Dare You Say The Emperor Has No Clothes

Mar 31, 2017 1 Min Read


Pretentiousness and hypocrisy only thrive when we feed into them


You may remember from your childhood the Hans Christian-Anderson fairy tale titled – The Emperor Has No Clothes.

The story is centred on two conmen who pretended to be weavers and convinced the Emperor they could make him a magical suit – the finest in the land. The magic was that this suit would be invisible to those who were too stupid for their jobs.

In fact, the Emperor’s new suit of clothes was his “birthday suit”. However, when the Emperor paraded in front of his subjects, no one wanted to call out that he had nothing on but his underwear.

Why? Because they feared looking stupid. It was only a young child who felt free to speak his mind and exclaim “But the Emperor has no clothes” to state the obvious.

As with all fairy tales there is a moral to the story. The weavers preyed on the Emperor’s vanity and on the fact that people around him wouldn’t have the courage to speak up for fear of looking stupid. In a modern-day context, the tale is still very much relevant and applicable.

We are tribal creatures. This means we like to fit in and be part of the pack. We would rather follow the crowd, than be side-lined and left out.

This pressure to conform means we can hold off challenging the status quo or questioning things that others around us are accepting. We can make decisions and take “action” with little more reason than the fact that everyone else is doing it.

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In behavioural economics, this is known as the herd mentality. It plays out all the time on the share market. If a company’s share price goes up, people will rush to buy. When the share price falls, people will rush to sell.

These actions often take place with little logic attached to the merits of the price fall or increase. This is because when the share price falls, people lose their nerve thinking that if everyone else is selling, I should too. If the stock is going up people don’t want to miss getting their piece of the action.

This seemingly irrational behaviour demonstrates how the choices of a larger group can influence the actions of an individual.

But it goes even further than that. The University of Leeds did a study and found that humans flock like sheep and birds. Yes, really!

The study found that it only takes around 5% of people to walk in a certain direction to influence the rest of the crowd’s direction.

What the researchers did was run a series of experiments where groups of people were asked to walk randomly around a large hall. Participants were not allowed to communicate with each other during the experiment. However, a select few people had detailed information about where to walk in the hall.

What happened may surprise you. The results found that those individuals with details on where to walk were ultimately followed by the others in the hall; forming a snake-like line of people. So, the participants followed others in the group with little thought as to why.

Today, organisations that are facing increasing complexity due to a volatile business environment need people who are willing to challenge and ask questions. People who aren’t going to blindly follow what everyone else is doing. People who are willing to stand out from the pack.

It can be hard to be the person who plays the role of the sceptic, and who puts on what Edward de Bono called the “black hat”.

There are times when it’s necessary to speak up and out. This is not about being difficult. It’s about making sure that all sides of an issue are considered.

We worry that if no one else is voicing a concern, perhaps we’ve missed something or misinterpreted the issue being discussed. Silence becomes an easier option. But remaining silent may result in poor decisions being made.

Consequently, there are times when it’s necessary to speak up and out. This is not about being difficult. It’s about making sure that all sides of an issue are considered.

Effective leaders recognise this challenge, and are ready for it.

They know that bias pervades decision making because decisions aren’t made on facts alone. The brain takes short-cuts and discards information that doesn’t fit with its world view.

As a result, they are curious and invite different opinions. By widening their frame of reference, the leader seeks the range of perspectives so that the issue is broadly considered.

They encourage debate and discussion – not just talking with the people that will agree with them so they secure the quick agreement. Instead, they seek the optimal agreement.

Reflecting on decisions and being prepared to accept you may not have all the answers is a critical part of leadership, so too is having courage.

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They are curious about what could be, rather than merely accepting what they are being told. By doing this they welcome all types of news – even news that is difficult to hear – as they know it will help ensure more effective decision-making.

Alfred Sloan, the former chief executive officer of General Motors is quoted as saying:

“Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here. . .Then I propose we postpone further discussion on this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about”.

Reflecting on decisions and being prepared to accept you may not have all the answers is a critical part of leadership, so too is having courage.

So, if you want to lead well in today’s ambiguous and ever-changing world, you need to lead courageously and be prepared to say the Emperor has no clothes!

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Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert and the award-winning author of three books. Her latest book is 'Bad Boss: What to do if you work for one, manage one or are one'. www.michellegibbings.com.

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