A recent Lead Change Group post by Jane Perdue was all about how we do not always do or say the right thing, but often choose to remain quiet and go with the majority, even when we know it is the wrong thing to do. Much research exists to support the idea that we will even doubt our own senses when others react differently to a situation.
Jane’s engaging and value-filled thoughts are always well worth a few minutes of your time.
Here is my edited and revised response to Jane’s thoughts:
Best Understatement: “For most of us, being in situations where we are isolated, don’t fit in, or face reprisals isn’t much fun.”
I am familiar with Asch’s Smoke-Filled Room experiment and have seen evidence to support this throughout my work life. In this famous experiment, a room slowly filled with smoke. With some people planted in the room and instructed to ignore the slowly gathering smoke, those not in on the experiment were confused and hesitated, even as that smoke continued to get thicker.
Here’s a YouTube video that shows how powerful the inaction of others can be on our own behavior and decisions.
Interestingly, as the number of people in the room grows, so does the effect of “bystander apathy“. This study also contributes to our understanding of why people often observe, but do not act to help others. The bigger the crowd of witnesses, the less likely most are to act. Not a great commentary on our shared humanity.
I was not aware of the communication theory called the “Spiral of Silence” specifically, but I am now. This theory posits that people who feel their perceptions to be in the minority in a group tend to stay silent. I wish I had known about this before sitting through so many difficult and non-productive meetings over my work career.
I once experienced most of this on a corporate scale, where weak leadership created an atmosphere of intimidation, while senior management team folks (including me) remained mostly silent. Over a number of years, this contributed to several things:
1) The leader felt empowered and supported by our silence. As someone has probably said, “Silence is Assent“.
2) The culture became one where poor decisions and weak leadership behaviors were accepted as either “normal” or “just personality quirks” (ignoring very real effects on our productivity and even viability)..
3) When confrontation did occur, it was usually through emotional response to some specific event. Emotion drove behavior, which did not result in effective communication or relationships, while the resulting “discussion” would focus on nitpicking or rationalizing the specific event, The overall direction usually remained unchanged.
The result: A bankruptcy which resulted in massive job loss and closing of facilities, programs, and services.
I revisit this memory regularly to remind myself that speaking out is better than keeping it in.
NOTE: If this issue engages you, I have two reading recommendations for you, both by Ira Chaleff, one of my most trusted sources of leadership wisdom:
You will not find more articulate and in-depth thinking about how we can move past our psychological barriers and become forthright in our words and our actions. The world needs this now more than ever
Hoping to do better in the future, with a little help from my friends, in the Heartland ….