Spiral of Silence

February 11, 2012

Trapped by Silence

Leaders don’t always operate democratically, but most will solicit views from team members before making decisions. They may ask for a show of hands or “aye” votes. These votes often come after the group has gotten a sense of the leader’s and/or majority opinion. As a result, dissenters may not voice their opinions (if they’re even given a chance). They may think it’s unwise to dissent or feel that they’re unlikely to alter the group’s direction or decision if they did. They fear social rejection. This is called the Spiral of Silence.

The Spiral of Silence, a mass communication theory introduced by Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann in 1974, suggests that the more prevalent and popular a position is, the more people fear opposing that position in public. For the dissenters (most often a minority group), their silence gets deeper and harder to break, in part because their silence may be read as agreement with the prevailing view.

As a leader, don’t mistake silence for acceptance. Pull the silent ones aside or solicit views in a private forum, so that dissenters can speak their minds without fear of social rejection and so you can learn the degree and nature of the dissent.

If you’re looking for inclusive strategies or technology, try these:

1. Turning Technologies provides instant and anonymous audience feedback.

2. Yammer and private blogs can provide an anonymous space for employees to speak out.

3. Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats might change the way you meet and encourage lateral thinking.

4. Assign an angel and devil’s advocate to ensure all points of view are considered. Since these advocates don’t have to own or hold these views themselves, it allows them to share minority or controversial perspectives without fear of social rejection.

5. Change the question so that cognitive dissidence will drive out alternative views.

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