Solomon Asch created a series of experiments to demonstrate the power of social conformity. Humans are the most social of all animals, and from the earliest days, we have struggled with the need to fit in with the group. The need to be accepted by the community was often literally a matter of life and death. This primal need has left some deep, unconscious programmes. Asch’s experiments (available on YouTube) show that most people are willing to give up their view of reality to conform with a group of three or more people. In many management teams, this effect leads to groupthink.
In 1961, after consulting with his advisors, John F. Kennedy approved an invasion of Cuba to overthrow Fidel Castro. Advance press reports alerted Castro to the threat. Over 1,400 invaders at the Baha de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) were vastly outnumbered. Nearly 1,200 surrendered and others died. “How could I have been so stupid?” Kennedy asked afterwards. Yale psychologist Irving Janis felt that many of Kennedy’s top advisors were unwilling to challenge bad ideas because it might disturb group concurrence. Fears of shattering warm feelings of perceived unanimity – of rocking the boat – kept some of Kennedy’s advisors from objecting to the Bay of Pigs plan before it was too late.
Advisor Arthur Schlesinger lamented: “I bitterly reproached myself for having kept so silent during those crucial discussions. I can only explain my failure be reporting that one’s impulse to blow the whistle on this nonsense was simply undone by the circumstances of the discussion.” By contrast, in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, JFK had revamped his decision-making process to encourage conflict and critical evaluation. Internal debates allowed realistic scrutiny of alternatives. The U.S. blockaded Cuba and eventually Khrushchev removed the missiles.
Robert Kennedy wrote: “The fact that we were able to talk, debate, argue, disagree, and then debate some more was essential.” So, your homework this month is to embrace conflict, and personally determine to stand for what is right, regardless of the cost. JFK said: “When the high court of history sits in judgment on each of us, it will ask: ‘Were we truly men of courage – with the courage to stand up to one’s enemies – and the courage to stand up, when necessary, to one’s associates?’”