The emotional tail wags the rational dog. This is especially true in group dynamics.
You only have to look at the Asch, Milgram and the Stanford Prison experiments to see this in action. A look back at history only confirms that from a social psychological viewpoint, our drive to conform is stronger than our drive to speak out. After the Holocaust, we said ‘never again’, but that has become ‘again and again’.
Human biases lead to sub-optimal decision making around board tables and within committees and groups, so understanding key aspects of social psychology – above all recognising and preferably avoiding mental shortcuts – is an important defence against what is often referred to as ‘Groupthink.’ Conformity is another bias to be particularly wary of, and the importance of having a ‘devil’s advocate’ in a decision making group cannot be underestimated, if only to challenge the consensus.
When we come together in groups, we do so most of the time as the herd animals; for we too are creatures who feel too scared to be really alone for even a few hours. We quiet our fear within family, social, and work groups that make sense to us. If our individuality is threatened by conservative, homogenizing group processes, we cling to the illusion that we can leave or disband primary and secondary sources of collective support if we do not like what is happening to us in them. (CORRUPTION IN A GROUP)This is the individual clinging to his or her ego identity, for in effect individuals rarely leave the major groups in their lives—families, work, cultures, nations—and then with pain and fear and immediate replacement if possible. The scapegoat/messiah/whistleblower wanders a very short time in the desert until it dies or is reborn into another group.
Our brains are very social – we evolved in social environments – and because of that, we are deeply hardwired to care what other people think about us. You can imagine that 100,000years ago, it was very important for our ancestors to belong to a community, both for the sake of survival and reproduction. Fast-forward to today, and our brains are exquisitely tuned to what other people are thinking about us. The fear of being humiliated, of looking stupid in front of peers, or of being shunned from the group is an incredibly powerful impediment to doing something differently.
There’s a tremendous amount of fear in the workplace because people are concerned as to whether or not they are going to be given the boot, which is very rational. But the problem is that this is extremely detrimental to business operations. When people are afraid, it becomes difficult if not impossible to do innovative work, because you have this internal system telling you to retreat and take the safest course. It is incumbent on business leaders and high level managers to get that fear under control.
An awareness of our neurobiology and our social psychology should serve to admire those who have had the courage to stand outside the group in order to speak out or to offer dissent. Whistleblowers are those who are willing to put ethical principles into practice despite full knowledge of the adverse consequences they could suffer. In arenas outside the corporate environment such people are recognised as heroes.