“I didn’t speak up. I didn’t say anything. I thought maybe I was wrong.”
Women in business often tell me this, disgruntled and frustrated. What they say next usually follows along these lines: “I was right all along but I didn’t have the courage to speak up.” Or “My voice never gets heard. I have great ideas but I just can’t get them on the table.” In short, they didn’t take the situation head on and speak up.
The Spiral of Silence Theory may explain why. Coined by German public opinion researcher Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, the Spiral of Silence Theory suggests that people who believe they have a minority opinion will hold back and constrain themselves. And those who believe they are in the majority will be more encouraged to speak up.
Noelle-Neumann’s theory originally pertained to public opinion. We can look at the prevailing public opinion inside corporations and apply the theory to work life: A parallel Spiral of Silence exists within corporate culture. People feel less inclined to speak out and offer their opposition when they do not have the support of the majority. And that can make for poor decisions, costly mistakes and wasted time and resources.
Without the support of divergent viewpoints, organizations cannot make the very best decisions – not for their customers or for their bottom line.
What is at the root of not speaking up, of this Spiral of Silence?
The theory contends, and I agree, that those in the majority have the confidence to speak out. Those who hold a minority opinion have a fear about being alone in their opinions. They are usually cautious and silent on the topic. In the face of others’ confidence, their lack of assertiveness grows.
So how does one push beyond the soul-sucking Spiral of Silence? Here are three ideas to boost your confidence in expressing a minority opinion.
1. Take the long view.
Pull yourself up to the view from 10,000 feet and speak from there. Getting out of the weeds of the current situation and speaking on a macro level may give you the confidence to dissent. After all, then you’re not talking about the specific issue, you’re talking about a general issue. Once you’ve been heard and understood (even if they don’t agree with you yet), you can bring it back down to the situation at hand and sway opinion.
2. Play with personas.
For a moment, allow yourself to take on the role or character of someone who was confident at speaking out against the prevailing opinion. Think of it as playing Devil’s Advocate. You might ask yourself this: “If I was the kind of person who enjoyed speaking up with a counter-idea, what would I say?”
3. Practice with a coworker who agrees with you.
People tend to share their opinions more freely with those who have a similar approach. Practice your pitch for an alternate viewpoint with a supporter. If your practice partner can be in the room when you speak up with your minority opinion for the real deal, all the better!
Whatever you do, do NOT sit idly by, holding back perfectly good opinions just because they are not what the majority is thinking. It’s not good for you and it’s not good for business.
Go forth, break the Spiral of Silence and speak up.
Have you seen someone caught in the Spiral of Silence in action? Share your example in the comments below.
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