Don’t Be a Lemming

October 1, 2020 10:18 am Published by Comments Off on Don’t Be a Lemming

October 2020

Remember your mother saying, “if everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you too?” Meaning simply because everyone else is doing something,  doesn’t make it right. While most mothers use this adage as a way to convince their children to deploy common sense and not do anything illegal, immoral or potentially harmful, in the workplace the Lemming analogy is often used in reference to someone who goes-along-to-get-along or merely follows orders without question. 

The legend of the lemming is they are small rodents, usually found in or near the Arctic, who follow each other off a cliff without thinking through the consequences. In other words, they blindly follow the leader. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Lemmings have large population which booms every three or four years. When the concentration of lemmings becomes too high in one area, a large group will set out in search of a new home. If they reach a water obstacle, such as a river or lake, they may try to cross it. Inevitably, a few individuals drown. So why is the myth of mass lemming suicide so widely believed? For one, it provides an irresistible metaphor for human behavior. Someone who blindly follows a crowd—maybe even toward catastrophe—is called a lemming.  

There are many reasons we are Lemmings.

Everyone else might be in agreement so we believe that we must be wrong, we don’t want to rock the boat and make waves, fear of being viewed as a “nay-sayer” or embarrassed if we are wrong, or we simply think this is not a battle worth fighting….and the internal “battle” goes on. 

Consider Roger Boisjoly who was a booster rocket engineer at NASA in January 1986, when he and four colleagues became entangled in the fatal decision to launch the Space Shuttle Challenger. Boisjoly found disturbing data about the booster rockets that would lift the Challenger into space. Six months before the Challenger explosion, he predicted: “a catastrophe of the highest order” involving “loss of human life” in a memo to managers at Thiokol. The problem, Boisjoly wrote, was the elastic seals at the joints of the multi-stage booster rockets. They tended to stiffen and unseal in cold weather and NASA’s ambitious shuttle launch schedule included winter lift-offs with risky temperatures. Armed with the data that described that possibility, Boisjoly and his colleagues argued persistently and vigorously for hours. At first, Thiokol managers agreed with them and formally recommended a launch delay. But NASA officials challenged that recommendation. According to NPR, All Things Considered, a Feb. 6, 2012 broadcast, “One source told us that pressure from NASA caused Thiokol managers to “put their management hats on.” They overruled Boisjoly and the other engineers and told NASA to go ahead and launch.” Boijsoly disagreed but pressure from NASA and colleagues caused him to cave in and go along against his better judgement that said they did not have enough information in those temperatures to know if the O Ring seal would hold. The outcome and consequences of that decision became obviously 90 seconds later when the challenger blew up on take off. Boisjoly told NPR that he “wrestled daily with an issue that all scientists fear, but few have to face: When does one speak out? And at what price to one’s career and to one’s company?”  

Hopefully none of us will ever have to make a decision of that magnitude. However, we make decisions every day that can potentially affect the company’s financial stability, an employee’s livelihood, or take our organizations to the next level. It has been proven time and again how teams make better decisions and yet the Lemmings principle kicks in and often we don’t speak up, or do speak up and are over-ruled.  

As leaders, how do we prevent the Lemmings principle and make sure everyone feels their opinion matters and is considered? We must follow a proven model for decision making, allowing everyone on the team to have a voice and be heard. At LeadAdvantage, we provide a “blueprint” for teams to follow that prevents the above dilemma. The key to this model is  all ideas must be presented without comment, only asking questions for clarity, and then narrow and prioritize the options until agreement is reached. A structure and designated timeframe leads to more productive meetings with clear actions and accountability measures in place. Following this model ensures a plan-in-hand verses feeling the meeting was a waste of time where the only productive element was ending the meeting and scheduling another one to continue the discussion. Teams become more productive and unified following our model and ultimately more creative, making better decisions for the team and organization as a whole – working together more efficiently and effectively to achieve a common goal. Isn’t that what it is all about?!

Reach out today for a copy of the decision diagram to use with your team.

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