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3 things modern managers can learn from decades’ old studies of human behavior

The field of social psychology has long grappled with questions inspired by real-world events. Here’s how half-century-old findings can teach today’s leaders.

3 things modern managers can learn from decades’ old studies of human behavior
[Photo: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash]

Often, articles that draw advice from psychology for people in business focus on exciting new findings. That makes sense. A new finding may make you think differently about the way you work. A danger in focusing on new research is that subsequent studies may demonstrate that the initial reports do not hold up to further scrutiny.

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The field of social psychology has a long history, and much of the seminal work in the field has lasting implications. In the 1950s and early ’60s, much of social psychology grappled with questions inspired by real-world events like the Holocaust.

A half-century later, these findings have lessons to teach today’s leaders. Here are a few examples.

Conformity is powerful

A classic finding comes from the work of Solomon Asch, who found that people’s judgments are strongly affected by the beliefs of others. He had participants judge which of a set of lines was the same length as a standard in a group setting. Unbeknownst to the participants, the rest of the group were confederates of the experimenter. On some trials, the entire group made the right judgment. On some trials, though, the confederates made the wrong judgment. In those cases, participants often went along with the group judgment, even though it was clearly wrong.

Leaders must recognize that they will feel pressure to go along with what a group wants. This is particularly true in situations in which leaders are motivated by the status they get from being the leader. It takes effort and a willingness not to be liked by other people in the moment to do things that go against the wishes of the majority.

Diffusion of responsibility

Another classic set of studies that explored people’s likelihood of getting involved in a difficult situation was done by John Darley and Bibb Latane. They simulated an emergency in which research participants were in a room and believed they were speaking to other participants over a microphone and headphones. Suddenly, one of the other participants began having what seemed like an epileptic seizure. The question was how quickly the participant left the booth to find the experimenter to get help.

The fewer people the participant believed were part of the conversation, the faster they responded. This finding was called diffusion of responsibility. It is related to the well-known tragedy of the commons in which people often fail to take care of shared resources partly because they don’t want to put in the effort, and partly because they believe someone else will do it.

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Leaders need to recognize that they will be prone to ignore some problems by assuming that someone else will take care of them. It is important to take individual responsibility for solving key problems. A great exercise is to look at a problem and assume that it is only your fault that the problem exists. Then lead an effort to solve it.

You don’t change people’s minds

Disagreements are common in workplaces. The tendency is for people to try to resolve these disagreements by providing facts or data that are intended to convince other people of the truth of your position. The aim of the discussions you have is to change someone else’s mind.

A number of classic lines of research suggest that this isn’t really the way to go about influencing the beliefs of others. You have probably heard about cognitive dissonance—an idea developed by Leon Festinger. Fritz Heider had a related approach called balance theory.

The idea is that when you think about inconsistent ideas, you change your beliefs about some of them in order to bring consistency to the whole. Initially, that often means discounting information you hear that is inconsistent with what you already believe. So, when you try to convince someone else of something, you are likely to meet with resistance at first.

Instead, you should try to expose people to factors that will help them change their own mind. The best way to do that is to highlight values and beliefs they already have that are inconsistent with the view they hold. You can add additional facts as well, but the trick is to create an internal conflict among a person’s own thoughts and beliefs, rather than trying to persuade them through the weight of argument in the moment.

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