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.