There is a fascinating new book available titled “The Wisdom of Crowds” by James Surowiecki. In what appears to be a counter-intuitive line of argument, the author proposes that if you want to make a correct decision or solve a problem, large groups of people are smarter than a few experts. The book cites various experiments, one of which is summarised below…

In the 1980s, social psychologist Stanley Milgram set up a fascinating experiment. He asked a class of graduate students to ride in the subway and simply ask people, in a courteous but direct manner, if they could have their seats.

One student agreed to give this a go. To the surprise of all, around half of the people he asked gave up their seats. Remember, no reason was provided for this request.

This was such a revelation that other students, and indeed Milgram himself, undertook to do the same thing. Incredibly, all reported similar results – with around half of the people giving up their seats.

Of the many things that emerged from this experiment, one issue seemed prominent. It was not hard to convince people to give up their seats – the hard thing was summoning the courage to ask in the first place.

Milgram described the whole experience as “wrenching”. On many occasions, students were unable to summon the courage to ask.

So what’s the point? The norm of first-come, first-served was so ingrained in people that violating it caused terrific angst. And this is a key issue when it comes to changing the culture of a team or organisation.

Cultures are often internalised to a point where people do not realise it. As an example, I recently ran a program where we trained a group of internal change agents, giving them skills and resources to use the UGRs concept to boost culture.

Soon after the program, I received the following as part of an e-mail from one of the participants:

“Your workshop was an eye opener as it made me realise how entrenched UGRs are in the workplace. This really hit home when I got back to work the following day after the seminar and I could sense the occasional negative UGRs that were flowing in the workplace. I would not have noticed this if I didn’t attend the 2 day workshop. I must also add that with every negative UGR that I was seeing, I could think of a positive UGR to replace it. WOW!!”

In a sense, we need a new set of glasses through which to view our organisation’s culture. It is worth noting that the longer one has worked in an organisation, the more those glasses are required!