Software Creation Mystery -

Lost Personalities: How our company alters us

– We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.
– Yes, but the bank is only made of men.
– No, you’re wrong there- quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.

– The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Any company or large group of people is more than a sum of individuals. A company exercises control over people minds and changes them. Inside the company, organization or crowd you are no longer you, but the element of the system. You feel, think and behave differently. Collective actions are distinct and often independent of individual wills and desires. The scandal with Enron, tragedies of Abu Ghraib and Holocaust show how normal people minds could be dangerously influenced by group and context pressure.

Three stages of altering our minds:

  1. Compliance – agree with collective views or acts in front of the group, but disagree in private.
  2. Identification – temporary believe in collective view while being part of the group, but return to old beliefs after leaving a group.
  3. Internalization – the individual views are truly altered and induce permanent change in a value system even outside the group.

There are three powerful forces that change us:

  • Conformity
  • Obedience
  • Absorption



Conformity is a process by which people’s beliefs or behaviors are influenced by others within a group. People can be influenced via subtle, even unconscious processes, or by direct and overt peer pressure. Conformity can have either good or bad effects on people, from driving safely on the correct side of the road, to harmful drug or alcohol abuse.

– Wikipedia

Solomon Asch performed an experiment that showed that our judgment significantly altered if it contradicts the judgments of others in the group. Asch gave a participant a set of three lines and asked to choose that line which matched a fourth line. The participants in this setting had less than a 5% error rate. When the participant was placed in a pre-arranged group with collaborators who always chose the wrong line, the error rate increased dramatically: 76% of the participants made wrong choice at least once.

Peer pressure shifts the judgment of the individual. What other people say may change what you see and you can sincerely start believing that two plus two makes five.

Positive effect: Conformity could save us thinking, free time and energy for more important problems. We can rely that in many cases group judgment is right and following the rest is an optimal decision.

Related phenomenons:

  • Groupthink: group members try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without challenging common beliefs and ideas. People conform and suppress individual doubts to avoid being seen as foolish or to avoid embarrassing or angering other members of the group. Groupthink causes bad, irrational and far from reality decisions. It usually flourish within homogeneous single-minded groups, isolated from outside opinions and sources of information.
  • Diffusion of responsibility: occurs in groups of people when responsibility is not explicitly assigned and they, through action or inaction, allow events to occur which they would never allow if alone. The most famous example is tragedy with Kitty Genovese, a New York woman, who was stabbed to death near her house. More than dozen of Genovese’s neighbors heard her screaming for help for approximately a half an hour, yet no one helped her, each thinking that somebody else eventually would.

Many programmers accept and conform to the ways how their company approaches software development and build software projects. While disagree inside, they avoid challenging the status quo and eventually start to believe that everything is alright, even when the project makes its way to disaster. After failure they blame everything: customers, software platforms, lack of time for design or testing and many other things… and continue working the old ways.


Obedience, or submissive compliance, is the act of obeying orders from others.

– Wikipedia

In Stanley Milgram’s famous studies of obedience, participants were told that in a learning experiment was being performed they would be required to shock a “volunteer” (confederate) when an incorrect answer was given. As more incorrect answers were given, the voltage was supposedly turned up to a point where the dial read “danger” and screams could be heard. Surprisingly, 65% of the participants administered the experiment’s final 450-volt shock, though many were very uncomfortable doing so. Some showed reluctance, but given a firm request, most subjects complied despite outwardly visible stress. The authority under which the subjects perceived themselves was in a majority of cases so compelling, that the subjectsvolitionally completed the study.

There are three main reasons why people submit to authority:

  • A group member who don’t know what is right, especially under stress, will leave decision making to the group and its hierarchy.
  • A person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and no longer sees himself as responsible for own actions. This is the foundation of military respect for authority: soldiers will follow, obey, and execute orders and commands from superiors, shifting responsibility for their actions to the commanding superior officers.
  • Fear – fear of losing job, punishment or threat to own and close people well-being.

Positive effect: Obedience is a glue that holds our society – submission to group morale, social norms and laws. People without obedience and respect to authorities are capable of the offensive and anti-social actions.

Many employees in a company are following rules:
Rule #1. Manager is always right
Rule #2. If he is not right see Rule #1

We do things that we are told to do, shift thinking and responsibility to the other people and rely on their judgment. ?onfusion, stress and fear make us especially susceptible to thoughtless submission to authority. The companies with centralized rigid control rely on obedience and conformity for normal functioning. This approach impacts quality of decisions, undermines evolution, misses the power of self-organized teams and unexpected opportunities for growth.

Absorption by Context

Context has enormous power over our personalities. The same people behave differently in various situations without even consciously recognizing it.

In a study by Philip Zimbardo, undergraduates at Stanford were selected to act as prisoners or guards. The guards were told simply that they had to preserve order. After few days, the study had to be called off because of abusiveness by the guards and utter dependency displayed by the prisoners. Participants in the study were absolutely absorbed by the context and played to the extremes of their assigned roles.

The results of the experiment and examples from real life show that context has stronger effect on people than anything inherent in their individual personalities.

Related phenomenons:
Dehumanization is a process by which members of a group of people assert the “inferiority” of another group through subtle or overt acts or statements. “One death is a tragedy. One million deaths is a statistic”, these words of Joseph Stalin are extreme representation of this process. Ignorance of other people and avoidance to see them as normal people causes offensive and disgraceful behavior. Beside propaganda and peer pressure, it could be explained by biological limitation of number of people we could handle on personal relation level (described below).

Dunbar’s number, which is 150, represents a theoretical maximum number of individuals with whom a set of people can maintain a social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who each person is and how each person relates socially to every other person. Group sizes larger than this generally require more restricted rules, laws, and enforced policies and regulations to maintain a stable cohesion. David Wong published an interesting article related to our personal sphere – Monkeysphere.

We often start playing roles at work, absorbed by environment, organization goals and responsibilities and forget about people personalities, interests and needs. An individual on the management position has temptation to exercise his authoritative power, team members contemptuously think about other groups and a programmer could think that he is a center of Universe.

Saving your true personality

Beware of yourself – remember that your mind is inclined to conform to peer pressure, obey to authority and be altered by context without your conscious agreement.

  • Have you changed your views recently? Why?
  • Do you always agree with your peers, management and the company?
  • Do you follow orders or accept tasks without critically thinking about them?

Understand yourself and context – weaker foundation and knowledge behind your views and beliefs – easier to change them and shift your judgement under the group pressure . When you say that you believe in democracy, Agile development or your company goals, do you understand why? If your mind hits the wall and cannot provide good reasons – you are dealing with intuition (not too bad), shaky belief or you are the object of manipulation. The System thinking is a basis of understanding how the system, you are dealing with, work, what are the people interests, the system dynamic and situation.

  • Do you understand why do you believe in something?
  • Do you understand root causes of problems experienced by you and your team?
  • Can you explain decisions and behavior of your company and people around you?

Open the box – strive for unbiased, diverse and independent opinions and sources of information. Always try to come up with alternative explanations, view and options. Avoid immersion into the swamp of incompetence of isolated and homogeneous groups.

  • Does your team question own decisions, learn from mistakes and have open and independent opinions?
  • Do you usually consider alternative approaches and views?
  • Are you afraid to express your disagreement or opposing view?

Break the power of context – don’t be disoriented by your circumstances, the assigned role and company environment. Detach yourself and people from surrounding systems and context. Try to experience different context, e.g. see how your users work with your software despite how shocking and mind twisting it could be. Prevent diffusion of responsibility: make people responsible (including yourself) for the end results, not specific tasks, but for the whole success or failure of the project. Remove stress and fear – breading conditions for losing personality and paralysis to act and think independently.

  • Do you consider your problems from different perspective, most importantly from your internal principles and values?
  • Are you responsible for the end results of your work? Do you care at all?
  • Do you feel stress, fear and inability to make independent decisions and acts?

Die hard – believe in yourself, follow your principles and do right things. In the same time, learn and change, but only if it is your choice.

  • Are you proud of what you did yesterday, do today and will do tomorrow?


Interesting resources:
The Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo
They made me do it, New Scientist
What is Monkeysphere, David Wong
Great Ideas of Psychology, Teaching Company, Professor Daniel N. Robinson

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Excellent article. We’re all familiar with the problem. What’s the solution?

How can we use corporate know-how to do good things? Two prerequisites seem necessary: (1) the company has to be producing a good and socially valuable product/service; (2) the company has to place a high priority on improving employee quality-of-life. For discussion, please see my article, Redeeming Corporations and Renewing America here:

Comment by John Uebersax | March 6, 2008 11:12 am

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