You’re sitting in the weekly management meeting and the senior person at the table is running through the agenda at a fevered pace. Decisions are being made, left, right, and center, and you can barely keep up with what’s going on. Wondering if you’re alone, you look around the table and it seems that most of your colleagues are following along splendidly. All of their body language indicates that they know what’s going on and are in agreement. As you didn’t have time to read the accompanying materials, you think that it’s probably just you.
How many times have you found yourself here? Watching something happen and assuming that you’re the only one that disagrees with the way things are going.
Hopefully, not too often, but my guess is that 100% of the people reading this have, either: a) found themselves in this scenario, or b) know someone who’s found themselves in this scenario. OK, OK – 99% of you.
As it happens, there’s a name for this – pluralistic ignorance. Huh? Yeah, it’s a bit heavy on the jargon – both in its name and often times, its description. In fact, there’s even disagreement from academics about how to describe it. That’s why it’s often best to explain the phenomenon through examples. There’s the one I shared in the opening, but let’s be honest, that was only a few sentences and you probably spaced out reading it [are you back?].
OK. Here’s a quick video example of one I’ve come across that usually helps crystalize the concept for folks.
The video shows a few minutes of Prof. Dan Ariely’s class at Duke. It’s only about 4 minutes, so go ahead and give it a quick watch (I’ll wait).
Seriously, g’head and watch it. [Note: it’s a Vimeo link, so many apologies to any of you unable to watch it because of a firewall/blocked IT.]
Pretty cool, eh? Now, I bet some of you might be saying to yourself, “Yeah, but I would have spoken up and asked the professor what the heck he was talking about.” Sure, maybe you think you would have or maybe you actually would have. The point here is that most people don’t or won’t. This post is supposed to be about change management, after all, so let’s bring it home with something a bit more on-point for all of you.
If you’re reading this, you probably have some experience in change management. Whether you’re a seasoned executive who’s led through countless mergers and acquisitions or a student who’s recently joined the team and are finding yourself super-bored (i.e. you’re on GCconnex/GCcollab reading whatever you can get your hands on), you’ve come into contact with change management. Yes, you have. Depending upon where you are in your career, your examples might be more personal (hello Generation Z!) or professional (hello seasoned executives).
So how does this relate to pluralistic ignorance? Remember that example I shared in the beginning where you found yourself at the decision-making table, but you weren’t quite sure what the heck was going on? That’s exactly the kind of meeting that might happen before a major change. Everyone appears to be in agreement with what’s being said. However, what’s really happening is that most people aren’t in agreement with what’s going on, but think that everyone else is in agreement with what’s going on, so they bite their tongue. Then what happens? Well, then, your group becomes a statistic. And not a good one.
Do you want to become a statistic? Do you want to continue to perpetuate the terrible idea that any change in an organization is doomed to fail more than half the time? I sure as heck don’t. So what can we do? Well, we can speak up. We can prove ‘pluralistic ignorance’ wrong by raising our hand in the management meeting. We can speak up when we don’t understand what’s happening or don’t believe we’re headed in the right direction or think that our decisions aren’t based on foundational data.