Business Perspectives

Business Perspectives

Diane Stafford
Diane Stafford Kansas City Star

Have you ever sat in a meeting, squirming because you disagreed but were afraid to say so?

Of course you have. It’s scary to counter group opinions. That’s why it’s so hard to be a whistleblower against wrongdoing.

But even if we’re not talking about exposing big problems or crimes, it’s still not easy to speak up when you feel like the only one who isn’t on the same wavelength. We’re social animals. It’s simpler to go along, get along.

But Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, behavioral scientists who style themselves as the BS Guys, have an interesting video on YouTube that shows how a counter opinion, if expressed politely, can have profound influence.

The controlled experiment on the video deals with schoolchildren, but its results apply to adults as well. When one student dares to say that he may see things differently from the group, almost everyone else acknowledges that he’s right instead of going along with the group that was set up to promote the wrong answer.

“We have an innate fear of being shunned by valued groups,” the scientists say. “But, when you feel like you’re the odd person out, don’t stifle your concerns. Simply express them respectfully. It turns out this small dissent can provide powerful permission to the silent concern of others.”

In real life, some differing opinions are just plain nuts. Some malcontents will disagree as a matter of course.

More often, though, valuable input never gets shared because people don’t want to rock the boat or are afraid of being devalued or criticized.

Fear of dissent is especially powerful in a hierarchy when a course of action or position is coming from the top down. And it’s not always misplaced. Some dissent is met not only with a lack of support, but retaliation.

But Grenny and Maxfield emphasize that innovation and improvement rely on multiple sources of thought. The danger is if a shouting match or retribution develops.

The boy in the BS Guy’s video who dared to challenge group think used a helpful phrase: “I guess I saw it differently, but I think …”

It wasn’t just that others changed their answers to agree with his once he dared to disagree, but most of them mimicked his exact phrase as they changed their earlier answers. Then, as the opinion tide swelled, his cautious intro was dropped and responses were shorter and more forceful.

The scientists said experiments show that two-thirds of any group – regardless of age – goes along because of the potent power of social influence. They say we naturally are “social learners” who benefit from group wisdom and experience.

But the group isn’t always right. Or maybe it hasn’t yet looked at all the angles. Valued contributors politely, respectfully, don’t let social pressures overwhelm their better judgments.

There may be times when countervailing opinions need to be expressed privately to the boss, but there also may be value in giving the group permission to disagree by your example.

Diane Stafford, is a business writer at the Kansas City Star who covers workplace issues. Reach her at stafford@kcstar.com.

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