The Spiral of Silence is a theory centred around the belief that people are unwilling to publicly express their opinion if they believe they are in the minority whereas those who believe they are associcated with the popular choice will become more vocal. The more marginalised the perceived minority becomes the less people will speak – contributing to the spiral.
I was thinking about this recently when watching the final build up to the vote on Scottish Independence. As the polls narrowed there was a feeling that those who were likely to vote ‘No’ were not necessarily voicing this opinion to the researchers. This presented a risk to the polling companies as to whether a swing was going to go in favour of the No vote or whether there was a higher proportion of No voters than the polls indicated. YouGov’s methodology with a sample of around 1,800 in the end showed that there was a marginal shift and ultimately predicted the right outcome. With no exit polls their research was based on surveying a sample population and without the safety base of asking what their voting behaviour had been in the past – one of the key elements that is used following the UK elections in 1992.
In 1992 the pollsters famously got it wrong by predicting labour would win, only for John Major to secure another term with the Conservatives. One of the reason they failed to predict the final outcome correctly was blamed on the ‘Shy-Tory’ effect – voters unwilling to admit their intention to vote Conservative to interviewers – as it wasn’t percieved to be the popular view. This was partly contributed to the Spiral of Silence.
The Spiral of Silence was developed as a theory in the 1970s by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann – “a person is less likley to voice an honest opinion on a topic if they feel that they are in the minority for fear of reprisal or isolation from the majority.” It is something we have probably all come across at some point and inparticular in the workplace. People sometimes say what they believe is the ‘right’ thing for fear that not doing so would isolate them from the group or stay silent.
Focus groups, as an example, are frequently used in EVP research with existing employees as well as target candidates. There is a good reason why they should be conducted by a skilled, external moderator. It is why the groups are carefully selected to provide the comfort level that the participants are of the same level/group/profile that they will speak freely. In many countries the complexities of social norms and religion also come into play. Incompatible respondents and poor moderation will result in a failed group and marginalised views.
Workplace and Culture
Within a workplace environment, whether conducting research or gathering feedback as part of an EVP or Employer Branding strategy, it is important to create a framework that enables accurate representation of views and opinions from all groups. Including those who may be inclined to fall into the ‘Spiral of Silence’ category.
The things to consider are:
1) Are we enabling an environment and methodology that will take into account all views?
2) Are we able to segment the opinion of different sub-groups?
3) Do we create an culture that encourages candor and constructive thought and feedback?
4) Do we have the right mechanisms in place for people to provide forthright and honest views? This might be a combination of managing meetings better, face-to-face contact and online feedback forms and measurements.
4) Remembering that the Spiral of Silence theory is based on perceived popular opinion and fear of isolation, how does our organization ensure a spiral of silence effect isn’t created? What generates the perception of the ‘popular opinion?’
One final point to consider is to think about the mechanisms that are in place for everyone to contribute feedback and to ensure that data is analysed that measures the popular view, but also focuses on the outliers and extremes. Online feedback and statistical data has a big role to play, but alongside this is the culture of feedback that is cultivated and the actions that are put in place as a result.
Whilst sometimes the most revealing insight can be had from what is not said as much as what is, the sound of silence may often be ringing louder than we think.