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.
False consensus is a group psychological phenomenon [Ross 1977] [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 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.
- 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 consensusof 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.
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!
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- The High Cost of Low Trust: II
- Truly paying attention to Trust at work is rare, in part, because we don't fully appreciate what distrust
really costs. Here's Part II of a little catalog of how we cope with distrust, and how we pay for it.
- Compulsive Talkers at Work: Addiction
- Incessant, unending talking about things that the listener doesn't care about, already knows about,
or can do nothing about is an irritating behavior that harms both talker and listener. What can we do
- Contextual Causes of Conflict: I
- When destructive conflict erupts, we usually hold responsible only the people directly involved. But
the choices of others, and general circumstances, can be the real causes of destructive conflict.
- Regaining Respect from Others
- When you feel that a colleague has lost professional respect for you — or never really had respect
for you — what can you do about it? Check your conclusions, check whether it's about you, and
ask for a dialog.
- During-Action Reviews
- When you depend on internal services to get your job done, and they aren't being delivered in a customer-oriented
fashion, solving the problem during the incident isn't likely to work. Here are seven tips for addressing
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 4: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I
- Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing a narcissist's sense of self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
- And on October 11: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: II
- Self-importance is one of four major themes of conversational narcissism. Knowing how to recognize the patterns of conversational narcissism is a fundamental skill needed for controlling it. Here are eight examples that emphasize self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 11.
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