“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

“We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.”

— Charles Mackay, 1841

You run across a lot of strange stuff while doing research for blog ideas and references. I was thinking, for example, about how an idea takes hold of a group, or even a whole business, during times of major change and uncertainty. It typically begins with a single individual or a small group and grows unpredictably. At some point, it may become large enough to take over and control an entire entity or population.

Question: How big is “large enough”?

Charles Mackay in his 1841 book Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds offers many examples of how ideas developed into mass manias. These began small but developed into movements involving huge numbers of people. His concept however appears to apply more broadly in practice to organizations, and in particular, to businesses.

Great changes make people fearful and more open to anything that they believe will restore order and provide leadership. These “anythings” may well be irrational or narrowly-held but they can grow into powerful drivers of behavior for large groups.

They can bring often-unjustified credibility to otherwise insignificant groups and their untested ideas. This tentative credibility may then generate acceptance by majorities within the larger organization. Such acceptance effectively validates the ideas and their leaders.

Fortunately, most such ideas die before causing too much damage. The few that survive, many of which are truly awful in practice, can be devastating.

What makes bad ideas win

We have today an environment that is perfect for the introduction of an enormous range of weak to incredibly bad ideas. These can originate from individuals or small groups with powerful agendas and positions of power. Power gained is always used.

Just how do these “tails” get control of the “dog”?

There are many examples in business of small groups taking control of larger groups, including a full organization. See Related Reading below for a few.

Can this be prevented or is it something that just naturally occurs in large groups? What makes it possible for bad ideas to dominate otherwise sensible people?

“Minority rules: Scientists discover tipping point for the spread of ideas”

This Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute paper from July 2011 seems to provide at least part of the answer.

“Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. The scientists, who are members of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) at Rensselaer, used computational and analytical methods to discover the tipping point where a minority belief becomes the majority opinion. The finding has implications for the study and influence of societal interactions ranging from the spread of innovations to the movement of political ideals.”

“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority,” said SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”

Despite my initial reaction that these SCNARC folks were offering something, well, snarky (“an attitude or expression of mocking irreverence and sarcasm”, according to Merriam-Webster), their findings may indeed be very important.

Bad ideas prevail if a minority of 10% or more accept them?

If true, this is, at least to me, a pretty terrifying finding. It quantifies the group size threshold needed for tail-wagging-dog scenarios. Regardless of the initiating group’s size, the bad idea only needs acceptance by a surprisingly small minority to take hold of the organization in which it originates.

While the 10% figure may be just a rough estimate, the real story is that it takes only a very small minority to take control of a much larger organization.

This finding, coupled with an environment that is desperately seeking solutions and leadership – today’s world – says that we are absolutely open to a flood of tail-wagging-dog situations. A good percentage of which will be bad, or much worse.

Good ideas can also win

The RPI study did not distinguish between good and bad ideas. It worked with just “ideas”, which they also termed “beliefs”. Strongly-held opinions were mentioned as another form of ideas.

Few will have any concern about truly “good” ideas taking control of an organization. The problem here is that “good” can be very bad for some folks while being “good” for others. Very subjective in practice.

Assessing idea “goodness” is probably neither possible nor desirable in most instances. Perhaps what matters here is whether an idea has significant opposition or not. A “bad” idea strongly opposed should die a well-earned death. Same goes for a “good” idea, yes?

You can easily see that this sort of reasoning moves quickly into politics. Power, position, credibility, supporters, … long list of factors to consider.

Bad ideas are often proved bad in retrospect only

There are of course many ideas that are demonstrably bad from the outset. Common sense, which turns out to be relatively uncommon in practice, gets rid of many sure-losers. Weak or unpopular proponents can spell the early end of some quite good ideas.

Ideas that are not still-born get to be tested by implementation. This may be done effectively or incompetently, either of which leads to idea assessments that can be largely unrelated to the idea’s underlying quality.

Many truly bad ideas can survive this testing process and go on to cause all manner of nasty mischief. Many truly good ideas can be trashed during testing by unforeseen, adverse external factors.

So where does this leave us?

My starting point was that ideas, good and bad, need only a small percentage of believers or supporters to take hold of much larger groups. Ten percent is a really small percentage to be driving what may be major decisions or movements.

This is a serious management issue

Bad ideas, defined in practice as ideas you or your management group do not like, can get out of hand (i.e., grow) very quickly. They start small and may go unnoticed until they exceed the threshold for broad support. At this point, they may well become very hard and costly to correct or mitigate.

Much to my surprise, such tail-wags-dog situations are quite common. Here is one from the human resources area (HR) that I ran across dealing with the “minority (count) rules” situations:

“However, this can be taken to the extreme in a misguided effort to always make employees feel “included” or “valued.”

When this occurs, we have encountered managers who put every decision out there for employees to provide input on or have a say in. The reality is that the workplace is not a democracy.

There is a management hierarchy for a reason and managers get paid the bigger bucks to make decisions that are in the best interest of the company and its stakeholders even if those decisions differ from what certain employees or groups of employees want to see.

… sometimes managers unwittingly allow the tail to wag the dog when they choose to go along with the will of their employees for no other reason than it seems to be what everyone wants.

Even when managers don’t actively seek the input or feedback of their employees, their staff make their position known…loudly. Not wanting to be accused of ignoring the desires of their employees or being called a “bad leader”, the manager gets swept up in the perspective or opinion of the “mob” and makes a decision that they wouldn’t otherwise make.”

There are a couple of tail-wags-dog issues here. Workplaces are not democracies and management is, or should be, in firm control at all times.  Opinions can be heard and discussed but management mostly wins in the end. The second issue is managers going along with a group for empathy reasons. More on empathy below.

Functional “experts” may not have the right knowledge or experience

Another tail-wags-dog example is one in which a front-line employee struggles with the interference of “indirect” functional people:

“In my mind, I compare these indirect and direct functions with a tail and a dog. Of course, I’m referring to the adage of “the tail wagging the dog.”

My question is, how many of your company’s activities are led by the dog and how many are dictated by the dog’s tail. I ask this because, while many of the indirect people know their jobs, many do not understand the business, yet may exert a disproportional influence within their area of expertise.”   

Here, the functional group’s influence appears to grow or be applied beyond its range of expertise and experience. Decisions can be weakened as such groups grow in power.

How does empathy fit in?

Empathetic leadership seems to be a hot management topic these days. But Entrepreneur magazine challenges its growing role and acceptance:

“To enhance engagement, many leaders are told they need to be more empathetic. Empathy is the skill of understanding and recognizing others’ feelings and perspectives. As a leader, that skill is obviously important. You cannot effectively lead someone you don’t understand. You can only motivate and influence a person when you know how they feel. There are good reasons that experts like Daniel Goleman have hailed empathy as a core competency of good leadership.”

“Empathy can be a poor moral guide. Yes, you read that correctly. Empathy often helps us do what’s right, but it also sometimes motivates us to do what’s wrong. … empathy triggers our altruistic impulses, resulting in poor judgment that could harm many people for the benefit of one person. As leaders, empathy may cloud our moral judgment. It encourages bias and makes us less effective at making wise decisions.”

Empathy is an idea about the leadership process. However, it may well be a fad that is generally unable to gain the necessary support to wag the dog despite its warm and fuzzy claims. Just because “experts like Daniel Goleman” hail empathy as a leadership core competency, it can easily be over-applied and misused.

Tail-wags-dog is all about the spread of ideas

Pretty clearly, ideas are fundamentally important in so many situations. They originate, grow, fight for support and survival, and eventually either disappear or gain serious power. And it does not take huge acceptance to get an idea solidly and even permanently established.

Businesses are idea-generators. Some are extremely valuable and others are extremely bad, with the majority somewhere in between. Managing ideas is a critical part of management processes. The right time to manage ideas is in their early stages. Once established, ideas can take on a life of their own. For better or for worse.

Bottom line:

Ideas in businesses can start off small and invisible until they gain a large enough following to achieve significant power. Perhaps alarmingly, the support threshold appears to be as low as ten percent of a population. Ideas not acceptable to the business leadership need to be identified and challenged before this support threshold is exceeded.

Forbes has an interesting article about taking back control of your organization in a tail-wags-dog situation:

“The tail wags the dog,” is an expression that refers to a situation where a minor or secondary part of something (the tail) is controlling or dominating the whole or main part (the dog).

Leadership must have a clear vision, expectation and accountability of strategies and outcomes. Great organizational culture can be disrupted when leaders fail to lead and allow the tail to wag the dog.”

CBS News offered an unusual (in my experience) example of a tail-wags-dog situation in its “Management Lesson: Don’t Let the Tail Wag the Dog”:

“It had developed a proprietary technology that had great performance, but was expensive and difficult to implement. As a result, customers largely opted for an alternative technology that was cheaper, easier to use, and offered by a number of competitors.

Well, the division that offered this proprietary technology developed a “bunker” mentality, meaning the pervasive view of its management and employees was that the alternative technology, as well as the customers that chose it, were “the enemy.” Morale in this division was terrible.

Surprisingly, the company had the ability to offer the alternative technology, but because it was viewed as “the enemy,” that was out of the question.

Instead, the company chose to develop new proprietary technology that was cheaper and easier to use. But, in order to keep the bad morale of the “bunker” division and the negative customer perception of its technology out of the picture, the company used a separate division to develop and market the new technology.

To the company’s leadership, this made sense at the time. But in reality, the configuration was dysfunctional and perpetuated bad morale and negative customer perception. In a sense, the company’s leadership allowed the bunker mentality to dictate how it organized and went to market.

The solution was to merge everything into one business division that offered three alternative solutions to customers: the “bunker” technology, the “alternative” technology, and the “new” technology. The company marketed this as a one-stop-shop where customers could choose what they wanted. In time, the bunker mentality, bad morale, and negative customer perception vanished.”

Seth’s Blog suggested that Trip Advisor may be a tail wagging the service-business dog in a very constructive way “The Trip Advisor tail wagging the real world dog”:

“Today, it’s sites like Trip Advisor and Yelp (among many others) that are transforming the way service businesses operate. Here’s how it works: at first, a business might try to ignore the system, but then they notice their customers talking about the reviews and their competitors. So some stoop so low as to attempt to game the system, sending sock puppets and friends to post reviews. But that doesn’t scale and the sites are getting smart about weeding this out.

The only alternative? Amazing service. Working with customers in such an extraordinary way that people feel compelled to talk about it, post about it, and yes, review it.”