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Thinking Outside the Crowd

Originally published on LinkedIn on September 21, 2021

Would you knowingly give the wrong answer in order to conform to the majority view? Well, I know you wouldn’t. But you’re exceptional, you see. In a series of experiments in the 1950s Solomon Asch found 75% of participants would indeed go along. Even though they knew otherwise, they conformed for fear of being ridiculed or thought "peculiar”.

Our instinct to conform is so ingrained, we don’t actually need to be told what to think. Somehow, we just know. George Orwell wrote: “At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it..”

It’s hard to swim against the tide, and getting harder. We constantly receive signals telling us which kinds of views are allowable and which are not. We’ve seen the rise of deplatforming, a new wave of cancel culture, the switching off of an entire social platform. Universities are commonly restricting free speech. Doctors are threatened with losing their license for voicing unauthorised views. Censorship and self-censorship are on the rise. Even book burning has made a comeback (tastefully rebranded as “flame purification”).

One doesn’t have to agree with a person’s view to support their right to say it. Indeed, that used to be the proud default position of most advanced societies. However disagreeable or inconvenient the other person's view might be they may, after all, have a point. They may even be right. And if the scope of acceptable opinion narrows, the longer-term risks to us all expand.

This isn’t just a societal phenomenon. It happens within organisations too. A range of bureaucratic, financial and status factors incentivise people to reinforce a leader’s opinion rather than challenge it. Peter Drucker illustrated this well with a story of how Alfred P Sloan Jr, the former CEO of General Motors, summarised a board meeting:

“Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here.” Everyone around the table nodded assent. “Then,” continued Sloan, “I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

Dissent is valuable, and the ability to disagree agreeably is priceless. In this area, I have long felt that Comms professionals have a privileged position. Comms leads have unrivalled access to top management – without, in most cases, having a direct dependency on them. Like the court jester of old, we have special license to speak up where others may fall silent, to be a voice for the voiceless outside the room.

This month is the 24th anniversary of The Crazy Ones, Apple’s legendary relaunch ad. Its punch was in highlighting how individuals now universally seen as seers, prophets and pioneers were once dismissed by popular opinion as “misfits, rebels, troublemakers”. It’s a timely reminder. As we approach the final quarter of 2021, let’s hear it once more for the crazy ones. And let’s hear it especially from those in the harlequin suits.

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