They recognise that changing miscreant behaviour is vital for success and certain values, beliefs and behaviours that became unchallenged norms actually have harrowing, destructive consequences. The dangers of not addressing issues and challenging the norm, however embedded or seemingly central it is, are spooky. To do this, however, companies must understand the social cognitive processes and the individual cognitive processes influencing their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, creating cultures where individuals are encouraged to speak up, to break the walls of the echo-chamber. Often it only takes one person to speak truth to power, to break the ice, and by this minority influence encourage others to speak, realising that others share their anxieties or concerns, bringing forth a wave of change.

We might have a tendency to conform, to say yes because we feel threatened or fearful. But we must lose these inhibitions. And we can lose them by creating cultures where diversity and questioning are invited, where saying ‘no’ is not a definitive statement but a step towards something greater. We must encourage ‘collaborative clashing’. People must be given a voice by organisations, a chance to articulate their views in regular soundings rather than a one-off yearly engagement survey. If we also learn that disagreement doesn’t equate to disapproval and that criticising an idea doesn’t amount to criticising the person who articulated it, and the only ridicule we read into such an event is based on our perception, not the event itself, then we can regulate our reaction to it. By creating a culture that views diverse thinking positively and constructively, we can all learn to escape the stale comfort of echo-chambers, the sound of our own voice ringing deafeningly in our ears.

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