Changing People’s Minds… Despite the Odds

Minority Influence Strategy

Changing People’s Minds… Despite the Odds

The majority probably isn’t as strong as it seems.

“All in favor of Rick and Alison’s solution, raise your hands.”

“OK, accepted!”

Of course, Rick and Alison are pleased, but what really gives them satisfaction is that the other six members of the board had initially been opposed to their proposal when they first put it forward. So how did these two people turn the odds in their favor and persuade the others?

What they did was a classic example of “minority influence”.

Minority influence happens when a smaller group of people influences a larger group to act or think in a certain way. We often assume that the majority will have more influence than the minority, simply because of the law of numbers (there are more of them!) Yet it’s undeniable that minority influence exists, and it can have far-reaching effects.

Minority versus Majority Influence

Majority influence usually relies on compliance, conformity, and agreement. But minority influence involves another phenomenon known as conversion, or change. The difference this makes can be huge.

When people are merely complying, they may go along with a decision without actually believing that it’s correct. (Perhaps they don’t think it’s important, they think it would be politically unwise to disagree, or they’re not sure of their facts.)

Conversion, however, happens when people accept and internalize the minority viewpoint, even if they’re reluctant to declare this openly. Imagine what this might mean if you want people to really take action on something, rather than just say they agree without feeling strongly about it! You can see why minority influence has a fundamental advantage.

Minority influence can also help people think divergently (become more open-minded and accepting of different ideas), rather than convergently (being more narrow-minded and moving toward one idea). Therefore, areas such as new product development and process innovation may benefit from minority influence.

Minorities Get More Attention

As a minority, you have an initial advantage simply in terms of getting attention. This is because people generally feel more comfortable with a consensus. By having a different point of view, you remove part or all of this comfort, and you attract the spotlight to yourself and your cause. If the alternative that you propose is credible and realistic, people in the majority will try to resolve the uncertainty and discomfort that they feel. They’ll look for more information and think about the issue more. As such, their decisions will be better thought through.

Getting attention does not mean that you’ll automatically convince other people of your viewpoint. (If you’re dealing with people who have a firm “no” position, see our article Opening Closed Minds for ways to win them over.)

Increasing Minority Influence

In general, minority influence will increase according to a number of factors:

  • How many people are in the minority.
  • The consistency of the minority’s behavior and messages.
  • Diversity within the minority group.
  • The minority’s relationship to the majority.

So if you find yourself in a minority on an important decision, here’s what you can do to increase your influence over the majority.

  • Increase the Size of your Minority

    In a way, this is just stating the obvious – the smaller the difference in size between the minority and the majority, the fewer the people the minority will have to win over. But there’s another aspect to it too: not surprisingly, we tend to give greater credibility to situations where several people say the same thing. So, whilst a one-person minority might simply be regarded as having a “ridiculous idea”, three people proposing the same thing are likely to be taken more seriously. Equally, though, it may not make much of a difference if you have five in your minority rather than three.

    Of course, this doesn’t stop a minority of one from changing a majority point of view – if he or she presents a strong enough case! But you’ll increase your chances of success if you can identify like-minded individuals in the group and recruit them to your cause.

  • Be Consistent

    Minority influence becomes more effective if individual members of the minority hold a point of view consistently over time, and also if they all hold the same view. You don’t necessarily need to keep repeating your viewpoint, though. What really matters in the influencing process is for the majority to perceive that you are confident and consistent in your viewpoint. The agreement among members of the minority shows that the alternative viewpoint is viable. And the staying in agreement over time communicates your commitment to the viability of that position.

    On the other hand, inconsistency or disagreement between minority members weakens their credibility. If this happens, majority members may no longer feel the same “discomfort”, or the same motivation to try to think through the minority’s alternative viewpoint.

    So, where possible, agree consistent messages with the like-minded individuals, and avoid contradicting them unless you feel you have to.

Don’t confuse being consistent and showing commitment with being rigid and repetitive. You need to be flexible – adopting good comments and suggestions where appropriate – and still remain consistent overall.

  • Emphasize Diversity

    A minority group’s influence is often reinforced when members come from different backgrounds. For example, when someone from production and someone from finance both have the same minority viewpoint, the impact on a majority audience is usually greater than if both people came from production. So look for allies in different places, and not just amongst your “natural friends”.

    It’s also good to show that, as a minority, you remain open to different proposals from the majority. “Give and take” like this often leads to a mutually satisfying outcome.

  • Be the “Acceptable Face” of Difference

    Ideally, the minority needs to find the happy balance between offering an alternative point of view that’s clearly different from the majority’s position, and ensuring a perception that the minority group members are themselves still integrated into the majority group. For example, governments are often more likely swayed by environmental arguments put forward by lobbying from minority “green party” politicians (people like themselves, albeit with different views) than by environmental activists holding a noisy demonstration (people they perceive both as different from themselves andholding different views).

    So if you consider that there’s a risk you may be perceived as different from the majority in more ways than just your views on the matter under discussion, look for similarities and find ways to emphasize them.

Specific Approaches

Different strategies are possible for developing minority influence. One of the more conventional strategies is for the minority to first appear to conform to the majority view, win acceptance, and then gradually move towards an alternative point of view. Because the minority would be trusted as “one of us” by the majority, the majority would be more open to the minority’s new ideas as they develop.

However, it’s not always necessary to “win friends” in order to influence people, although you may need to accept being unpopular if you disagree with a majority head-on. The situation, and your determination, will determine which strategy works best for you.

Another approach is to sacrifice some small points in order to win the one that matters to you most. For example, imagine you’re in a meeting to decide whether or not to approve five separate projects. You think that projects one and two are weak, but the fifth one would be an absolute disaster. The other people in the meeting are in favor of approving projects one and two but you decide to keep quiet about your objections to these to “save” your protest for the fifth project.

Here, you’re reasoning that if you voiced your objections to projects one and two, you’d risk being marked down by the others as “difficult”, and the others would be less interested in your opinions by the time you got to project five.

A Look Behind the Scenes

Remember the points above as we take another look at our earlier example with Rick and Alison.

Both are board members (who are similar to the majority). Their point of view is that the company should appoint a “customer delight” manager at a senior level to get the business back in touch with market needs and wants. The other board members were against this because of cost. Rick works in fast-food logistics, and Alison is from finance (diverse backgrounds). During the discussion, Rick and Alison expressed the same point of view (consistency) while offering different comments on how the customer delight manager could benefit the company (flexibility). They welcomed the suggestion of Tom, another board member, to investigate hiring someone to look after both customer delight and after-sales service (openness). They had already raised the issue at a previous board meeting – and now, at this meeting, they offered the same point of view and added a few more good reasons (commitment).

Rick and Alison set the scene in a way that maximized their minority influence. To present their arguments to the board, they may also have used techniques found in our articles on the Rhetorical Triangle and the power of persuasion.

Key Points

Minority influence happens when a majority is persuaded to accept the beliefs or behavior of a minority. Unlike other forms of influence, the result is often a real shift in opinion, rather than just superficial, or outward, compliance.

Minority influence has the best chance of succeeding if the majority sees the minority as consistent and flexible. It also helps if minority group members have diverse backgrounds and are similar to the majority group that’s to be influenced.

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