About the Author

K Ramkumar, known to his friends as Ram, has an enduring passion for triggering a discussion and joining in with gusto on a range of themes. He believes that every person has an inalienable right to express his/her view no matter how different it is to anyone else. In his book no view is unworthy or big or small. Every view from everyone deserves a consideration without getting caught up with the tyranny of agreement or disagreement.
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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!

17 comments on “The Psychology that makes Agreement Compulsive
  1. ashish says:

    willingness to absorb an alternate viewpoint is something that reflects character and definitely cannot be learnt through text books. it is also a characteristic which not only lot of people but organizations also do not promote.

    sone of the most productive meetings that i have attended were my clollege batch meetings. tempers invariably used to rise, each and every proposition was challenged and alternatives proposed. By the end of discussions you had the satisfaction that a) you had given your full input B)most productive output was selected.

    What i take out from the article & above is organizations where power is decentralised and people feel empowered to contribute will be more nimble, innovative etc

    B) While i do not disagree that there is a political undercurrent in a meeting but still in most of meetings, merit is able to get its due (at least in organisations i have been a pert of). part B is to highlight dissent is important especially for an article on conformity :).

    • hira mehta says:

      Agree to disagree…such a common fact. All my years at work, I have always never stopped myself from questioning authority if I have not been convinced of what is expected of me. These days however, I am finding that there is a brick wall I am facing with “your views don’t matter” attitude as also a continuous changing of ideas/ direction at every meeting. That according to me is the most unnerving thing that makes one loose focus and your ability to deliver. The meaning of the word “consensus” and “direction” for me is lost these days in a never ending struggle to give my best irrespective with a smile on a project that means the world to me.

  2. Ankur says:

    Interesting and quite accurate readings. One of the articles that had appeared in mint gave some interesting insights about our biases.

    One such bias was confirmation bias, where individuals tend to hang out with people of similar thinking and choice to feel accepted and belonged. This is to avoid any conflict or an adventure where one would be left without peers or would have to justify their choices.

    Anyways, great stuff, keep posting!

    Cheers

  3. Avaneesh says:

    Dear Ram,

    You have highlighted a pertinent issue which everyone experiences in some form or other . When I reflect back I feel that I enjoy being part of those meetings which is usually divided in two parts 1) dialogues / discussions and 2) further shaping way forward . If meeting has only one part of it , it is not so exciting .

    what you have highlighted in a way is outcome of any cadre based institution . Most corporates run today on “cadre culture” . But in today’s heavy task focussed environment focus is so much on outcome that process is forgotten . Hence focus is on closure of issues or decision rather than on quality of discussion etc.

  4. Mandar M Tambe says:

    Dear Ram
    Many of your observations are quite right.But my take on this issue is :

    People do not express themselves in meetings because many a time meeting is (1) for keeping you “posted” and not for asking your views; or (2) merely a formality.

    Secondly, as observed by Management Guru Gary Hamel in his recent interview to ‘The Economic Times’ [6/3/2015] that ‘modern management is basically bureaucracy. Power trickles from the top or resources are allocated centrally. Employees are treated like semi-programmable robots..’In such a scenario although a meeting is an opportunity for participants to express, debate or discuss, there is an unwritten Orwellian rule – ‘all are equal but some are more equal.’ So those who are ‘less equal’ keep their mouth shut.
    I think in today’s digital world, it’s a big leadership challenge to evoke free yet responsible response from participants and to enable them to express themselves openly. Let me once again quote Gary Hamel ” the real power of a leader is when you unlock the capability of people around you.”

    Sense of satisfaction will come only when there is a sense of worthwhile participation. All participants in a meeting are 0, 00, 000 ( zeros) but it’s the leader who adds value i.e 1 ( one) to their existence and make them 10,10,100.

  5. Anirudh Mithal says:

    I am 77 years old retired from Indian Railway as General Manager and with my experience of various positions in Indian Railways and subsequent exposure to big corporate, I can state with full confidence that I have never suffered because of DISSENT. There are two situations, one in which you are in a group discussion where there is no boss but a view is to be formulated. Other is where there is a boss and he wants group to be used for supporting his view as he is not fully confident or wants to give an impression of consensus approach.
    To deal first one first , if one has done one’s home work properly and is convinced of about his views but has still got an open mind, he must express his opinions politely but firmly. During discussion it is possible that he may find an improved or modified proposal. He should be able to appreciate that and accept it. His ability lies in try to get others to veer around in the group to his point of view without being dictatorial.
    Second situation is where there is a boss. It is more complicated. There is no reason for me to fall in line with the boss’s point of view. If I know the subject and have done my homework properly here also I must put forth my point of view politely but firmly even though I am conscious that views expressed are different from boss’s views. My experience is that nine out of ten bosses welcome different point of view because they are certain that this man knows what he is talking about. However boss has to be confident that once decision is taken even it may be different form his, it shall be carried it out to best of ability.
    I reiterate that neither I have suffered in any way nor regretted DISSENT. I have also always encouraged and respected it from my team

  6. Gaurav Mahajan says:

    Some of the best business ideas come from listening to others rather than dictating to others. The short story of Lord Shiva and Nakeeran highlights the courage required to challenge the status quo. After many 1000 years of mankind, the challenge still prevails in the (corporate) world. Although no one can turn one into ashes but disruptions and interruptions can make the life difficult for the one who raises the hand and vice-versa for the one who says “yes sir” with all doubts in mind.

    Actually the challenge “by a cadre” hurts the monster like egos of people who work in silos in their own preconceived notions. Thus the one who raises the voice will actually need a lions heart , all ready to live with a risk of being branded as “rebellious”. All management and marketing gurus call this type of culture as a nightmare for any organization. But things are on and the world is living with this “endowment effect”.

    Going ahead when we study the lives of successful people, we will come across some core values and actions on the basis of which they succeeded. Innovative means of keeping communication with different levels and an open door policy are among their traits. A culture should be developed where people open up their mind like a parachute rather than restricting themselves like a hard steel box.

    • Lot of truth in your observations!Perhaps you would like to read this poem on “Yes Men”

      http://corporatepoem.blogspot.in/2015/05/yes-man.html

    • Etta says:

      I put up those door hanger fliers for a pizza parlor when I was in Jr. High with my dad and brothers. Later on I worked in my parent’s restaurant.It was hard work and I though college would get me out of those kind of jobs and it did. Now I’m doing a well paid desk job that I don’t like very much. Now, I think working for yourself doing &#20m2;2enial⁙ jobs is a lot better than working for someone else.We never went out to eat much when I was young. We went to Sizzlers maybe once a year or so and that’s about it.

  7. Ushamrita says:

    Ram,

    I am barely clocking in half a decade of work experience, and hence, I’ve seen nothing when it comes to conversations and their resultant power plays.
    However, I am part of the banking sphere myself, and my observations, thus far, of human interactions at the workplace get solidified after reading your post.
    My experience, which a senior banker may choose to nullify, has been most persons part of a conversation belong there simply to assert a point when there exists none.
    Also, in plenty of scenarios, due to a simple lack of processes, people are bound to get mired in the Abilene Paradox, because they have no document/proof to utilise as a support for their well-meaning disruptions aimed at challenging the status quo.
    Yes, it’s up to people to create process, and then use these established processes to further challenge and change.
    But what does one do, especially at my level, when there are plenty of well-meaning yet uncomfortable disruptions we are willing to bring and engage in with the sole purpose of propelling forward the organisation we work for?
    Hierarchy makes acceptance difficult, nearly loathsome.
    As one of my friends rightly commented, a lot is determined by the character embodied by an individual.
    In the absence of freeness and fairness, the most progressive of organisations can stall in their movement towards excellence.

    Regards,
    Ushamrita

    • your suggestion in these lines seem interesting and need to be experimented with-
      “in plenty of scenarios, due to a simple lack of processes, people are bound to get mired in the Abilene Paradox, because they have no document/proof to utilise as a support for their well-meaning disruptions aimed at challenging the status quo.
      Yes, it’s up to people to create process, and then use these established processes to further challenge and change”

  8. Shib Shankar Dasgupta says:

    I work in the social sector. I have developed a mobile phone system to educate rural women on various health, education and livelihood issues. Abolishing early marriage in rural India is one of my greatest challenges as young girls are brought up only to accept authority.

    Ram, your story of Lord Shiva and Nakeeran is a wonderful example how challenging authority with individual conviction is so important. The story highlights the greatness of the Lord when He accepts defeat and that makes him the real Lord.

    My job is to collect such rich stories from traditional texts and disseminate them through our mobile phone system. Young girls dial in and listen to such stories in their own languages. They ask questions, we forward them answers and that gives them the confidence to stand up and question the authority.

    Thanks, Ram for sharing this story.

  9. Naresh says:

    I am working in a Healthcare BPO, and I fully agree with Mr. Ramkumar.

    Very well narrated with Mythological stories.

  10. Very valid points discussed in this post.It is because of these factors that corporate meetings amount to nothing productive.
    I had echoed similar sentiments in my poem “Corporate meetings” Link is furnished below:-
    http://corporatepoem.blogspot.in/2012/10/corporate-meetings.html

  11. This article is very pertinent and is ” unsaid truth” in most of organizations unless we have a culture which promotes ” healthy disagreement”. I liked the Shiva – Nakeeran Story and I have been witnessed to this phenomena of forced agreement many a times where in the ” Chair” reviews and the ” presenter” wants to get into quick agreement with the chair.

    But could also be due to the fact we as generations have been in Parent -Child Ego State for long and while its slowly changing but most of ” Chairs” is filled by Gen X or earlier which is leading to this situation. A food for thought

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About the Author

K Ramkumar, known to his friends as Ram, has an enduring passion for triggering a discussion and joining in with gusto on a range of themes. He believes that every person has an inalienable right to express his/her view no matter how different it is to anyone else. In his book no view is unworthy or big or small. Every view from everyone deserves a consideration without getting caught up with the tyranny of agreement or disagreement.
Read more »