Thought for the Week: Be Aware of the Spiral of Silence

A consensus means that everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually.

Abba Eban

On the one hand, it is the leader’s job to not only hold a compelling vision but to communicate it in a manner that others will see the benefit of following. The leader has to deal with conflicts and differences of opinion and consider alternatives. And at the end of the day, the leader has to decide what direction to pursue and then enlist others to not only move in that direction but to own it and buy into it.

On the other hand, a team (and leader) who has decided that the answer they are after is the only answer runs the risk of coming to a consensus-of-error. Like an individual, teams can begin to be so convinced in their inherent ability to succeed that they ignore important signals along the way that may indicate a course adjustment (or abandonment) is necessary. It is a dilemma that extends beyond the specific leader because the group momentum can overwhelm the efforts of any single individual trying to reset the course.

Consensus can lead to groupthinkI.L. Janis first wrote about this issue in 1972, coining the term “groupthink” to look at the tendency of leaders and teams to ignore dissenting voices in favor of consensus. E. Noelle-Neumann in 1974 added the “spiral of silence” to this understanding as a way to explain how perfectly intelligent people, once having achieved consensus, refuse to budge even when it is clear the decision was wrong. The longer the issues are ignored, the more difficult it is to bring them up. In short, the two descriptions together propose that members of the team are unlikely to express personal concerns about team problems if they believe that other team members are likely to disagree.

I could (and perhaps will) write a lot more on this someday, but the point is this: Achieving consensus is difficult yet necessary in order to move groups forward. However, once consensus has been achieved, a new demon arises in the form of subdued and inhibited dissent. There may be members of the team who individually have views that are crucial to hear, but will not bring them forward for fear of damaging the consensus and sense of “team” that is developed.

As a leader, there are a number of things you can do:

1. Let your team or organization know that you believe in the vision and you believe in the direction and yet you are fully aware that things change and the unexpected happens. Challenge them to be the ones who point out when the current way of doing things needs to be examined.

2. Have regular “what are we ignoring” conversations. Most leaders will avoid this because it’s frightening to ask the question, but periodically checking in with the group will often allow individuals who see a problem to speak up. Assume that there is likely to be at least one important issue out there that everybody has an inkling about but nobody wants to say.

 3. Use multiple modes of communication. Invite people to speak with you one-on-one, or to send email or text. Provide some form of anonymous communication as well that will ease the fears of the individual who is afraid to step forward.

 Finally, don’t underestimate the power of group norms. The individual with a different idea or a strong concern, may be inhibited the most by the reaction of the group. Make sure that there are ways for group members to speak with you individually as well as within the group. And then listen to what they have to say. A course correction will not kill your culture but a lack of openness to different ideas almost surely will.  

 

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One thought on “Thought for the Week: Be Aware of the Spiral of Silence

  1. Good advice. However, it is very difficult for people in authority to admit they don’t have all the information or that they need help in identifying the correct actions to take even when they do have it. Until you can get a leader past this issue, these steps are palliative at best and at worst can undermine any sense of “team”.