Is Your Culture One Of Pluralistic Ignorance?

Colin Ellis
5 min readSep 23, 2020

According to Wikipedia, ‘pluralistic ignorance is a situation in which a majority of group members privately reject a norm, but go along with it because they assume, incorrectly, that most others accept it’.

In short ‘no one believes, but everyone thinks that everyone believes’. It’s something that I came across when I was researching Culture Fix last year. I was reading about attitudes towards paternity leave in Japan which found that many men there don’t take it because of how they think it’s perceived by other men. The reality is that most men support it — but because of pluralistic ignorance, they don’t take it.

Another example — which I’ve witnessed on more than one occasion — is when a senior manager stands up in front of a room and talks in a multitude of acronyms or initialisms to a room full of blank faces. You have no idea what they are talking about. When they ask if anyone has any questions, no-one raises their hand and you assume that everyone else understands it and so you don’t ask. Does this sound familiar?

Pluralistic Ignorance (let’s call it PI from now on) is rife in certain workplace cultures and it might be in yours too:

  • Have you ever gone along with a decision because you think that others support it, only to find out later that they didn’t?
  • Have you ever said that a piece of technology makes your life easier because IT said that it should, only to find out later that they don’t believe that?
  • Have you ever not raised an issue with HR because you feel that others don’t consider a person’s behaviour to be inappropriate, when the reality is that they do?

The prevalence of PI is set by the tone of the culture, which in turn is determined by two factors: the emotional intelligence of its employees and how engaged they are in the vision of the organisation and the way it runs its operations.

As you can see in the model below, when staff are able to be the best version of themselves and care about their job, their teammates and what the organisation is aiming to achieve, then the culture is vibrant.

In vibrant cultures, organisations are deliberate about the definition process. Staff are given a say in the six pillars of culture so that expectations around behaviour, collaboration and innovation are all known and agreed to. They are also given an insight into each other’s personalities and respectful dissent is not only encouraged, but expected. In these environments, assumptions about what others are feeling doesn’t occur because people believe that if they don’t stand behind their values, this comprises the culture and thus the quality of its decisions and outputs.

In stagnant cultures, no-one is engaged in any kind of definition process and consequently not only is engagement low, but behaviours are often poor too, as there is nothing — other than a loosely applied code of conduct (often depending on where you sit in the hierarchy) — to hold people too. Collaboration is poor as people are generally self-obsessed and no-one cares about anyone else’s assumptions! Stagnant cultures often drag good people down and poor behaviour tends to be replicated not eradicated.

PI largely occurs in pleasant and combatant cultures.

In pleasant cultures PI is a result of the need for harmony. A sense of always wanting to please each other often to the detriment of one’s own personal values, opinions or facts. Consultation processes are lengthy, decisions often deferred to the one person that is happy to share their opinion or ‘stick their neck out’. Disagreements are few and far between as people try not to hurt each other’s feelings, choosing instead to convince themselves that a particular course of action was the right one to take and then losing sleep wondering why they hadn’t said anything!

Example: PI shows itself in pleasant cultures when someone has the courage to express a differing viewpoint. That is then an opportunity for others — realising that they share the same view — to speak up and agree.

In combatant cultures, PI is a result of unsafe working environments. Often a dominant individual will demand or expect people to hold a particular belief and actively work to ensure that they get it, by taking conversations ‘off line’. Staff in these cultures resort to sharing their opinions in coffee shops with friends, but feel unable to question the culture because of the potential consequences of speaking up. PI here leads to anxiety and stress and people would rather call in sick than have to face a meeting where conformance was expected. Here it’s less about sticking your neck out and more about ‘putting your head above the parapet’!

Example: PI shows itself in combatant cultures when someone raises an issue with HR about the behaviour or performance of an individual, who is often the person undermining the safety of the team. At this point, others may be asked for their opinion and they’ll feel able to share it without retribution.

How to avoid Pluralistic Ignorance

There is no doubt that the prevalence of PI undermines the performance of a team or organisation and managers must work hard to build an environment where people are able to share their feelings and opinions or where assumptions can be aired.

Recognition is the first step, so hopefully this blog helps! Here are some other steps that can be taken:

  1. Define the culture you need to be successful — the best strategy is to ensure that you have a clearly defined set of team norms, so that people feel able to speak up at any time about anything
  2. Failing that, define the actions that individuals need to take in order to provide a safe environment for everyone to work in
  3. Appoint a ‘Devil’s Advocate’ to regularly ask seemingly obvious questions and validate assumptions.

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Colin Ellis

Best-selling Author of Culture Fix | Keynote Speaker | Facilitator | Devoted Dad | Evertonian | Whisky Lover | Likes to laugh, a lot www.colindellis.com