Herd Behavior, Useless Meetings, and Solomon Asch

Standing Out From the CrowdAsk people how they feel about meetings. Most people hate them and feel they are a waste of time. Monster.com and Time magazine agree—both list meetings as the #3 biggest time waster at work.

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.

Photo by Nyenyec  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Photo by Nyenyec Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

8 thoughts on “Herd Behavior, Useless Meetings, and Solomon Asch

  1. Dick – I’m sure we’ve all experienced being part of the herd, even though we knew it wasn’t the right thing to do at the time.

    I frequently find that “concentrate” is the missing ingredient in most meetings. A lack of clarity on the core purpose or issue for meeting often results in a waste of time for everyone. Once we get the purpose clarified, it’s much easier to work together to implement a solution.


  2. The reason for meetings are highly contextual: on intended purpose, style of meeting management, level of personnel involved and situational urgency, as well as on company and national culture. Meetings in some countries are simply public confirmations of decisions already taken beforehand, whereas in others they may be truly necessary to gain consensus, and in still others a generator of new ideas through brainstorming. Or all three. In Dr. Asch’s research example, were the others around the table of equal social stature, higher or lower? Were they subject matter specialists and you are the only generalist?

    “Truth” and “right answers” are almost never as clear-cut as Dr. Asch’s example. Nor are “high-performing teams who are willing to tell it the way it is” always the way to achieve results, long-, medium- or short-term. One person’s “candor and honesty” is another’s social faux pas or lack of respect, causing more damage than good. Don’t forget that any one person’s opinion is highly influenced by their own individual perspective, one that you may not necessarily share.

    The best leaders, in my opinion, are those who leave open the possibility that they may be wrong, and are willing to “sacrifice face” in order to get to the more essential, more elemental shared truths. In Dr. Asch’s experiment, the true leader wouldn’t have given an answer at all, but instead would have asked “Why?” Why have you given an answer that I see as different? Why have you all answered the same? Am I missing something? It takes courage to ask these questions, and true leaders are those who display this sort of courage, instead of contrariness through “candor.”

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  4. Pingback: Three Tips for Better Meetings « Jim Woods Coaching & Speaking

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  6. Years ago we were discussing if our Directors actually listen to the employees. I mentioned one Director who I said was a good listener. Another employee advised me to pay attention to what he said after I finished talking. The next time I had a talk with the Director I was amazed that his comments had little to do with anything I said. He looked around the room, out the window, checked the clock frequently while I was talking. Silence does not indicate listening.

    Employees are not stupid and they learn in multiple ways…
    Employees learn the culture from… 

    – pre-employment interviews
    – the employee handbook 

    – what HR says 

    – what the manager says 

    – what HR does 
- what the manager does 

    – what the manager rewards 

    – what the manager punishes 

    – what the executives say 

    – what the executives do 

    – what the executives punish
    – what the executives reward 


    Item 1. employees read the words
    Item 2. employees listen to the words 

    Item 3. employees read the face that speaks the words 

    Item 4. employees hear the voice that speaks the words 

    Item 5. employees watch the behaviors of the person who speaks the words. 

    If Items 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 all send the same message, then the employee is fortunate. 

    If Item 1 and 2 do not send the same message, Item 2 controls. 

    If Item 2 and 3 do not send the same message, then Item 3 controls. 

    If Item 3 and 4 do not send the same message, then Item 4 controls. 

    If Item 4 and 5 do not send the same message, then Item 5 controls. 

    If we want to encourage participation, then all words, faces, voices, and behaviors need to send the same message.

    It doesn’t take employees long to read the words, watch the faces, hear the voices, and observe the behaviors of managers and then draw reasonable conclusions. In other words, meetings do not occur in a vacuum.

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