Conformity, Leadership and Diversity

It is human nature to conform. We want to feel like we ‘fit in’ within a social group. This also applies to the workplace - we want to be liked by our colleagues and our peers. It’s how we create bonds and build relationships. Our opinions and judgements are influenced by others and social psychological research suggests that we may, in certain circumstances, decide against our own judgement and agree with others, in order to fit in.

A tendency to not challenge the status quo can result in ‘groupthink’. ‘Groupthink’ is a term popularised by Irving Janis (1971) and used by psychologists to describe decision-making that is carried out without critical evaluation by a group of people, who wish to maintain harmony and conformity in the group, often to avoid conflict and confrontation. This means that controversial issues may be avoided. There may also be an absence of creative or alternative thinking.

The sense of conformity within the group can mislead members into thinking they make effective decisions. Buoyed by consensus, the group can feel invulnerable and may be dismissive of the opinions of outsiders or those who do not share the same opinions. This can mean that important or crucial considerations are ignored or overlooked.

Groupthink can be a serious issue in organisations, especially if the decision-makers, such as a Board of Directors, consistently share the same opinions, are unprepared to challenge, or are unduly influenced by a dominant personality among their number.

In all social groups, challenge is helpful. In the workplace, if employees are comfortable in voicing opinions without fear of ridicule or sanction, the risk of groupthink is reduced.

An important part of this is diversity and inclusion. A workforce that is diverse will encompass a range of backgrounds and experiences. Diversity, by its very nature, comes in many forms. It can include:

  • Socio-economic background
  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • Personality type
  • Experience
  • Age

…and many more characteristics.

Diversity allows for wider perspectives to be considered. This is useful throughout society, including in the workplace. If a Board has the input from people with different experiences, who feel safe to voice their opinion, it is more likely to benefit when making decisions. There will likely be more internal debate, with a willingness to speak out and challenge unethical behaviour if it arises.

Many organisations, including the FCA, are making concerted efforts to increase diversity in senior management positions. The regulator has suggested that increased diversity leads to better decision making and helps prevent risky behaviour and consumer harm.

Internally, the FCA has set targets to increase the representation of women and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals in leadership roles in the coming years. However, ‘diversity and inclusion’ is not simply a superficial ‘tick-box’ exercise or about pursuing a ‘social justice’ agenda. It is about bringing together people with varied but relevant experience in a meaningful way to help an organisation better meet its objectives.

The key element in this process is being open to challenge and to embrace different perspectives. The FCA has noted the importance of achieving ‘psychological safety’ in the workplace, whereby people feel safe to challenge and speak up, knowing that they will be listened to and taken seriously. It is therefore important that all people, irrespective of their background or personal characteristics, are treated with dignity and respect.

Under the Senior Managers and Certification Regime (SM&CR) emphasis is placed on improving conduct at all levels. Non-financial misconduct may be considered in an assessment of a person’s fitness and propriety. This may include discrimination, bullying, harassment or non-adherence with equalities legislation. Senior Managers within firms are therefore expected to take allegations of sexual misconduct, homophobia, racism, bullying or harassment seriously.

It can therefore be beneficial for all individuals and organisations to be open to new perspectives and take a positive approach to diversity.

About the author

Nathan joined RWA in 2016 on successfully completing his PhD. He previously worked in the private, public and charitable sectors. Nathan leads the content and professional standards team at RWA and is responsible for managing and curating technical content on the Aviva Development Zone and the award-winning My Development Zone e-learning platforms.

Since joining RWA, Nathan has written hundreds of business skills e-learning modules and assessments on a variety of subjects, including leadership and management, communication skills, human resources, employability, regeneration, citizenship and equalities.

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