Back in 2001, Frederic Brochet conducted an experiment at the University of Bordeaux. He got 54 oenology (the science of wine) students in a room and had them taste two red wines. One, he told them, was a cheap table wine. The other, he told them, was very expensive. The students described the expensive wine as "complex and rounded" while calling the cheap wine swill.
The wine in both bottles was the same cheap wine.
So, did the students lie? Not really. Brain scans of wine tasters have shown that the expectation of tasting something exquisite can change how the brain's sensory circuits respond to taste. In other words, expectations can fool us. But I also think that many of the students were exhibiting a natural human need to be part of the elite. Nobody wanted to be the one to say that the cheap wine in the expensive bottle tasted like mouthwash; to do so would mean division from the group. What if nobody else agreed? It was more rewarding to insist, along with everyone else, that this particular emperor was wearing fine robes instead of rags.
We're all guilty of pretending to like something that we don't in order to be part of the cool crowd. I can't imagine that everyone who raved about Trader Joe's famous "Two-Buck Chuck" (a $2.99 bottle of Charles Shaw cabernet that became a national bestseller a few years back) actually liked it. But while wine tasting is innocuous, conforming to the masses actually has consequences in a company. Quality can suffer, bad strategies can be enacted, laws can be broken.
It seems to me that as leaders, we're charged with creating environments where speaking up, standing out, disagreeing, shouting that the emperor is in the buff, is not only safe but rewarded. I don't know about you, but I'll drink to that idea.
Where are your people free to dissent and speak their truth? Where aren't they?