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Solomon Asch

"The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black." Solomon Asch

In my book and in the leadership workshops that I teach, I stress the importance for leaders to proactively demonstrate willingness to accept challenges and take risks. Today's business world involves constant change, and to thrive leaders must be brave and innovative, try new approaches, and chance failure. But many leaders struggle to leave their comfort zones, afraid of the potential ridicule or retaliation that often results from questioning the status quo. So instead, they choose to conform rather than taking risks. But as social psychologist Solomon Asch proved, the tendency to conform is great.

In the early 1950s, Asch conducted an experiment to study the correlation between peer pressure and conformity. He showed groups of college students pairs of exhibits similar to the one above. Claiming to be studying visual perception, Asch asked participants to determine and state out loud which bar on the right was the same length as the bar on the left. He formed groups of eight to ten students, but only one student in each group was an actual test subject; the rest were actors instructed by Asch to intentionally respond incorrectly in twelve of the eighteen comparisons. What's more, Asch made certain that the test subjects answered after all but one of the phonies in their groups had already voiced their choices.

Asch's test subjects were indeed influenced by their group peers. Although the correct answers were obvious, a third of the real subjects followed the majority when they gave incorrect answers. Seventy-four percent of the subjects joined in giving a wrong answer at least once, and 28 percent joined the imposters in voicing incorrect answers more than half the time.

In follow-up interviews, some of the conforming subjects claimed to believe that their answers were correct. But most admitted to going along with the erroneous choices because they feared being mocked by their groups, or because they didn't want to appear different from everyone else. Others said they assumed their fellow group members were correct and that their own perceptions were somehow faulty. Said Asch, "This is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct."

There is a name for leaders who conform to the crowd: they're called followers. Real leaders are risk takers, and more importantly, risk seekers -- nonconformists who think for themselves and are more likely to influence others than they are to be influenced. Which type are you?

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