In “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, a narcissistic emperor succumbs to the wit of two conmen, leading to his reveling in town stark naked. While the emperor’s leadership skills are an entirely different matter, the reaction, or lack thereof, is the subject of this article. Dozens of townspeople sat by in reverent (or fearful) silence and allowed an unclothed man to cavort his way through their streets. Why? Because they suffered from pluralistic ignorance. It’s when an individual’s beliefs differ from the public opinion, but either doesn’t realize the difference or doesn’t want to dissent from that majority opinion.
Oversimplified: Jumping off a bridge because you think everyone else did.
The emperor represents a fictional story, and a 180-year-old one, at that. What about modern, true-life examples? Well, perhaps you’ve heard of Enron. Or Wells Fargo. These two companies have had scandals that displayed pluralistic ignorance. At Enron, employees went along with dishonest reporting and filings because they assumed everyone else was either okay with it, or that it was some odd industry norm when in fact it was not. At Wells Fargo, over 5,000 employees engaged in scamming clients, exhibiting behavior that went unchecked and without question. Pluralistic ignorance only exists at such widespread levels because the behaviors are not curbed in their infancy.
It’s simple. Wait, no, it’s actually somewhat complicated. It deals with our emotional cues. People evaluate other people’s positive emotions better than negative ones compared to their own, thus more often overlooking dissenting views in others. For those of you whose eyes just crossed, stay with me.
We are good at seeing when others are in good spirits, so we more accurately assess when we should celebrate in a group. Think: the crowd applauds at a show you’re enjoying, so you applaud.
When those feelings in others are negative, we get our wires mixed up. By not correctly identifying negative emotions relative to our own, we think we are alone in our negative emotions more than we actually are. Think: no one calls for help in an emergency in a crowd of people.
Pluralistic ignorance can occur in two ways. The first is perceptual, wherein we think that others’ actions are somehow the social norm and we conform to such. We perceive an inaccurate representation of what others are thinking. The second is inferential, wherein we incorrectly assume what everyone else would do, and act accordingly. We infer an inaccurate representation of what others are thinking.
Process of formation of pluralistic ignorance, from Mendes, Lopez-Valeiras, Lunkes
When we ignore a deeper dive into rationale or logic, we fail to question why something is happening (or not happening). It manifests over time in the continuation of ineffective strategies, despite everyone knowing the strategy is garbage, and perhaps illegal or immoral. We throw good money after bad, we carry out inane tasks that waste time, and we go about our business-as-usual day, thinking we are alone in the same boat as everyone else.
It can also create despondent employees. This occurs when they feel so alone in their attitude and beliefs that they disengage from their work and their peers. The employee can internalize their feelings of isolation so much that they end up leaving the organization, feeling they just don’t belong.
A Leader’s Defense
There are ways to keep the ship from tipping over, along with ways to right the ship should it have already started to tip.
First, as simple and obvious as it may sound, educating others about pluralistic ignorance and publicizing it has shown to lower its occurrence. This is useful in a general sense, but most suitable when you know of a specific issue that faces your organization and can cause people to keep quiet. It’s important to emphasize that concerns of the individual may in fact be concerns of the group.
This should be paired with the adoption and promotion of an open line of communication between the leader(s) and the team members, giving the latter direct, and private, access to the former. You want people to feel comfortable coming to you knowing you’ll listen, and more importantly, give them a safe space to report a concern. The ignorance can set in when people think they’re alone in their views.
Another approach is to appoint a devil’s advocate to projects or new processes. This person’s sole responsibility is to raise questions and make the process better. The zombie-like effect of groupthink can show on the surface, but actually be covering up dissenting attitudes. People feel they should go along with an idea because they think everyone else is. A devil’s advocate raises that concern on behalf of the silent. Ever sat in a classroom with a question and hoped someone else would ask it so you didn’t look dumb? That person is your devil’s advocate, and you can explicitly appoint one.
In my research, I found an interesting result. The more homogenous a group is with regards to gender, educational affiliation, functional roles, and industry background, the more likely they are to share their concerns and thus limit pluralistic ignorance. This is to say, diversity can raise the chances of the effect. The idea is that misperceptions of people’s attitudes or behaviors (i.e. the social norm of the group) is exacerbated by also not feeling like part of the group demographically.
Diversity is important to a team to produce and capitalize on perspective, but overlooked negative emotions in any group can cause a collective denial. It’s important therefore to engage in shared activities. These are when we get to know one another through more meaningful interests in our lives. This brings people together through their unique passions, spotlighting the more “genuine, stable attributes of character.” The connections between individuals is strengthened beyond a superficial understanding, which will help create the social cohesion necessary to mitigate pluralistic ignorance.
As a leader, it is also wise to reveal your own concerns to the group as they come up for you. This is the lead-by-example approach. The leader not only allays negative feelings of those who are still too timid or not ready to voice their concerns, but shows everyone what behavior is expected. Be sure to praise those who bring their concerns to you, privately or publicly, because this is the behavior you want to reward.
Photo credit (title image): Roberto Weigand