Being able to generate unadulterated judgments and opinions is vital yet difficult
Creativity and innovation have become pre-requisites for any organization’s growth - especially in today’s ever-changing, complex, and uncertain world. At a micro-level, this entails having people with diverse skill-sets, opinions, and experiences. A natural question to ask then is what is needed to bring about the benefits from diversity.
Research shows that humans are rigid and resistant to change. Once our beliefs and opinions are formed, it takes huge effort to alter them even a bit. In fact, a common tendency, known as confirmation bias, is to look for information that confirms our pre-set beliefs and to discard evidence that disconfirms our thoughts. How often have you noticed yourself watching news channels and debates that favor your political or social beliefs while quickly changing from the channels that purportedly support the opposite viewpoint?
Under such settings, where on the one hand creativity is not just desirable but essential and on the other the human mind is rigid and opinionated, how then can we generate diversity? One way that experts talk of is known as the wisdom of crowds – using judgments from multiple sources. In a classic anecdote, Francis Galton, a social scientist and statistician, visited a fair and saw a fun game where people were guessing the weight of an ox. Different people gave different judgments and were off from the actual answer by huge numbers; to his surprise, though, the average of all these different guesses was extremely close to the actual weight of the ox.
We rarely act in isolation. We are constantly being observed by others and are aware of that, we work with other people, and we are accountable to others about our decisions and actions. Consider a typical meeting scenario. Everyone is called in by the boss to discuss a new idea. The senior persons start speaking first and by doing so set the agenda and tone. Everyone gets anchored to that. New junior people who might have had fantastic opinions end up being quiet either due to the fear of being perceived stupid or of annoying the boss. Therein lies the risk of social influence.
Solomon Asch, a prominent psychologist, demonstrated how easily we conform to majority opinions and group pressures even when the right answer is obvious. In his simple experiment, naïve people like us were asked to judge the similarity of lines in terms of length. Unknown to these participants, they were surrounded by actors (posing as other participants in the game) who on purpose gave the same wrong answer. In no time, most participants gave up on the evidence of their own eyes and followed the majority judgment.
This seems like a trivial example; however, we notice it all around us. While choosing hotels or restaurants we look for other users’ ratings and reviews. We buy brands that others’ around us value. We judge professionalism of doctors, lawyers, or consultants by the clothes they wear. Often times, there is valuable reliable information in such opinions of others. After all, a dish that most people in a restaurant have ordered might point to chef’s specialty. On the other hand, we do get influenced by and partake in office gossip. We often end up indulging in stereotypical ‘team behavior’ such as partying, drinking, gambling, and spending. Purely due to the mob effect – to fit in with the rest of the crowd.
So, why does the wisdom of several minds work beautifully in the ox experiment but fail miserably in the Asch experiment? The key difference lies in independence of thoughts. Being able to generate unadulterated judgments & opinions - however right or wrong - is important. What benefit would there be in conducting a brainstorming session with just one focal idea? As simple as this may sound, what do we observe in everyday life? We often choose to go with the majority in our team meetings even when we know they are wrong to avoid conflicts. Sometimes, we do so because we lack the confidence to stand out of the crowd and speak up. When the culture of the team is to work until late hours, we decide to stay on even after our work is over in order to be considered a team-player. How often do we succumb to hierarchies while making decisions and go with what the boss says just to please him?
Organizations have started recognizing the detrimental effects of such social conformity and are devising systems and processes to generate, promote, and preserve this independence of thoughts. Take for example the Note & Vote technique. For example, in a meeting to discuss several different proposals, people would first note down their opinions individually and then put them to collective vote. In many companies, anonymous idea boxes are kept where employees can provide their honest feedback. Surveys are launched periodically to get unbiased view on topics of interest. In several team meetings, the senior most person speaks at the end after giving the junior members a chance to speak up.
A fine balance is required between listening and speaking - having your own opinions and being assertive about them and simultaneously acknowledging others’ viewpoints. Only then can the best ideas emerge.