3 Tips For Managing Conformity Bias
There are over a hundred types of bias in our world, and today we’re going to examine a particularly pervasive one: conformity bias, also known as the bandwagon effect. As the name suggests, this bias involves “jumping on the bandwagon,” i.e. when we choose to do something not because we personally agree but rather because everyone else is doing it. Here’s a classic example: let’s say I’m at a restaurant, and I’d like to order dessert, but the three friends I’m eating with all refuse. As a result, I refuse, too, not because I decided I don’t actually want that delicious slice of chocolate cake, but because everyone else turned it down!
See what I mean? Conformity bias is one we have all experienced. Unfortunately, this bias can manifest in far more serious situations than deciding dessert at a restaurant — we need look no further than our own workplaces. As a result, in this blog I will break down three straightforward tips for helping us manage conformity bias during organizational meetings.
1. The boss should wait to share their opinion(s) until everyone else has spoken.
Now, this advice may seem a little counterproductive! After all, shouldn’t the leader lead by example and kick off a meeting with some straightforward discussion? In an ideal world, such a strategy makes perfect sense. But our world is not ideal, and it is up to us to counter bias whenever possible. When the boss speaks first, their position of authority often unwittingly conveys the notion that they must be correct, which creates conformity bias — everyone agrees with the boss not just because they’re the boss, but because everyone else is agreeing! (We can see here how the bandwagon effect is highly cyclical.) As a result, the boss should allow all other attendees of the meeting to share their opinions first, demonstrating that conflicting ideas are not only acceptable but necessary for a productive conversation.
2. Develop a simultaneous voting process.
Last but certainly not least, the matter of voting during a meeting is one that cannot be pushed under the rug! Because conformity bias often produces a false unanimity of opinions, eliminating this bias from matters of decision is of the utmost importance. Fortunately, there is a simple solution: develop a simultaneous voting process! My recommendation is the “thumbs up, thumbs down” system. When conducting a vote, don’t have one person speak their piece at a time, as this strategy is more likely to lead to individuals voicing a vote not because they agree, but because they don’t want to disagree. Instead, have all meeting attendees give either a thumbs up (yes) or a thumbs down (no) at the same time! This simple tactic helps ensure no one is unduly influenced by others’ opinions.
3. Appoint someone to be the “critic.”
We might also call this position the “devil’s advocate,” but such a moniker is not quite accurate, as it has a negative connotation most of us would prefer to avoid. As in the previous tip, we must recognize that discussion of different perspectives is necessary for a productive meeting, and appointing a critic allows for exactly that. The critic is someone who challenges ideas offered, though do note that “challenge” does not mean they denigrate, reject, or otherwise disparage said ideas. Rather, we might think of the critic as someone who asks why — why do we believe [x] is a better strategy than [y]? Why don’t we believe [q] will be as successful a partner as [p]? By having someone in the meeting who regularly challenges ideas, we can foster a more nuanced discussion of whatever subject is at hand, allowing us to move from our fast brains to our slow brains. In doing so, we will think more rationally instead of merely following the crowd — or should I say “jumping on the bandwagon”?
And there we have it! Three straightforward tips to help us combat the issue of conformity bias in any organizational meeting. I’d ask if you approve, but I don’t want you to feel pressured to jump on the bandwagon. ;) Instead, why don’t we give these tactics a try and evaluate their effectiveness for ourselves?
Dima Ghawi is the founder of a global talent development company with a primary mission for advancing individuals in leadership. Through keynote speeches, training programs and executive coaching, Dima has empowered thousands of professionals across the globe to expand their leadership potential. In addition, she provides guidance to business executives to develop diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies and to implement a multi-year plan for advancing quality leaders from within the organization.