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What Makes Meetings So Terrible? The Asch Conformity Paradigm, For One Thing.

May 10, 2013

 

 

There is a special dialect unique to the corporate world. If you work at a big company, your brain might at this moment be reflexively conjuring phrases like think outside the box, best in class, customer-driven, emerging technologies and, my favorite, win-win, the latter being the antithesis of modern day sports.

 

However, what I'm talking about goes beyond buzzwords. I refer to the mythical language of meeting rooms, where no project is ever hampered by constraints on money, time and personnel, thanks to magical forces like “can-do attitude".

 

People often say the cruelest part of growing up is when we lose our childlike innocence and our ability to make-believe.  The jury's still out on innocence, but listen to anyone with sales projections for the upcoming year and you will quickly realize that pretending is alive and well.

 

Meeting rooms are where great ideas are hatched and untenable promises made. The harsh, sunlit world of the outside is where they go to die.

 

So what Ju-jitsu is at work here? Clearly people understand that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Why does no one speak up?

 

When humans beings engage in the act of assessment and evaluation, whether it is about upcoming sales, production, or each other, the rules start to bend. The narrative we are likely to weave is overly positive.

 

We are hardwired to wake up each morning and, despite innumerable hardships, go back out there to fight the good fight. Running with the herd is a central strategy for survival. That primitive instinct is more or less intact today. In meeting rooms and boardrooms, we can start to act like sheep, herded by the strongest voices.

 

 

 

Little did they know Solomon Asch had placed seven confederates in the room. One by one, each of the seven would make the same incorrect report. Then the eighth person, the test subject, would be asked for an opinion.

 

Placed in a room by themselves, test subjects answered correctly 99% of the time. But with those seven confederates muddying the waters, that figure plummeted to 25%.  This experiment has been repeated many times, with similar results.

 

The influence of the group has a profound effect on what we say and do.  We are unlikely to buck the crowd, especially when we know the people in question. And the paradigm isn't unique to meeting rooms. We're all guilty of laughing at jokes that aren't that funny or nodding along with an assertion that doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

 

Often, it's only after stepping away and getting a moment to ourselves that we rediscover our own good judgment. But by then it’s too late, having already bought into any number of bad ideas, strategies, or punchlines.

 

Next time you sit down at your meeting, beware the Asch Paradigm. It can bring a whole new meaning to the word ‘alignment.’

 

In a well-known experiment known as the Asch Conformity Paradigm, people were shown the following diagram, and asked to match the length of the standard line against the comparison lines.

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