emperors new clothes

Remember the Emperor’s New Clothes? Very clever weavers came into the kingdom, and offered beautiful and expensive robes for the king, woven from the finest silk that only people of great wisdom could see. Of course, the king could not admit that he couldn’t see the material – he was a great king after all! No-one else could see the cloth either, but not wanting to admit their apparent lack of wisdom, they were complicit in maintaining the illusion… Until a small boy called what he saw – the emperor had no clothes!

Nice children’s fairy tale… Not relevant to my workplace… Or is it???

In ‘Collective Illusions’* Todd Rose defines a collective illusion as a ‘social lie’. The majority of the group reject the idea, but they go along with it because they (wrongly) think that the other people accept it.

Here’s a simple example. An idea is floated in an exec meeting. The CEO offers immediate support. Jack looks around and sees all his colleagues nodding, and so adds his support as well, even though he is not totally convinced. Afterwards in a conversation with two peers, Jack realises neither of them thought the direction was wise, and no one spoke out because they each thought they were the only one with concerns.

What are examples of collective illusions in your workplace?

The cognitive process of guessing what other people are thinking is called ‘mentalising’. Collective illusions are made more likely because we overestimate our mentalizing ability, while dramatically underestimating the impact of social influence.

Team terms of engagement that build trust and invite open discussion can help minimise collective illusion. Team norms might include something like ‘We ask who has a dissenting view’, or ‘We each express an opinion on important issues.’

On an individual level, committing to speak out when you have doubts, regardless of your sense of the group view, is a good first step.

Go Fearlessly – Corrinne

* Collective Illusions: Conformity, Complicity, and the Science of Why We Make Bad Decisions, by Todd Rose. Published February 2023


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