Don't fall into this trap!

Hey Advocates!

Let’s get this gathering started with a question. Have you ever been jazzed up for a Professional Development (PD)/In-Service Learning Opportunity, thinking, "Oooo weeee! My whole career is about to be fireworks and four-leaf clovers. This training is about to be litty!”? But, then, you roll up to the training, and someone (or, if you're scratch off ticket-lucky, a group of people) hits you with the skunkiest look, saying, "This could’ve been an email"? Uh-oh. They’re looking for compatibility, waiting for you to nod along, do a custom handshake, and sync your heartbeat with their gloomy vibe. Time stops as you contemplate your response. Your inner excitement? Squashed. You don't want to be the lone ranger showing enthusiasm, so you mellow out your grin, slow your heartbeat down, and slide into your seat. Fingers crossed that no one saw your initial excitement. For the duration of the training, you count your nods, monitor the intensity of your attention span, and put on the Armor of Nonchalantness, as you silently absorb the words being shared while keeping your cool points with your peers. You know this PD is good and good for you, but social pressure has your eagerness on lockdown. Congrats! You are now a card-holding member of the “Conformity Bias Club''. 

Believe it or not, social pressure is as real for adults as it is for youth. Conformity bias is when individuals within a group go along with the group's decisions or actions, even if they don't fully agree, just to fit in or avoid conflict (Eakins, 2022). In this example, you're at a PD and everyone's griping about it being a waste of time, so you jump on the bandwagon by being silent and complacent, instead of speaking your truth and sharing with your peers how the training can be transformational to the climate, culture, and practices of your campus. Conformity bias can be detrimental to students and for staff, thus creating an environment of toxic learning and working conditions.

As education professionals, it is very easy to fall into the trap of conformity bias. There are many reasons we go along to get along. “The idea just isn’t popular enough to risk my social status with my peers. Social respectability is a thing, ya know?”. “Also, I don’t really get paid enough to be a professional troublemaker (Huge “thank you” to Luvvie Ajayi Jones for this term!)?”. “ I enjoy sitting at the grown folks’ table, so standing alongside unpopular decisions, no matter how good they are for the culture and climate, doesn’t really go with my Happy Hour outfit. And I love me a good Happy Hour with my “We’ve always done it like this” friends. Good times!

In my best Destiny’s Child voice, no, no, no. Full stop…

My friends, in the name of the tastiest, cheesiest bacon fries you’ve ever had, it’s time to throw a flag on the play, when it comes to conformity bias. If the goal is to value diverse perspectives, to allow critical thinking to thrive, to challenge the status quo, and to embrace the power of independent thought, we have to confront conformity bias and foster an empowerment mindset so that students and staff know that it is okay to explore difficult decisions together. 

You know I’m good for a list, so here are a few strategies to help break the cycle of conformity bias in your learning community. 

  • Encourage diverse opinions. People don’t mind being different. They just don’t want to be different alone. A culture where diverse viewpoints are encouraged will become a culture where people won’t mind adding to discussions and decision-making processes.
  • Lead by example. School leaders, you have to be the change you want to see. If you are willing to express your own opinions, when they differ from the group consensus, you will cultivate authenticity and courage from those around you.
  • Celebrate critical thinking. Permit others to flex their mental muscle without fear of retaliation. Encourage the questioning of assumptions, the challenging of norms, and reflective practices. I’m not a fan of playing devil’s advocate, but allowing someone to take this role does stimulate critical thinking and debate while addressing conformity bias.
  • Cultivate a feeling of safety. Foster socio-emotional safety, so that individuals are able to express their thoughts without fear of judgment or reprisal. People who feel psychologically safe are more likely to voice dissenting opinions.
  • Data is your bestie. One of my favorite sayings is “Documentation beats conversation all day, every day”. There is no argument with facts. Objective information can help counteract the influence of conformity bias by providing a rational basis for decision-making.
  • Autonomy is a good thing. Don’t power trip. Allow individuals to use and trust their own judgment to make decisions. 
  • Rotate leadership roles. When people have to walk a day in someone else’s shoes, it builds empathy. Rotating leadership roles amongst teams and within the learning community ensures that different perspectives are represented and that no single person or idea dominates decision-making processes. 
  • Provide generous and positive feedback. Let’s be realistic. The more cliques you have on campus, the more conformity bias you will have on campus. Break up the cliques and nurture genuine workships. Without calling people out for their close bonds, emphasize the importance of independent thinking and the diversity of thought, by offering individual feedback and allowing the group to give themselves reflective feedback. 

When conformity bias is calling the shots, it is silencing innovation and collaboration. Implementing these strategies, with consistency, will inspire you to turn up the volume and inject some serious creativity into the brilliant minds, adults and youth, on your campus. Allow the mental muscle flex to happen. Add that splash of chaos. Your climate and culture survey results will thank you!

Sidebar: With love, PD Leaders, there are definitely some PDs that can be summed up in an email.


Eakins, S. L. (20122). Leading Equity: Becoming an Advocate for All Students. Jossey-Bass

Written By: Sholanda Smith, Content Creator Leading Equity Center


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