Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 33;   August 19, 2009: False Consensus

False Consensus

by

Most of us believe that our own opinions are widely shared. We overestimate the breadth of consensus about controversial issues. This is the phenomenon of false consensus. It creates trouble in the workplace, but that trouble is often avoidable.

Of all the ways groups make bad decisions, false consensus is among the most difficult to detect. Bullying others and dismissing the contributions of some group members are usually obvious when they happen, but by contrast, false consensus is subtle. Even those most affected by it might be unaware.

Harry Morgan and Henry Fonda in "The Ox-Bow Incident"

Harry Morgan and Henry Fonda in The Ox-Bow Incident, a 1943 film directed by William Wellman, starring Fonda and Dana Andrews. The film is based on the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. It tells the story of a lynching in Nevada in 1885, in which an illegally deputized posse of 27 men and one woman hangs three innocent men. At one point in the proceedings, to confirm the posse's nerve, the ringleader calls for a majority vote, asking anyone who favors a court trial to "stand over there." One by one, seven men comply, and although they are overwhelmingly outvoted, we cannot help but feel the shock of the members of the pro-lynching faction as they discover an increasing number of dissenters in their midst. One of the dissenters is the ringleader's son.

This scene illustrates the two components of false consensus. First, it shows the disruptive effects of discovering that anyone would disagree with one's own position. Second, it shows how those who hold the conventional view tend to regard dissenters as defective. Photo courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

False consensus is a group psychological phenomenon[Engelmann 2004] with two components. First, members tend to believe incorrectly that others hold opinions in agreement with their own. Second, members tend to believe that those who disagree do so because of personal defects.

This error of perception is not a personal flaw — it is a universal human trait. Wherever people work in groups or teams, false consensus can happen, more often than any of us would like.

Usually, the errors in estimating what others believe are inconsequential, but when the issue is controversial, errors matter. For instance, when a team chooses between two different strategies, members tend to guess that other members would choose as they would. And they also tend to believe that those who make the opposite choice have serious character flaws or malicious intent.

Here are four situations that present elevated risk of false consensus.

Contracts
Contracts usually contain specifically crafted language and terminology, which is inevitably subject to interpretation. Each party to the contract interprets this language in ways that seem to them to be conventional or common sense. And that's where false consensus can arise.
By including examples and not-examples in contracts, we can reduce the likelihood of false consensus by narrowing the range of ambiguity.
Requirements
False consensus can arise in both requirements development and requirements interpretation. Any ambiguity will find people willing to adopt differing interpretations, with many believing that their interpretations are conventional, and that other interpretations are self-serving or perhaps malevolent.
Terseness, though seemingly elegant, creates risk of false consensus. Specificity, with examples and not-examples, produces better outcomes.
Organizational agreements
Agreements Terseness, though seemingly
elegant, creates risk of
false consensus
of any kind are fertile ground for false consensus. "We'll postpone that task if you let him work on this task now," is an example. Its ambiguity creates opportunities for false consensus. Postpone for how long? Will he be working full time now?
Make agreements explicit and specific. Write them down in confirming email messages or posts.
Organizational change
In organizational change efforts, Management often desires that the Managed accept something the Managed don't actually want. Sometimes, Management encourages false consensus by creating the impression that the majority do actually want the change. It's a tempting tactic, but when people eventually figure out what's happening, trust is broken and Management loses credibility.
A safer approach: be honest and deal with serious objections seriously.

We probably all share a false consensus about false consensus: it doesn't happen to me or to anyone I know, and those who do fall victim to it are idiots. Go to top Top  Next issue: I've Got Your Number, Pal  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Order from Amazon Get the DVD: The Ox-Bow Incident. It's a short, intense film experience. Order from Amazon.com

Footnotes

[Engelmann 2004]
See Dirk Engelmann and Martin Strobel, "The False Consensus Effect: Deconstruction and Reconstruction of an Anomaly," (August 2004). CERGE-EI Working Paper No. 233. Available at SSRN. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenWDUmjSOfeRpBnSROner@ChacLknaQbxnqlRaacHOoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

Planet earthCorrosive Buts
When we discuss what we care deeply about, and when we differ, the word "but" can lead us into destructive conflict. Such a little word, yet so corrosive. Why? What can we do instead?
HMS Latimer during her first cable-laying run from Shanklin to CherbourgThe Advantages of Political Attack: I
In workplace politics, attackers sometimes prevail even when the attacks are specious, and even when the attacker's job performance is substandard. Why are attacks so effective, and how can targets respond effectively?
The Town Hall of Brighton, England, in 2010Social Isolation and Workplace Bullying
Social isolation is a tactic widely used by workplace bullies. What is it? How do bullies use it? Why do bullies use it? What can targets do about it?
Dogs Fighting in a Wooded Clearing, by Frans SnydersOvertalking: II
Overtalking is a tactic for dominating a conversation by talking to stop others from talking. When it happens, what can we do about it?
A portion of The Art of War, written in Tangut scriptCompulsive Talkers at Work: Power
Compulsive talkers are unlikely to change their behavior in response to your polite (or even impolite) requests. In this second part of our exploration, we consider the role of power — both personal and organizational.

See also Conflict Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Daffodils of the variety Narcissus 'Barrett Browning'Coming February 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I
Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
George Orwell's 1933 press card photo issued by the Branch of the National Union of JournalistsAnd on March 7: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: II
Narcissistic behavior at work threatens the enterprise. People who behave narcissistically systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this Part II of the series we consider the narcissistic preoccupation with superiority fantasies. Available here and by RSS on March 7.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenNJBjNtOEdRGBBpUUner@ChacVcFxQvRjlqhnbPXAoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.