Picture this: You’re in an important meeting with senior leadership. The CEO is sharing the firm’s strategic plan, including how the company will “leverage big data to gain visibility into market opportunities producing measurable ROI”.
You do a quick scan around the conference room. Heads nod in agreement as the CEO concludes. Self-doubt kicks in. “Am I the only one who has no idea what she just said?” Even though you’re totally confused, you don’t ask questions for fear of losing face.
Later while grabbing coffee, a colleague divulges that they were lost amidst the jargon. Yet they didn’t speak up. Though you shared the same opinion, you both stayed quiet.
Is this simply irony — or is something more at play?
This phenomenon is called pluralistic ignorance. It describes a situation in which a majority of people in a group privately disagree with an idea, while incorrectly assuming others in the group accept it. Instead of standing up for our beliefs, we go along with what the group seems to favor.
Pluralistic ignorance is surprisingly common in the workplace — from the boardroom to how we evaluate our personal success. It even affects attitudes towards flex-work policies and the gender wage gap.
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely brilliantly demonstrates pluralistic ignorance in action with a clever stunt on his unassuming undergrads. It’s a short video but fair warning, it may seem eerily familiar to meetings you’ve found yourself in.
How to Break the Silence and Speak Up at Work
Voicing an unpopular opinion or going against business as usual can be nerve-wracking. But it’s also not healthy to always bottle up your thoughts, and typically, you’re not the only one who feels confused or who wishes they could speak up.
It’s time to do away with the myth that asking questions makes you look dumb. While there may be no such thing as a stupid question (as the old saying goes), there is such a thing as a great question.
Well crafted inquiry can diffuse pluralistic ignorance and the groupthink it creates. Asking great questions is at the heart of exchanging information in a way that shakes the status quo and increases understanding without putting people on the defensive. They’re particularly useful in the face of ambiguity, like in the above example when the boss is spewing jargon.
So if you’ve been holding back and not speaking up on account of the pluralistic ignorance effect, it’ll pay to invest time in becoming a master at Socratic questioning. Try this smart, strategic way of expressing yourself at the right time, assertively and with tact.
This includes clarifying questions such as:
- What do you mean by…?
- Could you put that another way?
- If I heard you correctly, what you’re saying is…?
And probing questions such as:
- What would be an example of…?
- How did you decide…?
- Could you expand upon that point further?
There’s definitely a deep-seated fear in speaking up against a group, so don’t beat yourself up for feeling tentative about it. It’s normal to be worried you’ll embarrass yourself, feel rejected or lose people’s respect. But it’s a good exercise in self-assuredness to get used to believing in yourself enough to risk contradicting the accepted group opinion.
If it makes it easier to tiptoe into this new territory, start out by testing your question-asking skills in small groups or one-on-one situations before transitioning to speaking up in high-stakes situations like meetings.
Remember, personal and professional growth stem from challenging yourself. A great place to start is by pushing yourself to express a dissenting opinion when appropriate.
Sometimes there isn’t strength in numbers. Sometimes the strength is in you.