Why we need to say the Emperor has no clothes - Michelle Gibbings

You may remember from your childhood the Hans Christian-Anderson fairy tale titled – The Emperor Has No Clothes.

The story centred on two conmen who pretended to be weavers and convinced the Emperor they could make him a magical suit – the finest in the land.  The magic was that this suit would be invisible to those who were too stupid for their jobs. In fact, the Emperor’s new suit of clothes was his ‘birthday suit’.  However, when the Emperor paraded in front of his subjects, no one wanted to call out that he had nothing on but his underwear. Why? They feared looking stupid. It was only a young child who felt free to speak their mind and acclaim, “He isn’t wearing anything at all.”

As with all fairy tales there is a moral to the story. The weavers preyed on the Emperor’s vanity and on the fact that people around him wouldn’t have the courage to speak up in fear of looking stupid.

In a modern day context, the tale still has applicability.

We are tribal creatures. This means we like to fit in and be part of the pack. We would rather follow the crowd, than be sidelined and left out.

These pressures to conform means we can hold off on challenging the status quo or questioning things that others around us are accepting. We can make decisions and take action with little reason than the fact that everyone else is doing it.

In behavioural economics this is known as the herd mentality. It plays out all the time on the sharemarket. If a company’s share price goes up, people will rush to buy. While when the share price falls, people will rush to sell.

These actions often take place with little logic attached to the merits of the price fall or increase. This is because when the share price falls people lose their nerve thinking that if everyone else is selling I should too. However, if the stock is going up people don’t want to miss getting their piece of the action.

This seemingly irrational behaviour demonstrates how the choices of a larger group can influence the actions of an individual.

But it goes even further than that. The University of Leeds did a study and found that humans flock like sheep and birds. Yes, really!

The study found that it only takes around five per cent of people to walk in a certain direction to influence the rest of the crowd’s direction.

What the researchers did was run a series of experiments where groups of people were asked to walk randomly around a large hall. Participants were not allowed to communicate with each other during the experiment. However, a select few people had detailed information about where to walk in the hall.

What happened may surprise you. The results found that those individuals that had details on where to walk were ultimately followed by the others in the hall, forming a snake-like line of people.

The participants followed others in the group with little thought as to why.

For organisations facing increasing complexity, they need people who are willing to challenge and ask questions, who aren’t going to blindly follow what everyone else is doing and to stand out from the pack.

It can be hard to be the person who plays the role of the sceptic, and who puts on what Edward de Bono called the ‘black hat’.

We worry that if no one else is voicing a concern than perhaps we’ve missed something or misinterpreted the issue being discussed. Silence becomes an easier option.

But remaining silent may result in poor decisions being made.

Consequently, there are times when it’s necessary to speak up and out. This is not about being difficult. It’s about making sure that all sides of an issue are considered. It’s encouraging debate and discussion, rather than just going for the quick agreement that may not be the best agreement. It’s being curious about what could be, rather than merely accepting what we are being told.

If you want to lead effectively in today’s ambiguous and ever-changing world, you need to lead courageously and be prepared to say the Emperor has no clothes!

Change happens. Make it work for you.


Michelle Gibbings is a change leadership and career expert and founder of Change Meridian.  Michelle works with global leaders and teams to help them accelerate progress. She is the Author of ‘Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work’.  For more information: www.michellegibbings.com or contact michelle@michellegibbings.com.

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