It’s Not Always a Black and White Choice

Even though the Adult ego in all of us has the advantage of reason and logic, that same power can confuse us when we are faced with overly complex situations. As simple as we want our values to be, life doesn’t fit perfectly and predictably into categories of right and wrong, good and bad. We wish it were as simple as what Sirius Black says to Harry Potter? “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” 

I love that quote, but for the vast majority of decisions I make in a day, I’m not trying to pick between such obvious choices. For example, such platitudes don’t help me to pick out the right detergent at the store. And if I am a manager trying to decide between two great candidates for a new position, I’m still going to struggle. Value statements can’t tell me the future. What if our ability to reason is plagued with a myriad of questions that have no answer? How resilient are you to this level of ambiguity? 

Choices for individuals can be a challenge, and even more so for a team of individuals who all have different opinions. The apex of all of this ambiguity comes in the form of outside events which are beyond our choices or controll. Tolerance for ambiguity is an important characteristic and it is something most of us need to work on. 

When you watched TV shows or movies as a child, did you ever get that lesson that if you wish upon a star, all of your dreams will come true? Some of you already know where I’m going with this. And you might say “I know you also need to work hard at it”. Sure I agree with that too. 

It sounds like it’s based on a good principle but it certainly doesn’t paint the whole picture in one sentence. I’ll share with you the example of my adult son. He’s very talented with music. He plays the piano really well, he plays the drums really well . . .and loud, he and his friends put together a band for a high school competition which they won. Then they went on to the regional competition and took second with a chance to go on to the state competition. I’ll give away the ending: they didn’t win the state competition. I’m here to tell you that no matter how much my son and his friends practiced it would not have made a difference at all. There was no amount of money that could have improved their chances either. New instruments, voice teachers or recording professionals would have been fruitless in terms of getting them a chance at winning that state battle of the bands. 

Now you might be thinking that sounds a little cynical but what I haven’t mentioned yet is that my son was part of the graduating class of 2020, a year completely devastated by a global pandemic. There was really no way for my son to know that it would ultimately be canceled, along with just about everything else you expect from a year of graduation. If our tolerance for ambiguity is low, we should take note. The complex world in which we live is continually multiplying the variables, and we need to make a choice today to frequently practice stress management. 

Bandwagon Bias

Did your parents ever say “ . . . if your friends all jumped off of a cliff . . .”? You always knew they were about to lecture you about the danger of following the crowd for its own sake. Go ahead and roll your eyes but they were on to something. It is a dangerous walk to follow blindly just to save your brain muscles from the strain of exercise. Bandwagon Bias is not necessarily self-explanatory. It is similar to the concept of Groupthink but the two terms are not identical point by point. Say it how you like, but it is damaging to the workplace just the same. Journalists and psychologists including Irving Janis have helped to grow the discussion of this type of bias which is now used to analyze the failures of groups, companies, countries, and NASA. 

Political scientists and reverse engineers often search for this bias in the aftermath of a disaster. From the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, we can see with 20/20 vision how our modern world still struggles with age-old warnings about not wanting to be the naysayer on the team. Without naysayers, how will we keep ourselves in check? Remember the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes? The crowd applauds as the emperor parades through the streets with nothing on. It isn’t until a young child points out the obvious that the crowd finally recognizes or admits the truth. This group mentality even has some darker tones in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is simply the paradox of knowing the path of the herd can be the plague and still assigning it as the cure. 

Solution to Bandwagon Bias

As much as we fear disagreement in the workplace, our diverse opinions can actually be the nutrients to keep the business alive. They also keep any single opinion from dominating prematurely. It is similar to what Alexander Hamilton and James Madison wanted when they penned Federalist Papers 10 and 51. Not only do these papers give us the Separation of Powers maxim, they also portray factions (groups divided by opinion or cause) as beneficial. Remember playing King of the Hill? It was nice to be King, but when you weren’t, you didn’t want to charge the hill alone. Does your team have a “King of the Hill” whose opinions or ideas are never questioned? Are you that king? Factions, or various opinions, may be irritating at first glance, but at least they can also serve to stabilize the organization. 

In the workplace, management should consider this solution by design. Most of us are familiar with Brainstorming, and we realize how tempting it is to shoot down an idea at the first hint of its failure. I have seen teams do pretty well at withholding judgement during the brainstorming stage of a meeting, up until the King of the Hill (i.e. the manager) begins to fall into that pit. 

The many ideas of the team are essential to be voiced without prejudice. Even if managers have a vision of the direction the team should go, giving team members a chance to chime in is vital to their sense of value. “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire” Madison says regarding whether to allow the masses to voice their opinions (The Federalist Papers, No 10). In today’s world, our nation is so vastly diverse, that Madison’s favored design might be more applicable in organizations than in countries. 

Larger teams may worry about time-consuming meetings where everyone has a say. Perhaps temporarily dividing teams for a particular project is more helpful. Two or more workgroups can be presented with the exact same problem for discussion and resolution. Different solutions or even solutions that seem to contradict each other is not necessarily a bad thing. These factions must acknowledge one another as being valid and intentionally formed for the very purpose of pitting one potential bias against another. 

In the end, one solution must prevail–even if it is a compromise or a combination of the multiple ideas. Regardless, the chance to share voices ensures a better harmony in your workplace.