We all know leaders aren’t perfect. But why do they continue to hold those interminable, aggravating, and results-free “walks in the park”? One theory is that leaders use meetings to provide confirmation of decisions they’ve already made. Consciously or subconsciously, they push conformance to their decisions and plans—and that occupies a lot of meeting time.
So attendees, wanting to “get this thing over with,” learn to become members of the dutiful herd. They go along with whatever seems to be the politically safe outcome.
A Brief History of Herd Behavior
Let’s recount a summary of Dr. Solomon Asch’s research on conformity and herd behavior, starring you. (Asch was a social psychology pioneer in the mid- to late twentieth century.) Dr. Asch puts eight people, including you, around a table in a meeting room. You think all attendees are just like you, but actually the other seven are actors. Asch has scripted their roles. So you’re the only real subject.
Asch walks to the front of the room and says he wants to find out about visual perceptions. He puts two posters in front of the group: a benchmark poster depicting a single vertical line, and a selection poster showing three lines of different lengths that are labeled A, B, and C.
Then Asch asks all eight attendees, individually, to select which of the three lines (A, B, or C) on the selection poster match the length of the benchmark line. He repeats this through several trials, with different posters. You are positioned so you hear most of the actors’ answers before you choose. Sometimes the others unanimously select what is clearly the wrong answer, all of them choosing the same distractor.
What would you predict happens in this experiment?
One-third of the “lone” subjects select the same wrong answers the actors choose. They cave in and join the herd.
Three-quarters of the lone subjects conform with the wrong answer at least once.
Separate research at New York University comparing “yes-sayers” to “straight-shooters” corroborates Dr. Asch’s findings.
Remember that in Asch’s research, the wrong answers were obviously incorrect. Most topics at meetings are nowhere near as tangible. Imagine how much easier it would be to go with the herd on issues that were more vague, particularly when the leader has taken a firm position. If the meeting were addressing strategies or mission accomplishment or similar topics, it would be much easier to abandon one’s position and elect a compromised solution.
Three Tips for Better Meetings
Here are three steps to counteract the tendency toward herd behavior at meetings:
- Concentrate. There must be a focused clarity on the real issue. This should begin with pre-meeting agendas as much as possible, so people can start objectively thinking about potential positions to take. At the meeting, keep the focus on the agenda item under discussion.
- Collaborate. Communication and idea sharing need to occupy a major part of the meeting. Leaders should encourage people to stand up and be counted. Add transparency to your team’s group norms. Hold each other accountable for candor. Anything else is unethical. Fraudulent. Unacceptable.
- Initiate. Meetings ultimately should result in an action plan for the team—a roadmap that includes who, what, and when. If you employ laser clarity on post-meeting behavior, chances are high that the team will deliver to the meeting’s expectations.
When describing the attributes of an outstanding team member, we frequently include the word loyalty. Some well meaning leaders see candor and honesty as potential indicators of disloyalty—but actually, it’s the other way around. Pioneers should be honored, but frequently they are punished. Leaders should be informed, but frequently they are shielded. High performing teams are willing to tell it the way it is. This may be uncomfortable initially, but the long term payoffs are priceless.
About the author
Dr. Dick Ruhe is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies.