Teams: The Silent Influencer – March 2022

If you read my column last month, I told of serving as jury foreman in a criminal case. Our first vote was an even split, but over two days of debate, people began changing their vote. But why? It was clear that some jurors were swayed by the evidence presented by the group, and truly changed their position, but other appeared to be changing their vote to gain favor from others. And others seemed to get caught up in the identity of being a juror; a this is what juries do mentality. No matter the reason, we all seemed to lose our individual identities in the face of the group dynamic. This is where one of the most important forms of influence appears. It is certainly one that all leaders must know how to manage—conformity.

Whenever I am asked to help leaders learn how to manage teams I ask, “Why do you even have the team get together in the first place?” This always gets a raised eyebrow because, to most people, the answer is obvious, “Because two heads are better than one.” But that is not necessarily the case. When it comes to creative problem solving, individuals working alone can easily produce as many ideas as a group—with less stress. How about the opportunity to bounce ideas off each other? Individuals have as much success reforming and re-framing their own ideas as most groups. The truth is that teams only out-produce individuals if the team is carefully managed, and conformity kept at bay.

The whole point of having a team is to access the individual contributions of each team member. But this outcome is elusive because humans naturally conform to the group. Arthur Jenness is known as the first psychologist to study group conformity. In his now-famous Bean Jar Experiment of 1932, Jenness had subjects guess how many beans were in a jar. Then he asked those same subjects to work in teams and submit their estimates as a group. In every case, if the team’s guess was different than the individual’s estimate, the individual went along with the group. Even if the group’s guess was far different, the individual conformed.

To be fair, there are times when conformity is a good thing. If an individual gains new insights from the group and changes his or her mind as a result—known as internalizationeveryone’s values and goals are aligned, and the group can move forward. However, if someone is only going along to get along—compliance—they do not truly believe in the direction the group is taking, and they will cooperate only as long as the group is around. A third form of conformity is identification, where being a member of a select group (police officers, sales teams, nurses, etc.) demands adopting the group’s behavior. As a leader, it is crucial to know just why team members are conforming.

The decision to conform or stand apart from the group is affected by factors such as cultural norms—Eastern cultures that value the group over the individual see higher rates of conformity, but there are everyday factors that a leader can control. One of those factors is, quite simply, the number of people in the group. Ask one person their opinion, and you will most likely get their true feelings. Add one other person to the mix, and conformity climbs to about 3%. Two additional people cause a 13% rate of conformity, while three to five team members cause conformity to jump to 32%. That means you only have a 2/3 chance of getting someone’s honest input when five others are in the room. No leader should be satisfied with those results.

It is interesting to note that, when a group increases to more than five people, conformity does not increase past 32%. Many psychologists believe this is because larger groups offer anonymity. However, larger groups often stifle individual input simply because there are too many people talking. But that nasty 32% conformity rate means that a tidy little team of five or so people may be inhibiting getting the most from each individual.

Meeting with team members one-on-one is certainly a lot more work, but it is the only way to combat the negative influence of conformity, and get the best out of each team member.

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