Do You Conform More Than You Should?

conformity-socksThe strangest thing happened to me last week.

I was at BDL, also known as Bradley International Airport, just north of Hartford CT.  BDL is my home airport, and I’ve flown in and out of it hundreds of times.  On the way to my departing gate, as is sometimes the case, I had to use the restroom.

As I opened the door to the bathroom, a shockwave of panic ricocheted through my nervous system.  Before I could even think, I blurted out,

I’m so sorry!  I’m sorry!

I was face to face with three women.  They were standing in a semi-circle facing the sinks.

My face went flush with embarrassment.

I jumped backwards to exit as quickly as I could.

My mind grasped at thoughts.  How could I have walked into the women’s room instead?

I made it back out to the safety of the concourse.  I took a breath.  I looked at the sign on the door.

MEN’S ROOM

This was the men’s room.

The door opened.  One of the women came out.  She was dressed in a dark blue uniform. The other two women came out next.  They were also wearing blue uniforms.

They were wearing the uniforms of the airport custodial staff.

They’d been cleaning the men’s room.

I had been in the right place.  But why was I so quick to doubt myself?  Why wasn’t my impulse to stop and say: “Hey, what are you three women doing in the men’s room?”

In that moment, I’d fallen prey to the bandwagon effect, a cognitive bias.  On seeing three women in the bathroom, I had instinctively thought I had made a mistake.  After all, it was three against one.

The fact that I was so quick to discount my own judgment both shocked and surprised me.  The experience vividly brought to life the power and of groupthink and conformity.

Conformity, at a fundamental level, makes sense.  It’s how we learn.  When we find ourselves unsure of how to respond in a situation, we observe the actions of others. If they seem like they know what’s going on, we assume they know best, then follow their lead.

The bathroom experience got me thinking about how easy it is for us (especially in organizations) to jump on the bandwagon, and conform in our beliefs and behaviors to those around us.  How invested are we in going along with the status quo?

At work, it’s difficult to be the one person who goes against the tide.  As social beings, we want to be included and liked.   We’re influenced by what others do.  If we disagree with the group, we feel an inherent uncomfortable tension between how we feel and what we believe the group wants.  Conforming relieves us of this tension.

In the short term, this might seem like a plus.  However, groupthink and conformity will stifle change and kill innovation.    To create something new means risking to think differently.

So what can we do to make sure we don’t just follow the herd?   Consider these three things:

1) Be Willing To Deal With Disagreement

One of the big reasons people conform is they don’t like the negative emotions that accompany most conflict.  It doesn’t have to be this way.   You can grow your skills at learning how to defuse the charge of conflict.  Then, you can see and use conflict in healthy, productive ways.

2) Get Clear On Your Values

Michael Porter the Harvard Business School Professor, once wrote,

Every organization is “values-driven.” The only question is, what values are in the driver’s seat?

If you’re not clear on your values, you’re more susceptible to conforming to the values of others.  What really matters? What are you willing to stand for?

3) Invoke The “Let Me Get Back To You” Clause

Some decisions take some time to think over.  Whether that time is a minute, an hour, or a day, buy yourself a buffer so you don’t just jump on the bandwagon.

What’s been your experience with groupthink and/or how to overcome it?  Join the conversation by leaving a conversation below.

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