The dangers of consensus

Making sure we're all on the same page can result in harmony - of the cult-like variety.

by Charlan Nemeth
Last Updated: 24 May 2018
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Down to business

Many research studies as well as management books argue for the importance of harmony and cohesion –and consensus.  We should get along, engage in teamwork, and bond with one another.  We should all be aligned with the company’s values and practices. We should all be on the ‘same page’.

Such goals are comforting but they often carry with them an assumption that harmony and agreement are always beneficial. Many assume those are the building blocks for a good corporate culture, and the route to good decision-making and creativity. 

The best selling book Built to Last by Collins and Porras provided some evidence for these beliefs. They studied 18 ‘visionary’ companies which had stood the test of time with consistent success – companies such as 3M, Boeing, Disney and Marriott. They were compared to rival companies which had not succeeded as well – for example, 3M with Norton, Boeing with McDonnell Douglas Aircraft. Among their various conclusions was the value of cult-like cultures.  

If the term ‘cult-like’ brings to mind Scientology or Jonestown, some may wince at the comparison but the basic principles are similar – they create consensus. They recruit, socialise and reward consensus while punishing dissent. People are recruited for their fit with the organization; they are socialised into the culture; their interactions are primarily with other believers; they become part of a family. 

Marriott for example has a mandate to ‘hire friendly, train technical’. Applicants for jobs are assessed for friendliness first. Disney is careful to hire those who fit the Disney vision. Walmart has long held Saturday meetings that have been described as ‘part evangelical revival, part Oscars’.

There are benefits to consensus and like-mindedness, including high morale, a sense of identity and the execution of a vision. But, as the image of real cults suggests, there are perils.

Most people are aware of the power of a majority to get people to follow. Many business models, e.g. Yelp, Amazon, are based on this. Majority opinion in reviews channels sales.

One of the most established findings in social psychology demonstrates the power of an unchallenged majority to ‘bend reality’, to get us to believe things that are not true. People think blue is green or that lines of clearly unequal length are equal simply because a majority of people in their group express that view. People are unaware that they are ignoring the evidence from their own senses. Worse, people facing an unchallenged majority do not think at all. They blindly follow the majority whether it is right or wrong.

Our research over the past several decades points to an even more insidious form of influence by majority opinion. It narrows the way we think about the issue. We think from the perspective of the majority. For example, some studies show that we seek information that primarily explains and justifies the majority position. We don’t consider the pros and cons of that position.

In other studies, people narrowly focus on the majority solution and are unable to detect other solutions. Still other studies show that we adopt the problem solving strategy of the majority to the exclusion of strategies that we would normally use.  All of these findings do not depend on whether the majority position is true or false. They exert this power to shape our thinking, right or wrong.

When we consider the implications of such findings, unchallenged majority views have enormous power to bend reality. Perhaps more important than our following them is the fact that we start to think from their perspective. It becomes a form of self-brainwashing, something that cults understand all too well. You don’t need surveillance if the individual is acting as his own jailor.

The downside of strong cult-like corporate cultures is that such uniformity of thought and the strong incentives for agreement conspire to make people silent when they see a problem or when they have a better solution. Perhaps of greater concern is that they don’t think about alternatives; they don’t search widely for information.

Planes can go down because someone didn’t speak up about the diminishing fuel level; disastrous mergers can be made; financial scandals can occur – all because the unchecked consensus has created uniformity, not only of behavior but of thought.

This essay is derived from Charlan Nemeth’s new book ‘In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business’ (Basic Books) published in the UK as ‘No! The Power of Disagreement in a World that Wants to Get Along’  (Atlantic)

Image credit: Mark Bulmer/Shutterstock

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