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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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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