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The following article
was written by Coleman Patterson and
appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.
Why social conformity can be bad in
the workplace, April 14, 2006, 2D.
Did you realize that our beloved Abilene
has its own paradox? In fact, among
organizational researchers and social psychologists, the Abilene Paradox is
quite well known and provides a great example of how groups work and warns of the danger
of unquestioningly following the norm.
Jerry B. Harvey in his book, The
Abilene Paradox and other Meditations on Management, tells a story of a family from
Coleman, Texas who, when prompted by a family member to drive to Abilene for dinner, pack
themselves into an unairconditioned 1958 Buick and travel to Abilene. Four hours later, after a hot and dusty, 106-mile
round trip excursion to Abilene for a less-than-satisfying meal, the family returned to
their home in Coleman. Later discussion
revealed that no one in the family actually wanted to go to Abilene, but they all went
because they thought that everyone else wanted to go.
To avoid possible disagreement and turmoil, they all willingly did what they
thought the group wanted to do, when in reality, no one in the group actually wanted to do
The concepts at play among the family
members in the Abilene Paradox demonstrate the powers of social conformity. Organizational researchers use the term
groupthink to describe such processes. Groupthink
refers to the tendency for individual group members to suppress and not give voice to
their individual thoughts and ideas in the presence of an idea that seems popular with the
group. It arises when group members conform
to the will of the group to avoid disagreeing with the group and creating conflict and
appearing as bad team players. But as the
paradox shows, sometimes the will of the group is not the will of any individual member.
Devils advocates resist the
tendencies of groupthink and social conformity. A
devils advocate is a group member who rationally questions solutions and
recommendationsoften forcing group members to analyze, explain, and defend their
recommendations. Through that evaluation
process, modifications to proposed courses of action might be developed or selected
solutions confirmed. Research findings
show that groups with devils advocates tend to outperform groups that do not have
such members. Ironically, the same research
also shows that group members, when given the opportunity to evict someone from the group,
consistently choose to kick out the devils advocatethe one who leads them to
better performance. People prefer conformity,
ease, and conflict avoidance to questioning, disagreement, and better-reasoned solutions.
Managers and organizational leaders must
understand and recognize the tendencies of individuals to conform to group pressures. In some cases, social conformity is desired and
can be used to wrangle in wayward individuals, create a sense of belonging, and build
group identity. In other situations, however,
the processes of social conformity and groupthink can lead groups to derive
less-than-optimal solutions to organizational problems.
Work cultures must be created that value teamwork AND individual input and
the questioning of solutions, procedures, and methods of operation. By doing so, organizations can reap the
benefits of groups and maximize the power of their individuals.
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