The Clone Wars, Office Edition

I watched a show the other night about the power of conformity and how our brains reward us for going along with the crowd.  In this show, they performed an experiment: an unsuspecting woman came into a waiting room filled with actors.  Every few minutes, a beeping sound would play and all of the actors would stand up for a few seconds, then sit down again.  No one spoke or explained their actions.  Beep, stand, sit, wait.  Beep, stand, sit, wait.  After several repetitions, the confused woman hesitantly stood with everyone else.  After a few more times, she was quickly standing every time she heard a beep.

One by one, the actors left the room, but the beeps continued.  Beep, stand, sit, wait.  Soon, the woman was the only one left.  The beep sounded.  Without even looking around, she stood.  After a while, another innocent entered the waiting room and sat down.  A beep sounded.  To his puzzlement, the woman stood, then sat back down without saying a word.  After several repetitions, he, too, stood up for the beep.  More people entered, and each one eventually learned the drill: beep, stand, sit, wait.  An entire new group was infected with this strange behavior without anyone ever explaining it.

This experiment was both hilarious and painful to watch.  The confusion, followed by acceptance, on people's faces as they observed and then acclimated to this nonsensical behavior drew a close parallel to the experience of starting a new job, and it reminded me just how strong our desire to fit in really is.  The evolutionary value of conformity is obvious -- it's the lone caribou that's pulled down by the wolves -- but the unconscious nature of it is surprising.  I always thought that we were a little better at recognizing and resisting peer pressure, especially when it goes against common sense.  I'd like to think that I would quietly sit and read my magazine in this scenario, but now I'm not so sure that I wouldn't be popping up and down like the rest before I even realized I was doing it.  Mom always warned me about jumping off the bridge with the rest of my friends, but she never said anything about Pavlovian Beep Training.

As I thought about this, I saw evidence of unconscious conformity all around me, especially at work.  You can hardly hope to spend half or more of your waking hours with a group of people without picking up some of their habits, and the most raging non-conformist is still going to start following the crowd after a while, even if that just means wearing black like everyone else in the design room.  You notice it the most when you first join a company: the little rituals that teams develop, the style of communication, even things like whether meetings start and end on time all define a company's culture.  The new person spends the first few days looking confused, then they learn the norms and begin to practice them as well.  This is what we call "good cultural fit," and for the most part it's benign.  Conformity allows teams to create their own shorthand communication, to know where their peers will be and how they'll respond in certain situations.  Healthy conformity creates the kind of teamwork that makes the no-look pass possible.  I throw the ball to where I know you'll be, and you take it from there.

If our unconscious desire to conform to the crowd is this powerful, our desire to follow the leader is ten times as strong.  Want to know what kind of leader a company has?  Look at its people.  Every team, every company, takes on the personality of its leader in one way or another.  Is the leader aggressive, curious, nurturing?  So will the people be.  Is he domineering or controlling?  Then his managers will be, too.  Is he a worrier?  Then he and his people will make worrying a team sport and call it "risk mitigation."  Does he prefer the hands-off approach?  Then his people will act freely, even when that means "free to make bad decisions."  Does one department head have a personal conflict with another?  Their teams will follow suit in ways that would make the Hatfields and McCoys proud.

What's interesting about this is how much stronger this is than the peer effect, or even the effect of indirect leaders.  That direct authority seems to trump all other forms of influence, even when someone doesn't like their boss.  More than once, I've watched someone go from hating certain behaviors that his boss exhibited to practicing those same behaviors within a matter of months.  Each time, he had a perfectly reasonable rationale for picking up the behaviors -- "If I don't go check on my people 5 times a day and ask them for status, he's just going to go do it" -- but the fact was that he'd gone from hating to doing in a very short time.

Beep, stand, sit, wait.

I heard some wise advice once: "If you want to know how your girlfriend will look and act in 20 years, look at her mother."  Many a young man could have saved himself a lot of late-night arguments if he had heeded that advice.  I have a new version for you: if you want to know how you'll look and act in 5 years, look at your boss.  How are you feeling about that right now: inspired, thrilled, terrified?  Now, if you're a leader in your company, look around and realize that the people who report to you are going through the same exercise.  How do you think they feel?

What kinds of behavior are you modeling at work?  How do you respond to stress?  Do you solve problems, yell about them, or get depressed and withdraw when they show up?  Purposefully or otherwise, you're creating little and big versions of yourself all over your office every day, and every person who joins the team swells the number of personality clones for you to create.  You can't defer the responsibility and they can't help themselves.  Their brains are unconsciously rewiring themselves every time they see you.  Will you use your powers for good or evil?

Are you creating monsters or the next generation of leaders?  What will we see when you unleash your team on the world?

Beep, stand, sit.  I can't wait.
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