Bias number 14 is known as the bandwagon effect. This is a social cognitive bias that affects people’s short-term decision-making and resulting actions.
It is what is says on the tin. In essence, people jump on a bandwagon of a trend as more and more people support it. Whether we’re talking about a fashion statement or a social movement, people adopt a trend to conform. As the trend increases in popularity, so too does the size of the bandwagon.
We’re all familiar with the term and we see it around us all the time. From one week to the next, the topic of people’s conversations change depending upon the latest fad.
Sometimes the fad can be fun and frivolous. Who remembers Pokemon Go? My son spent a summer being obsessed by it, and actually it was quite useful as we walked through Venice. The game caused us to notice certain landmarks, like the iconic painting of a lady on the side of a building in an obscure corner of town. We would have walked straight past it had it not been for the critter he had to capture that lurked underneath her countenance. By September, however, he had moved onto other games, the names of which I cannot recall.
At other times, the fad can be rather more serious. Who recalls the “weapons of mass destruction” fabrication that created a completely unnecessary war in the Middle East? The constant repetition of the fictitious story created momentum for consent that gave the US and UK governments the green light to attack Saddam Hussein. Unfortunately, many lives were lost and both George W. Bush and Tony Blair will forever be remembered as liars.
You can start to see the power of the bandwagon effect. It makes use of people’s desires to conform to generate consensus in sentiment and influence action. And, while often it is innocuous, there are times when it is rather insidious.
How does the bandwagon effect operate in business? Well, examine any trend in business and you’ll see the bandwagon effect in operation.
Let’s examine one that’s close to my heart — mental health. In the last few years, organisations have started to acknowledge what I’ve known for 20 years, that they have a duty of care to employees to create cultural environments that promote good mental health as well as good physical health.
The first step in owning responsibility for employee mental health has been to train people in mental health first aid. Developing awareness of mental health conditions is an obvious first step in the process.
The problem arises when organisations believe that awareness is enough. It isn’t. In fact, awareness on its own is actually quite dangerous. At the moment, England alone has around 200,000 mental health first aiders who are overwhelmed with information and underwhelmed with skills, quality assurance and best practice. In my view, this is a recipe for disaster.
Herbert A. Simon, an American economist, political scientist and cognitive psychologist once said, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” It echoes the reality of the mental health first aid trend. Organisations have spent millions investing in providing colleagues with unnecessary information while denying them the skills that would help them be effective in building cultures that promote mental health.
The race to create armies of mental health first aiders has been a knee-jerk reaction promoted by training providers and champions who have little professional mental health experience but awfully big mouths. Unfortunately, many people have jumped on the mental health first aid bandwagon in spite of the guidance provided by genuine mental health professionals, who have consistently cautioned against seeing mental health first aid as the strategy.
Now, it can act as a part of a strategy, but it is unwise to see mental health first aid as the core of a mental health strategy. If that's true, then what might a well-considered strategy look like? Here are some steps you could take to create an organisational mental health strategy that not only works but is also based in tried-and-tested professional mental health best practices.
Step One: Create a system for appropriately and confidentially documenting and managing all health-related interactions. This ensures that company and employee liability insurance remains validated. Failure to implement this step puts everyone at risk of foul play and litigation.
Step Two: Assess who in the organisation has a duty of care for other members of staff. Is it Diane in accounts or is it each employee’s line manager? It might be Diane if she is a line manager or has a counselling qualification. If not, then she probably is not be the best person for the role.
Step Three: Determine what information and skills line managers need to develop to support their teams. Do they need to know the details of the 450 disorders on the mental health spectrum, or do they need to be able to spot a change in attitude and behaviour that might suggest a mental health concern?
Step Four: Provide line managers and other appropriate designated individuals with the skills required to conduct appropriate, confidential conversations with their team members about mental health. The skills people need to develop include risk assessment, counselling and self-care skills. Make sure to conduct due diligence with the training and development partners you choose to provide this step. Ensure they have a reputable pedigree of professional mental health experience themselves.
Step Five: Include the provision of professional support structures for the designated carers in the community. Creating a therapeutic container in which carers can receive confidential care is a critical part of best practice in any mental health strategy.
Step Six: Adopt a data-driven approach to augment strategic programmes and interventions. Create open confidential channels of communication with colleagues to find out what works and what doesn’t. Take action based on real data, not on supposition or “bright” ideas that have a limited shelf life. Stop wasting money on programmes that no one uses and start investing in initiatives that make a difference.
Step Seven: Make a commitment to evolve your strategy as needs change. What works today might not work in two years’ time. If there’s one guarantee we can all agree on, it is that we are constantly undergoing change. That’s true of your organisational culture. Involve your colleagues in the development of the strategy so that they assume ownership across the organisation.
Step Eight: step off the bandwagon. Just because others are doing something doesn’t mean you should, too. Take the time to work out if the strategy is the right one for your organisation. Mental health is not entertainment. We're talking about people's lives. Give up any cavalier attitude and get busy creating real value for your people.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” When you refuse to follow the crowd and choose to adopt a strategy because it’s right for the people in your organisation, not because everyone else is doing it, that’s when you know you are operating from maturity and true agency, not conformity.
That’s what brilliance is made of.