“The mass never comes up to the standard of its best member, but on the contrary degrades itself to a level with the lowest.” – Henry David Thoreau
Recent experiences of Republican congressional members returning to their home districts during recess to explain President Trump’s proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act are instructive for the design of organizational change management (OCM) strategies.
How should you plan to communicate when the news will be unpopular?
We want to surface resistance, and we want to give voice to those closest to the work being affected. Evidence suggests that despite the additional time and cost, it makes sense to plan for small groups, or one-on-one meetings to deliver messages and get feedback from affected stakeholders.
I’ll never forget a meeting I attended many years ago where senior management assembled all the union machinists in an organization to update them on hazardous material safety. About ten minutes into the meeting one outspoken participant broke the ice with an accusation that leadership was concealing the true hazards of one of the materials that they routinely worked with. Within minutes, it became a shouting match, a mob mentality had taken over, meaningful communication stopped, and the meeting had to be abruptly ended. Eventually, one-on-one meetings were scheduled, not only to share the original information, but to repair the damage that occurred during the mob scene.
Excerpts from a recent New York Times editorial that highlights this issue in detail and references some of the research follows.
Can the G.O.P. Turn Back the Tide of Town Hall Anger?
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in “The Conduct of Life”: “Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered, but to be schooled. I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them.”
Thoreau and Emerson argued that crowds add up to something less than the sum of their parts. The principle behind this is called “deindividuation,” in which an individual’s social constraints are diminished and distorted by being part of a crowd that forms to express a particular point of view. The French psychologist Gustave Le Bon first explained this concept in his magisterial 1895 text “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind.” Le Bon found that crowds were inherently “unanimous, emotional and intellectually weak.”
Lots of research confirms this, showing that deindividuation can lower inhibitions against immoral behavior. In one of my favorite studies, researchers set up a bowl of candy for Halloween trick-or-treaters, told them to take just one piece and then left them alone. Some of the children were in anonymous groups, others were by themselves. When kids were part of a group, 60 percent took more than one piece of candy. When they were by themselves but not asked their names, 20 percent cheated. But when they were alone and asked their names, only 10 percent took more than they were allotted.
Of course, it stands to reason that deindividuation could improve individuals instead of making them worse. We can all think of cases in which we have been swept up in a wave of kindness and compassion in a group, even in spite of our personal feelings. Group polarization, in which individuals are pushed emotionally in the general direction of the crowd, can be either positive or negative.
The common error is when leaders treat the whole group like one individual. Remember Le Bon’s theory that a crowd is stronger, angrier and less ideologically flexible than an individual. Getting irate or defensive will always be counterproductive. Similarly, it is mostly futile to try talking over a protest chant.
The opportunity is to “re-individuate” audience members — to treat people as individuals and not as part of a mass. This is done not by acknowledging questions shouted anonymously but by asking audience members to physically separate from the mass and identify themselves if they wish to speak. When people detach from a group, the research suggests they will become more ethical, rational and intelligent.
A link to the entire article is below