The impetus to conform is strong for many.
Often, the conformity is steeped in solid reasoning and thoughtful consideration — wearing appropriate clothes to work, for instance.
In other cases, the conformity is subconscious and almost frighteningly instinctual. Hence, the existence of the term “mob mentality.”
In organizational settings, conformity can be a positive, helping to create a uniformity of purpose and action; however, conformity can also be detrimental to the organization, stifling the free exchange of ideas, innovative thinking, and perhaps most importantly dissenting opinion.
The Conformity Impulse
You can see the impulse to conform in the famous Asch Conformity Experiment from 1951. As explained in this short video, all of the participants in the experiment except for one were planted by the experimenters.
The idea for the experiment was that the planted participants would give obviously false answers to see what the subject would do. When the plants purposely gave wrong answers, over one third of subjects gave wrong answers in conformity with the group.
Interestingly, participants went along with the group both because they were convinced that so many people could not be wrong (informational conformity) and because they didn’t want to “rock the boat” (normative conformity).
However, the fascinating part of the experiment came when the experimenters introduced a “partner” for the subject — a planted person who would give the obviously correct answer. With the addition of a single person who went against the crowd, the subjects who gave wrong answers dropped from 37% to 5%.
The Asch experiment is valuable on a number of levels.
First, as an individual, one should always remember that the conformity impulse is real. If you are going to go along with the crowd, make sure you are doing it for the right reasons.
Second, when you see that quiet, shut-down person in a meeting who looks like they have something to say, give them cover.
Just a single voice of support can help them break free of the chains of conformity and possibly add valuable insights to your discussion and decision-making.