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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Who Wants to Be Weird?

“He’s here!” someone shouted as I walked across campus. Solomon Asch, the renowned social scientist, was going to give a speech. Excited about the prospect of listening to one of the true pioneers of the field, I skipped class for a chance to hear what he had to say. Ray Price, a fellow doctoral student at Stanford, arranged for a baby-sitter so he could attend. Another student called in late for his lab job. People all around campus and across disciplines dropped whatever they were doing and like groupies hearing about an impromptu sighting of a rock star, they all rushed to hear from the master.

“He’s gotta be around a hundred!” I suggested to Ray.

“What do you think he’s going to talk about?” Ray wondered aloud.

“Surely it has something to do with the line study,” I responded. After all, that famous study was his thing. In the study, he drew three lines of different lengths for his research subjects to see. He then drew a fourth line that was exactly the same length as the second line and asked a group of people seated around a table, “Which line is this fourth most like—one, two, or three?” Obviously it was the same as the second line. Anyone could tell.

But then something really weird happened. The first person suggested that the line in question was the same as the first line. What a moron! Maybe this person had a vision problem. And then the second person said the same. What?! How could two people be that wrong? Of course, the answer to this question is now part of social science history. They were both dupes who worked for Dr. Asch. They purposefully gave the wrong answer to see if they could get a genuine subject to agree with them.

To help nudge the findings, Dr. Asch had a total of eight people (all dupes) give the same wrong answer. Then the ninth person, the only actual subject, would be asked the question. As you might suspect, nearly three-fourths of the subjects gave the same wrong answer. When they were interviewed after the study was completed, all the subjects said that they knew they had given the wrong answer, but they didn’t want to go against the crowd.

This particular compliance study has been shared in every introductory psych class ever since. It laid the groundwork for a whole series of conformity studies, including the famous Milgram studies.

Wanting to hear the latest word about these fascinating conformity studies, we sat in a crowded classroom eagerly waiting for Dr. Asch to appear. Ray and I were in the front row. Eventually, Dr. Asch was escorted to the front of the room. He was indeed old and as it turned out, he wanted to set the record straight. He tottered to the front of the room, paused to steady himself, and then spoke but one word.


We sat there in silence as Dr. Asch waited for the dramatic pause to work its effect. Finally, after what seemed like ten minutes, he explained. “When I conducted the original studies, I wasn’t studying conformity, I was studying independence. I was interested in the one in four subjects who spoke their minds even when confronted with eight other people who disagreed with them. I was interested in those who had the guts to stand up and speak their mind in the face of adversity. And yet to this day my work is known as the first in a long series of ‘conformity’ studies.”

That was really all the esteemed scholar had to say that fall morning in 1977, and to be honest, it didn’t have much of an effect on me. Who cares if the research topic is independence or conformity? To-MAY-to, to-MAW-to; half-empty, half-full—it’s all the same.

Of course, how this transformation from independence to conformity took place is easy to understand. Implying that humans are easily turned into sniveling yes-men and yes-women is far more interesting than focusing on a handful of independent cusses. Suggesting that humans are like lemming and would willingly plunge with the masses off a cliff just because everyone else is doing it—now that’s interesting.

In a nutshell, conformity is fascinating; independence—not so much. So Asch returned to Stanford in 1977 to set the record straight. He wanted the next generation of researchers to study the less fascinating folks, the independent ones. And true to form, I didn’t care.

Years later I found myself conducting a series of one-on-one interviews with employees who worked for a company that was in a lot of trouble. Profits were down, quality was failing, customer satisfaction was plummeting, and if things continued, they’d all be out of work. As I talked with people, most complained about a poor work ethic. Nobody said anything to anyone, but they hated the fact that so many people got away with not doing much. They were about to lose their jobs, but nobody had the courage to speak up.

And then I ran into someone who frequently spoke up. Maybe he was one of those guys Dr. Asch was so interested in. To start things off, he looked weird. His socks didn’t match, his hair was out of control, and he bore an untamed and spaced out expression. This social deviate quickly pointed out to me that he was surrounded by a bunch of slackers and losers and that he was constantly prodding them to get back to work. His reminders often resulted in screaming matches, but according to him, he was the only person with any integrity.

And now for the bad news. While it was true that this offbeat fellow was speaking his mind when others weren’t, he was really bad at it. In fact, he had no discernable social skills at all. He was a low self-monitor—one of those people who don’t care if they fit into a social niche and who often speak their minds in a way that offends others.

I didn’t know what to think. I did have a question though. If you’re the kind of person who speaks up after eight people share a different and obviously wrong opinion, do you have to be a low self-monitoring weirdo with an ax to grind? Which brings me to Solomon’s original question: Who were the 25 percent who had the courage to disagree, and what made them tick? And if you’re going to be the kind of person who speaks out against the vocal majority, do you have to wear mismatched socks and sit at the lunch table by yourself for the rest of your life?

Now let me put this issue in perspective. I ask this question because the cost of not being able to speak up in the presence of opposing views can be horrendous. Let’s jump to the present. Last week at the World Business Forum, Tom Peters suggested that companies are too old and stodgy and vulnerable to new ideas that are coming at us at a breakneck pace. He’s been saying this for years. In his words, we need to nurture and promote the “weird.” My thoughts turned to the wild guy with the mismatched socks. Although he didn’t say it in so many words, Dr. Peters also wants to hear from the 25 percent who have the courage to speak when others toe the party line. Dr. Asch would have wanted to kiss Tom Peters.

Tom got it right. Speaking up means a whole lot to most companies. Colin Powell, who spoke later that day, said that anyone who didn’t have the courage to disagree with the boss when he or she thinks the boss is wrong doesn’t deserve to be a leader. This statement was followed by thunderous applause.

Let’s put this all in Solomon Asch’s language. What does it take to say, “I think it’s the second line, not the first one”? Now, let’s put this in my words. Can a person whose socks actually match and who often takes the road more traveled speak up and be heard and encourage others to do the same? Or are the 25 percent who muster the courage to say “I disagree” to a whole crowd the “weird” people that Tom Peters lauds and the rest of the world makes fun of and ostracizes? Because if it’s true that the vocal few are those the majority sees as oddballs, I’ll clam up and stick with the majority thank you very much.

It turns out there’s hope. Not everyone who speaks up is weird. I learned this encouraging fact a few years back when I left the wild guy with the mismatched socks and started studying influence masters. These were people who were picked by their peers as the most influential people in the company. We followed employees who had been identified by as many as seventy people as those people were most likely to listen to. We watched them on the phone, in meetings, and in the heat of a debate. We didn’t learn all that much until we found ourselves in a real-life Asch experiment.

People were sitting quietly in a meeting when the big boss made a really stupid suggestion. “What do you think?” the boss asked, and everyone sat there mum—except for the influence master. He opened his mouth and spoke his mind. Better still, he spoke in a way that didn’t insult or cause offense. Others quickly chimed in and the issue got resolved in a healthy way.

The fact that a skilled and influential person spoke up was quite heartening because until this point I had seen only two kinds of outspoken folks. The socially odd person I referred to earlier and normal people who had become so upset that they could stand it no longer and moved from silence to violence. They spoke up alright, but were either out of control or angry or both. And then we discovered the influence masters. Unlike many of the 25 percent who speak out against the majority or the authority, they don’t act wild or toggle from silence to violence. Influence masters deal in healthy dialogue.

Here are four things they do that make it safe to speak out against the majority. First, they don’t become righteously indignant and call everyone else idiots. Instead, they maintain a more humble stance. They say something like: “Hmm, I guess I see things differently—and in this case I’m the only one.” Two, they often ask for permission to speak their opinions. “Would it be okay if I shared a different view?” Three, they speak in tentative language, leaving room for disagreement. “I wonder if this is what’s going on here.” Four, and most important, setting all of their other ways aside, they always find a way to say something that indicates they disagree. They say something. They speak up.

And guess what happens when one person finds a way to say that the emperor has no new clothes? The same thing that happened when Asch himself inserted one person to disagree with the majority before the actual research subject was polled. The subjects now expressed their honest views far more frequently because they were no longer alone. One candid, forthright, and skilled person makes it safe for everyone. One person strengthens the entire team, family, or organization.

Many contemporary scholars are calling for people to muster the courage to speak up—particularly when they hold a strong but different view and they’re facing a great deal of social pressure or formal authority. Solomon Asch was interested in studying people who did just that. Our findings have been that many of the people who strike out against the masses do so in a way that doesn’t make it safe for others to follow. They’re either low self-monitors who don’t care whether they fit anywhere or they’re angry people who can no longer sit in silence. Nobody wants to be like either. Weird and angry don’t work.

But there’s a group out there among the 25 percent who speak with skill—and in so doing limit the risk to themselves and to others. They aren’t as much courageous as they are able to speak with both confidence and skill. They’re masters of Crucial Conversations. Learn what these folks do, teach it to others, and the number of people who will comfortably speak their minds (no matter how different) will grow from a small minority to a point where virtually everyone feels empowered to express his or her views. And when this happens, just think of what the world will be like. Not everyone’s socks will match, but we’ll hear a lot of new views—and that can only make things better.

5 thoughts on “Kerrying On: Who Wants to Be Weird?”

  1. Kevin

    I love this! This is very common that everyone can be challenging to speak up, especially when we fear the consequences or are concerned about how others might react. However, when we keep our thoughts and feelings bottled up, it can lead to frustration, resentment, and missed opportunities for resolution or improvement. Finding a balance between expressing ourselves respectfully and constructively is important for our own well-being and for effective communication with others. It’s often better to address concerns or express our opinions in a thoughtful and considerate manner rather than allowing them to simmer and cause further distress.

  2. Caroline Bureau

    Thank you so much for this inspiring story. I do not follow social conventions all the time and I often feel like the black sheep, the one who interrupt the party. I see what skills I can nourish to learn to speak out like a leader and create openness instead of complaints 😉 Gratitude.

  3. Blake Austensen

    Great story and rebranding term describing that one outlier in every group who dares to speak their mind against the majority! That person is really an “influence master!” The person who is part of the 25 percent who speak out against the majority or the authority and do it without rapidly pivoting from silence to violence. I really like this description of the four things they do to make it safe to speak out against the majority! It’s such an easy to use and remember formula!

  4. Silent Sam

    I find myself struggling with this in my current position. The group I am in is all in on a very expensive R&D project over the past few years that in my opinion has a lot of holes in it and a very high risk to fail in the market. There has been much talk from my boss, coworkers, and project managers that this new technology will be the pie in the sky and very aggressive projections have been made and issued to upper management. At first, I was new to the group and didn’t want to rock the boat because I felt like everyone else knew things about the project that I wasn’t aware of yet. So, I kept my doubts to myself. Now everyone has jumped into the boat and from my perception are about to sail off a cliff while they slap each other on the back for a job well done. I feel like if I speak up now, I will only become the scapegoat when the project fails and take the blame for not doing something sooner. Other than this one project, I really enjoy everything else about my job and don’t really want to abandon ship before everything hits the fan, but I’m worried about the fallout affecting me if I stick around. I think upper management is going to be blindsided by this and heads will roll if it goes down as I fear it will. As much as I agree with and like what Kerry suggested, I don’t know if I have the courage to do it. Plus, I think it’s too late anyway at this point. Most likely I’ll cross my fingers and hope that we can find a way to salvage the mess we are getting ourselves into.

  5. Vikram Gadre

    Very well narrated. I really like the observation that dissent does not equate to weird behaviour and, that disagreement does not equate to iconoclasm or violence.

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