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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 it.

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.

Devil’s advocates resist the tendencies of groupthink and social conformity.  A devil’s advocate is a group member who rationally questions solutions and recommendations—often 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 devil’s 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 devil’s advocate—the 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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2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved