Communicate on the Same Wavelength



What to do with the belief that if I have it this way, everyone has it too?

Emotions are data. When you see what other people are feeling, it’s information about their motivations, which takes a lot of their energy and attention. Without this information, you are effectively handicapped as a leader.

Sigal Barsade


What is the belief that others have the same, and where does it come from?


The intentions weren’t bad: the leader refused to let employees perform duties remotely because he remembered that he himself couldn’t concentrate while working from home. Another time, he held a mandatory team-building meeting, assuming that everyone, like him, liked entertainment on the town. Or he joked about a new co-worker’s ethnicity because it was his strategy for dealing with stress. And finally, he increased the scope of tasks in all positions, believing that everyone could act as quickly as he did. 


Only that the results were the opposite: the neurodiverse employee in the office was gaining lower efficiency, and new employees found it difficult to integrate into the company’s operations because of social contact fatigue. The Japanese employee felt insulted and disturbed by the joke from the leader, and other co-workers complained of excessive workload.


While such behavior could be interpreted as a sign of bad will, it did not necessarily stem from a lack of empathy and a desire to make someone uncomfortable. This is because at the core of the belief that everyone has just like us is an incorrectly estimated degree of our similarity to others. 


Seeing one’s own choices and judgments as typical of others is referred to as the false consensus effect (Ross, Greene, House, 1977), and the source of this mechanism is traced to the need to maintain one’s self-esteem and sense of belonging. After all, it is a similarity with others that makes us receive social support and feel less tension in relationships. If our choices and behaviors were perceived as deviating from the norm – we would be at risk of exclusion from the group (Marks, Miller, 1987). 


The false consensus effect is a cognitive error that even experienced leaders can be exposed to, and it is more likely to occur the more self-conscious one is about one’s position in the organization (van der Pligt,1983; Marx and Miller, 1985).


Revealing ignorance and doubt is usually associated with low self-esteem and a lack of a sense of power and agency. Therefore, even among experienced leaders, the prevailing belief is that they should know all the solutions and answers. This fosters the perpetuation of the attitude of the alpha leader who “just knows better.” 


Another cognitive error that promotes the misjudgment of employees’ capabilities is the so-called “curse of knowledge,” i.e. the conviction that others know and can do the same as we do. The consequence of such thinking among leaders is that employees do not receive guidance from them on how to do their jobs, and even when guidance is given, it is often incomprehensible – for example, due to the use of overly specialized vocabulary or mental abbreviations.


What are the business implications of this?


The occurrence of the false consensus effect promotes a lack of self-criticism. The leader begins to make decisions based on his own assumptions, acting automatically and unreflectively.  This leads to the misuse of employees’ trust and promotes the development of mechanisms of harmful communication (Brearley, 2020). In turn, the lack of good team relations is a key factor in increasing employee turnover and burnout (Brassey, 2022). In addition, bias as a consequence of the false consensus effect means that many good ideas cannot resonate and be implemented (Bartam).


Therefore, every responsible leader should analyze his actions and, if he recognizes the false consensus affect in them, make every effort to eliminate it. Especially since it is leaders who are able to admit their own weaknesses who learn more and cope better in situations of severe stress. In addition, their openness to advice and reflexivity make their co-workers’ ideas more attractive and team relationships more satisfying (Conn, McLean, 2020).




How can Empatyzer help?


Adam Grant – an organizational psychologist – suggests always thinking like a scientist and not getting attached to one idea or way of thinking (2021). He encourages accepting challenges and surrounding ourselves with people who have different opinions or experiences than ourselves. But such confrontation poses a challenge for many leaders – as they must replace assertions with open questions and a willingness to reflect on their own actions. 


To avoid the effect of false consensus, leaders are therefore encouraged to get to know their employees and hold one-on-one meetings with them – even before they announce their ideas to the larger group (Brearley, 2020). However, this is a major expenditure of time and money, so it makes sense to reach out to an empatyzer who knows the employees and suggests how to talk to them.


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