The Psychology that makes Agreement Compulsive
“Too much agreement kills the chat.”
John. J. Chapman
Every leader highlights the importance of challenging the status quo. Implicit in this is the virtue of challenging the state of affairs as they are. However, reality has conditioned many not to challenge. The liberty to challenge is perceived by many as the privilege of the high and the mighty. Challenge by the cadre, is taken as disloyalty or even worse rebellion.
Our compulsion to seek agreement and agree, make us view a wide range of discerning human engagements as disagreements. Questioning, challenging, critiquing, seeking proof, making an alternate proposition, pointing out a fallacy in a proposition, highlighting logical inconsistencies etc. are all not disagreements. Yet majority of us see these forms of engagements as disagreement or rejection. This has led to many of us developing a clever way of disagreeing, especially with powerful people; viz couching our disagreement as an innocent question or seeking clarification.
We go to meetings with ideas, proposals, problems and information. Observe the flow of the meeting. Firstly we will Sir or Ma’am the chair endlessly and pretend that all the other assembled people do not count for anything. Second the chair in most meetings lacks the ability to frame issues and facilitate a discussion hence it becomes a dialogue between the presenter and the chair with the others as spectators. Thirdly the presenter is offended when anyone other than the chair was to challenge his propositions. Even worse the chair gets nervous when the discussion between the presenter and his other colleagues in the meeting heats up. Above all every meeting has a “meeting Varna dharma” where the right and primacy of expressing a point of view has a power pecking order. Any interjection by those lower in the power hierarchy is seen and snubbed as, out of turn impetuosity.
Why has agreement become such a dominant need for all of us?
When people agree with our propositions it socially makes us appear endorsed and hence powerful. If the agreement comes from a person powerful the endorsement feels stronger. The corollary is when someone disagrees with our proposition we feel it as a rejection of us. This feeling is worse when this disagreement is in the presence of peers and subordinates. The dynamics is more complex when the disagreement is to a proposition of a powerful person. The powerful person experiences this as a challenge to his authority and feels compelled to reassert and restore the power distance by snubbing the person disagreeing. Geert Hofstede the Dutch social Psychologist, who has studied culture, has identified power distance as an important cultural anchor. Agreements and approvals are huge power pay-offs, because they signify the influence someone has over a group.
Whenever we take an idea or a proposition to a meeting we have invested quite a lot into it. This creates what Daniel Kahneman calls an endowment effect. The endowment effect makes us overvalue our ideas and propositions. Whenever in a meeting others moderate it to what they feel is its appropriate value, we feel devalued. Often variations and modifications which are proposed to an idea or proposition are heard by the endowment effect stricken person as disagreement or worse dismissiveness. An endowment effect stricken leader is very hard to deal with, especially when they invite the members to review their proposition. Very soon the meeting degenerates into a charade of comical endorsements, the few candid reviewers who point out to the inconsistencies or potential consequences, being put into place and the majority embracing the safety of silence.
Many have limitations in generating alternatives and options, when they make propositions. These are one idea or one proposition wonders. They come to meetings with their one proposition. They then feel helpless when in a meeting someone challenges their proposition or points out to inconsistencies. When this criticism or challenge happens, they find themselves resource less to continue the engagement. The same thing happens when people walk into meetings with an agenda and want to use the others to create an illusion of support for their proposition. They become restive and irritated, when their grand design is disrupted by the few well-meaning people, who may want to challenge and examine the merits of the proposition.
This raises the other question on why do people agree with propositions which they do not approve off?
Belongingness is one of our dominant social needs. Security is another compelling social need. At a peer level belongingness drives us to agree with propositions which we disapprove off. With power figures it is more security need (excommunication fear) that drives this behavior. We learn this very early at our homes and schools. It pays to “collaborate,” a euphemism for agreeing with our siblings and class mates. Similarly the dangers of disagreeing with parents and teachers are repeatedly drilled into us by the painful experiences which we carry into our adulthood. Who does not know the value of agreeing to go to a movie, which you do not want to see, only to belong to a friends’ circle? Who also has not experienced the wrath that follows disagreeing with a teacher or a parent? In effect belongingness and security are social rewards we use to manipulate agreements and vice versa. Patronage is a common pay-off for supporting and agreeing with powerful people.
Most chairs of meetings view discussions which do not converge to a preferred end as unproductive. Time management becomes the superordinate objective. Discussions invariably throw up alternate propositions. This has the potential of setting up a debate with the members taking sides. Invariably in most cases the chair finds it difficult to adopt a neutral position or manage the dynamics. Most chairs lack facilitation skills, specially the power oozing chairs. This makes the chair nervous, especially when the tide favors the proposition the chair is uncomfortable with. This is evident when the stakes of a meeting are high, like strategy or budget decisions. The chair also becomes nervous when the discussion disturbs the internal power equations amongst the members. So protecting order becomes the objective of the chair. The chair is willing to sacrifice the discerned proposition, which could have emerged out of the discussion/debate, to maintain order and power hierarchy.
Mr. Satish Pradhan my mentor, 20 years back introduced to me the “Abilene Paradox”. In an Abilene Paradox a group of people collectively agree to a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many (or all) of the individuals in the group. Abilene Paradox manifests when the culture in a group is to suppress ones preference either for protecting group membership (Belongingness and Security) or the message over the years to members has been not to “rock the boat” and be disruptive. Most set piece meetings including board meetings are sure to suffer Abilene Paradox. The tragedy is when the consequences of the decision turn out to be disastrous, the group disowns and distances itself from the consequences, leaving the leader to hold the can – ironical as it may seem. Often this is done as a whisper campaign, while they publicly profess standing by the leader.
In the end agreement needs to be earned by putting all propositions (including the leader’s) to serious examination without any fear or favor. This will be only possible in a culture, where the members do not feel restrained or nervous to speak their mind, especially when responding to authority figures. We can do without the farcical meetings where 95% of the time 99% of the participants idle, see a slide show, hear to presenters and chairs, with no freedom to express their views. Yet we all yearn to be part of this comical socio-drama.
Let me close with a story from “Thiruvilayaadal Puranam”. This is a compilation of 64 stories of Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva once poses a question to his devotee, the great Tamil scholar and poet Nakeeran, “Whether the tresses of women naturally have fragrance?”. Nakeeran replies in the negative. The Lord challenges him and asks him, “Whether even the tresses of his consort Parvathi, does not have natural fragrance?” Nakeeran once again replies in the negative. The Lord is furious and he demands an affirmative answer. Nakeeran holds his ground and states, “Even if you open your third eye the truth will not change”. The Lord out of rage opens his third eye and reduces Nakeeran to ashes. This is where most meetings would have ended in our meeting rooms. However the story goes on, where the Lord realizes his mistake, brings back Nakeeran to life and commends him for enlightening him, the all-knowing Lord and also ensuring that an untruth did not become a truth, because a scholar was forced to bend it, for fear of his life. Leaders like Lord Shiva will create a culture where the members will feel comfortable to challenge the status quo. But where the compulsion to agree reigns supreme, it will forever be plagued by the Abilene Paradox!