In the hustle and bustle of leading a team, it’s easy to make assumptions. Often we make assumptions because it’s a fast and unconscious process.
The false consensus effect is a cognitive bias in which we assume that other people think the same way that we do, or have the same beliefs and characteristics. In other words, we believe that people are similar to us and share the same tendencies.
Why False Consensus Can Hurt Your Team
The false consensus effect can be damaging for teams because it causes leaders to make assumptions about their people.
When we assume that we know what our teams like or want, we tend to go into auto-pilot mode. We stop thinking, instead taking action based on our (potentially flawed) assumptions.
This is a problem for thoughtful leaders, because one of the characteristics of thoughtful leadership is that we act with intention. That is, we think about the impact our leadership behaviour has on those around us.
When we stop thinking and just assume, we run the risk of violating trust and communicating poorly or insensitively. False consensus causes leaders to think that our team members are just like us. Obviously, this isn’t the case at all.
Our team members are unique, which is one of the challenges of leadership. Diverse teams have many benefits, but they also require us to be aware of those differences, and to act accordingly.
Example of the False Consensus Bias In Action
Here are some of examples I’ve seen and experienced of the false consensus bias in action. Without being aware, we may stumble into making some of these assumptions while we’re leading our team.
I know I have certainly been a victim of my own assumptions in the past!
1. Assuming Everybody Wants to Work the Way You Do
It is quite common for leaders to work more than others, feeling compelled to work outside of normal business hours. This might mean sending emails late at night, or starting work early in the morning.
This can be fine, as long as you don’t assume that your team members want to work this way too. Everybody has different preferences, family and outside-of-work commitments that they need to cater for.
I’ve seen leaders express frustration when their team members go home on time, instead of staying late to finish work. Or when they start work at 9am instead of being at their desk at 7.
Frustration occurs when team members don’t meet your unstated expectations
Expecting your team to work just like you is a good way to become disappointed and frustrated as a leader. Not everyone can get to work early, or wants to work late. People have lives outside of work, and the list of factors that may impact their work situation is long.
However, this depends on the job too. If there are certain criteria that you need your people to satisfy, then these need to be clearly expressed. You need to set clear expectations about the aspects of work that really matter in your team.
2. Assuming People Have Your Career Aspirations
I’ve seen this assumption rear its head quite a few times in my career. Many leaders love mentoring and coaching team members to help them improve their careers.
Passing on what you know and helping people develop is definitely one of the most rewarding parts of leadership in my experience.
However, because this is so rewarding, leaders may have a tendency to seek out mentoring and development opportunities even when they’re not really relevant.
One of your team members may be extremely talented. You can see the potential and you are keen to watch them grow and develop their career. False consensus bias tells us that they want the same things as we do.
Then we might see that the person we are coaching isn’t really “stepping up”. They aren’t putting in the additional effort to get to the next level. This might encourage us to try harder, or feel frustrated at the unfulfilled potential that we see.
However, it could be that they don’t want to be at the next level. Perhaps they have a career change in mind, or a passion for interests outside of work.
False consensus tells us that they should want what we have in our careers. It’s worth testing your assumptions before putting your heart and soul into your mentoring efforts.
After all, not everyone is like us.
3. Assuming People Feel the Same Way About Workplace Events
Lots of things happen in our workplaces. Restructures, downsizing, mergers and acquisitions, implementing new systems and processes – the list goes on.
All of these events can impact our teams and invoke feelings of uncertainty amongst our crew. A new system or process might feel like a great step forward, but are your team members feeling threatened because of the related efficiency improvements?
What about a restructure? You might feel excited because a new senior role might open up for you to apply for. But your team members may feel scared about potential job losses.
New ways of working can be introduced as part of continuous improvement efforts. But what does this mean for your team? Will they be required to do more work or take on more responsibility?
What happens if they don’t share your excitement about the proposed improvements?
Communication suffers when leaders fall prey to consensus bias
Personally, I’ve always been quite excited about improving things and changing the way our teams work. My team hasn’t always shared my excitement, and as leaders we need to be aware of this.
Consider how your team feels when you tell them about a brand new process or initiative, or an upcoming restructure. You may announce the news with excitement – “It’s going to be awesome!”
If your team members don’t feel the same way, this can damage trust. It may appear that you haven’t considered their feelings, or don’t have their best interest at heart. You may even seem like a self-serving leader.
You may be acting with the best of intentions, but it’s worth thinking through the impacts of your communication before you speak.
How to Avoid False Consensus Bias
The false consensus effect can be damaging for your team. However, there are some simple ways to cater for it and attempt to reduce the impact.
First, you need to get to know your team members. You don’t need to be friends, but you should know at least a little about their situation outside of work, their interests, goals and aspirations.
Next, be sure to regularly check in with your team about events in your workplace. How do they feel about the new executive who was hired? What about the restructure? Or the new service your team is going to provide? Have a conversation and you might be surprised at what comes up.
Leaders who are too busy will often reschedule their regular checkins with team members. This reduces your ability to stay connected to your team, so do this at your peril!
Lastly, take a step back and consider how you communicate, before you do it. How might your team members react? Are there some key concerns or questions you could address early on, to put their minds at ease?
Sometimes, simply taking the time to stop and think can be a leader’s greatest tool.
Struggling to Make Time to Support Your Team? Take the Time Management for Leaders Online Course.
False consensus can be damaging for our teams if we aren’t aware of it. Keep it in the back of your mind and recognise the uniqueness of your team members … then act accordingly.
Have you come across the false consensus effect? What happened? Share your story in the comments below or in the Thoughtful Leader forum!