How To Combat Compliant Thinking: Strategies to Sharpen Your Critical Thinking Skills

Our current blog theme is about mental fitness and agility. This is the third blog in our Mental Fitness series, so if you havent read the first or second blogs yet, give them a squiz. In this blog, we’re exploring how we increase our mental fitness when we combat compliant, lazy thinking. Compliance occurs when others do your thinking for you. 

One Sunday afternoon I was driving with Paul, my sister in laws husband, down Beyers Naude Drive in Johannesburg. We reached a red traffic light and there were stationary cars all around us. Next thing, the driver to our left decided that waiting was no longer a good option and drove through the red light. The driver on our right followed hot on his heels, as did the drivers behind these two vehicles. It was a domino effect. Paul blurted out loud, ‘what am I missing?’ as this avalanche of movement took place. Now it was almost impossible for him to stand still. The world around us had decided that red was no longer important, and an invisible pulling of cars occurred across the intersection. 

Studies on passenger behaviour suggest that in-flight purchases can be influenced by social cues.

The research found that you’re 30% more likely to buy something from the food trolley if the person next to you does. I know this pull. I have noticed that when the person next to me looks at the menu, it’s as if I get given a sense of permission to indulge as well. 

In trivial unimportant matters, being pulled by the crowd doesn’t really matter, and following the group is actually normal. But the big question is, ‘am I making up my own mind when it truly matters?’ 

Combating Compliant Thinking: Strategies to Sharpen Your Critical Thinking Skills

How Does Behavioural Influence the Workplace?

Having a strong defined corporate culture is mostly a good thing. A major focus of CAFE Life is to support organisations in creating cultures where people can thrive at work. But there is a danger to culture when it isn’t intentionally developed . 

Culture can be defined as the habitual behaviours, mindsets and attitudes of a collective of people. The stronger the culture, the more likely a homogenous way of thinking and behaving develops. In other words, the more likely it is that everybody on board is buying from the ‘trolley.’ As you can imagine, this can be dangerous  if the right thing to do, is not buy from the trolley. The term given for this condition is ‘Groupthink.’ Groupthink occurs when everybody follows a common dogma, with no critical or divergent thinking. In this instance, it’s often one or two people thinking and the others are simply following. This is well captured by General George Paton, who said…

“If everyone is thinking alike them someone isn’t thinking.”

Polaroid is one of many organisational examples that fell victim to Groupthink. From the 50’s to the 80’s, Polaroid was the company most of us would have wanted to work for. The culture was family orientated, caring and respectful. But when the external environment started to change, digital photography became a force. What the company needed at this time was new ways of thinking. But the culture did not allow such thinking. Polaroid was about instant photography. Max Booth, their CEO at the time, stated…

“Anyone who thinks instant photography is dying has his head in the sand.”

Hmmm – who wants to challenge the CEO? And so, Polaroid fell victim to a culture that did not encourage ‘thinking against the norm’ and consequentially went into liquidation in the late 90’s. A strong defined culture supports effectiveness; provided it does not squash expression. And teamwork is a great concept; provided teamwork doesn’t mean we ‘can’t rock the boat.’ 

Psychologist Solomon Asch did a series of experiments called the Conformity Line Experiment Study. Here, people were asked to sit in a group setting and give an answer to a somewhat simple problem. In some settings there were actors who gave wrong answers.

Imagine you have an answer which you believe is correct, but now the three people before you have given what you consider a wrong answer. How do you respond when it’s your turn? A similar pattern emerged to our travellers. About 30% of people chose to follow suit and give the wrong answer. They chose to fit in rather than to be seen as standing out. The pressure to conform, along with created self-doubt, resulted in people choosing to reject their thinking. 

Combating Compliant Thinking: Strategies to Sharpen Your Critical Thinking Skills

How Often Do You Allow Others to Do Your Thinking?

The danger of lectures from Professors, motivational talks from well-known people, sermons from a church pulpit, ra ra’s from politicians or feedback sessions from a CEO, are that they most often don’t invite dialogue or disagreement. They might be really good – but they create passive audiences. Don’t be passive when it really matters. Develop independent thinking. Do the research, check the facts, challenge the populist path, go beneath the surface. Today, we must develop and practice this way of thinking. The important questions of life, your vote on a ballot paper, your career, need your own thinking. The urgency for this is seen in this sobering thought by Seth Godin…

“The ease with which someone can invent and spread lies is going to take most of us by surprise. It’s going to require an entirely new posture for understanding the world around us. Every day is April Fools from now on, let’s not get fooled.”

With the vast amount of societal influence and various opinions in our world, compliant thinking is a trap you don’t want to fall in. There’s a simple practice I encourage you to put in motion combat compliant thinking: write down what is so important to you, that it deserves your own thinking. This does not mean you don’t take advice, but that you put thought into whose advice you take. This does not mean you don’t take counsel, but you weigh the advice of counsel. 

Combating Compliant Thinking: Strategies to Sharpen Your Critical Thinking Skills

Here is a list of things that probably deserve you to combat compliant thinking around….

  • The hard questions in life like…
    • the meaning of life
    • your own sense of purpose
  • Your career 
  • Your most important values
  • Who to vote for in the upcoming general elections
  • How you are going to show up in the next meeting you attend
  • What needs the answer ‘no’ and what needs the answer ‘yes’
  • What cannot be concluded as truth simply because it’s the top search on ‘Google’ 

To avoid compliance in things that matter…


  • Do your own reading and research
  • Embrace people who see things differently, ‘weighing’ their viewpoints
  • Avoid voices with a long track record of being wrong, who offer empty promises
  • Ask, and then see what happens
  • Be prepared to change your mind when new evidence arises 
  • Don’t let loyalty get in the way of truth and openness

The ability to think is one of our most important rights. We need to protect this. Celebrate this. Give room to your confusion, and don’t fall into the trap of making quick decisions, where everything is simple. Much of life is about a dance with complexity, where we don’t simply conclude. Like Susan David says,

“When somebody says to you, ‘it’s an easy question’, a good response can be, ‘it’s not easy for me because I’m thoughtful’.” 

Combating Compliant Thinking: Strategies to Sharpen Your Critical Thinking Skills

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