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Culture Cancer: Why Good People Do Bad Things in Business

Beep, Stand, Sit

A young woman enters what seemed to be a regular waiting room to get a free eye exam. There are 9 other people already in the waiting room reading newspapers, checking their phones or just sitting quietly, minding their business. The young woman picks up a nearby magazine and flicks through the glossy pages.

Suddenly there is a loud beep. Within a second of the noise, all of the 9 other people in the waiting room stand up from their seats and immediately sit back down and return to their previous state.

The young woman is puzzled. “What just happened? How strange.” Thinks the young woman, but returns to reading her magazine. About 20 seconds later, there is another loud beep, just as before. Again, the 9 people in the room stand up and sit back down. This time the young woman squirms in his chair. While puzzled by why they stood, the synchronicity and nonchalance with which they stand and sit seem so natural, it felt like what they were supposed to be doing. After another 20 seconds, the beep blasts out again. This time the young woman stands up from her seat sits back down and starts reading the magazine again. A lady opens the door and calls one of the people into his room. The group of 8 plus the young woman continue to stand and sit on the beeps

Over the course of 10 minutes, all but one of the original group is called through the door. Only the young woman and an older man remain, standing and sitting on each beep. The door opens. The man is called through to see the doctor. The young woman is alone.
The beep sounds out again.

She stands and sits. Completely alone in the waiting room. Conforming to the routine. The original group were all actors, planted by a team of social experimenters to test the theory of Social Conformity. Social Conformity is the tendency for humans to follow the patterns and behaviours of a group, without questioning or knowing why. It is an incredibly powerful and often subconscious force.

The experiment continues. Soon another new person enters the waiting room. The beep goes off and the woman stands and sits. The man barely notices. The second time, it catches his attention and the curious man asks her a question.

“Why are you standing up?” he says with a puzzled look. “Everybody was doing it so I thought I was supposed to.” the woman replies with an innocent look on her face.

Now you might think this would be the end of the experiment. You would be wrong. On the next beep, the man joins in with the young woman. Beep-stand-sit.

Over the course of the next few minutes, the experimenters let more people enter, one at a time, and watch as now a group of 5 new people also conform to this unwritten, unspoken rule of beep-stand-sit of the young woman. Even when a clearly stubborn individual enters and tries to ignore the group behaviour. He only lasts 6 or 7 beeps before he is moved in his chair. Eventually, he too joins in the group behaviour.

We now have a group of strangers, coordinating the act of standing and sitting based on a buzzer with no real idea of why they are doing it. This is the power of social conformity. We are constantly taking in information from those around us as to what and how we should be acting. We naturally follow the actions of the group, sometimes without asking why and often without even consciously thinking about it.

In the 1950s, Professor Solomon Asch ran a series of similar experiments to show that people are inclined to conform. One of my favourites is the Elevator experiment. A man in a trench coat stands in an elevator and three new people, actors, join him. Each enter, press a button, then face the rear of the elevator. Standing still, they say nothing and just stare at the back wall.

The man in the trench coat looks puzzled for a few seconds. He wipes his face, looking at the others who all stare ahead blankly. He slowly turns, checking his watch in an attempt to stall his conformity. He then turns a little more, faces the back wall and joins the group. The series of videos shows again and again that without verbal or reasonable command, people conform to group behaviour.

Group Conformity

Group Conformity is insidious, powerful and extremely dangerous in teams, businesses and communities. Group Conformity is insidious, powerful and extremely dangerous in teams, businesses and communities.

As Professor Arch said “The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black. This is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct.”

It has the power to make good people do very bad things. It can turn a financial planner into a forger or a police officer into a criminal. Cases of financial advisors forging the signatures of their clients came out post the GFC. While some of the advisors may have been bad people, reports found that most just felt it was the way things were done. It made the whole thing faster and easier.

Equally, in the USA, African Americans are more than twice as likely to be shot by police officers, irrespective of the race of the officer. Police struggle with group thinks too. James Comey, former director of the FBI said: “At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.”

Cultural conformity is not something to be avoided, nor afraid of. It is simply a human reality. One that we need to understand and leverage to drive performance.

The reality of any organisational culture is that, while it might have origins in a set of noble values, it is shaped constantly by what people do. The actions they see their peers take set the tone for the actions they take. This is a constant cycle of adaptation with all behaviours either encouraged and reinforced, silently and subtly accepted or are unacceptable and are rejected.

If standing on the beep is done consistently by the majority, it becomes the norm. If forging signatures happen enough times without being explicitly rejected, it becomes the way we do things around here.

Culture Grows

Not by design, but in action. We need to understand not just the efficiency of the processes, but also the ways we interact. It is not on paper we design culture, it is through human behaviour.

If you don’t create a culture of curiosity, of people always asking why and mapping action back to an outcome or a purpose, your culture will grow, twist and cancer will spread.

Diagnostic work to understand your people, leadership, actions and behaviours need to be a focus of all leaders. Save we drag more cancer-ridden bodies before Royal Commissions.

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