What we are not conscious of at work…and why it matters


Now this could be a long list but, a person has to get started somewhere, so here goes. Social psychology has a lot to teach us about how we relate to each other at work and here are a few key ideas to get us started.

It was while reading about how group discussions can make attitudes more extreme (Burnstein and Vinokur, 1977, as cited in Gray, 2003). So imagine that. You are in a meeting and there is an even split of opinions. Gray states this most likely will result in a compromise. However, when is there ever a completely even split? What is more likely is that there is an imbalance and the evidence suggests that in this case, the very act of sitting down in a group and discussing the issues will make previously held views more entrenched. Knowing that group polarisation is the most likely outcome gives me pause about arranging the next meeting.

If it is an uneven split, how likely are those in the minority to stick to their guns? This is crucial in a sprint retrospective, where outlying opinions can be important challenge to opinions arrived at through groupthink. There have been many studies (Asch, 1951) in which 75% of subjects swayed by the group at least some of the time. In these studies, subjects stated things they know to be untrue, so as to conform to the group consensus. This has been replicated many times and, according to Gray, although it varies across culture and is diminishing in the US since 1950, however, it is still the case that most of us go along at least some of the time with what others are saying, against what we truly think, if we are the sole person to hold our views.

Personality seems to interplay with urge to conform (Blass, 1991), so it is more complicated than “situation is everything”. Still, as Lieberman points out in his great introduction to Social Psychology lectures, “situations are powerful”.

So much so that we can find ourselves doing things we would never have thought we would do. In the right circumstances, we will administer seemingly lethal shocks to complete strangers (Milgram, 1963). As Lieberman explains, as this is perhaps most pertinent for applying learning from the Milgram studies to working life, “it has to be gradual”. We will not suddenly administer seemingly lethal shocks. We have to start low and increment gradually. So reminiscent of projects continuing to invest long after the business case has disappeared or working cultures slipping into hostile practices. All this shouts to me “beware the slippery slope”.

It also underlines how we frequently behave against our expectations and self-image. Expecting people’s natures to intrinsically lead to behaviour (e.g. “she is a kind person so she will agree to change the meeting date”) is known as the fundamental attribution error (Ross, 1977). Believing what we see is an unbiased view of what the world is is called Naive Realism. It seems that understanding what is happening requires a deep acceptance that we are biased and that everybody is powerfully influenced by the situation they are in…and that seems like a good starting place for applying social psychology to the workplace and thinking about what we are not conscious of at work.

Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgments. Groups, leadership, and men. S, 222-236.

Blass, T. (1991). Understanding behavior in the Milgram obedience experiment: The role of personality, situations, and their interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(3), 398.

Burnstein, E., & Vinokur, A. (1977). Persuasive argumentation and social comparison as determinants of attitude polarization. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13(4), 315-332.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of abnormal and social psychology, 67(4), 371.

Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. Advances in experimental social psychology, 10, 173-220.

Image is By Alexandr frolov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons.


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