I was on vacation last week in a location blessed with a wonderful bike path that stretches for miles and miles. It was much better cycling than when I ride around Los Angeles. There is no scary traffic to deal with and scenery that makes the miles fade away.
As I rode up and down the path, there were remarkably few cyclists. They tended to observe good etiquette and stay to the right, and I would always give them notice by shouting “On your left” as I approached.
Anyone who had strayed toward the middle of the path would hear me and quickly move to the right to let me pass.
The notable exception were people riding in groups. Every now and then I would come across a family or a pack of friends out for a ride. And invariably they managed to fill the entire bike path. “Coming up on your left,” I would say as I approached, and then most every time, I would have to repeat myself, at least once. Eventually someone, or everyone, would hear and often a scene of utter chaos would ensue as they tried to figure out how to let me pass. Somehow the idea of moving to the right was unfathomable to them as a collective entity. I often got an apology, but I occasionally received a glare saying, “How dare you interrupt our ride.”
[bctt tweet=”.@AdamTurteltaub’s thoughts on bike paths, herd mentality, and #compliance”]
So what does this have to do with anything compliance-related?
It’s a good reminder of what happens whenever group dynamics take over. As individuals we tend to be attuned to those around us. But when we’re in a group, we tend to get drawn into the dynamics of the group and lose track of other people, and even resentful when others intrude. We’re too caught up in the social dynamic, and often are resentful of outside intrusions.
You can see it on a bike path, on a sidewalk when a group makes it difficult for others to get by, or in Costco when a family is so busy shopping and chatting they block the entire aisle.
The risk in a compliance context is that people become so caught up in their immediate work group that they lose track of outside norms. And there may be a warning here from a risk perspective: the tighter a group in your organization is, the more likely it may be to get caught up in its own standards of behavior and less willing to follow externally imposed ones.
You can see this phenomenon in the foreign exchange rate scandal where the manipulations of the market were celebrated as good teamwork. Right and wrong was lost. The group’s interest took over.
You can also see it whenever a whistleblower, even one who reports internally, steps forward. In the abstract, we’re all for people who come forward to raise issues. But when it happens, too often the reaction is: who betrayed us? Who went against the group?
So the next time you’re assessing risk in your organization, ask: which groups are the tightest? That’s probably the place where it’s hard to come forward to raise issues, and may also be where it’s easier to cross a compliance line.