False consensus: Why trainers tend to overestimate buy-in
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False consensus: Why trainers tend to overestimate buy-in

You’ve just completed some powerful training. It’s obviously going to make the folks you trained safer, richer, more successful. On the evaluation forms, everyone says they can’t wait to take these new insights back to their jobs.

Don’t kid yourself.

Research suggests that trainers are likely to overestimate how much buy-in they’re getting from trainees.

The reason: the “false-consensus effect” – which isn’t just limited to trainers. Numerous studies show we all have a strong bias toward believing that other people are just like us. Examples:

  • Happy people think most people are emotionally satisfied.
  • Stock analysts think more of their peers agree with their analyses than is actually the case.
  • Blue-eyed people even overestimate the number of other blue-eyed people.

Three fallacies about buy-in
Here are three fallacies that trainers may fall victim to as a result of the false consensus effect:

1. “I know it’s important, so they’ll understand it’s important, too.” Say you’re a safety trainer who wants machine operators to use wrist restraints.

You’ve seen grisly accidents caused by reaching into a machine. If you ask, your workers will agree their hands shouldn’t get chewed up. You think, “OK, I’ve made the point.” But your trainees are thinking something else: “I’m not wearing a leash, but I’ll nod and say yes.”

Suggestion: Assume the worst. Invite people to challenge your assumptions. Or you can bring up objections yourself: “How many people are uncomfortable with the idea of restraints?”

2. “The feedback was positive.” Avoid measuring buy-in by what people say. Behavior is a better indicator.

And not just short-term behavior. Sure everybody is using wrist restraints. That doesn’t mean they bought in. Maybe they know they’re being watched. Maybe they’re giving it a try to see how it goes.

Solution: Prepare to follow up in the field – a lot. Behavior change takes at least three weeks, with regular enforcement afterward. You are looking for behaviors over time – a single action is merely a good start.

3. “Buy-in comes before behavior change.” You know the importance of what you’re teaching. But the people you’re training are skeptical. So you have to sell them on the change before they’ll adopt it, right?

Not necessarily. How many times have you rejected an idea at first, only to accept it after you’ve tried it out. Sustained behavior change – even if it begins with skepticism – will often lead to buy-in.

Solution: You don’t need to get total buy in on the front end. You just need people to agree to do the behaviors. Once the behavior takes root, conduct follow up training to revisit the “reasons why.”

White, Jared, “Information Aggregation and the False Consensus Effect,” presented at the 2011 Penn State Accounting Research Conference.

Ross, Lee, “The ‘False Consensus Effect’: An Egocentric Bias in Social Perception and Attribution Processes.” Journal of Experimental Psychology 13, pp. 279-302, 1977.

Gershoff, Andrew, et al, “What’s Not to Like? Preference Asymmetry in the False Consensus Effect,” Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 38, pp. 119-125, June 2008.

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