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stupid people in large groups September 18, 2009

Posted by That Guy in Conference Call, Experiences, Meeting Minutes, Pictures.
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You’ve probably seen this:

You can purchase this poster at Despair.com.

You can purchase this poster at Despair.com.

And you’ve probably also heard this:

The IQ of a crowd is equal to the IQ of its least-intelligent member divided by the number of individuals in the crowd.

The same thing applies to any meeting you’re in — the smaller the group, the smarter it is, and there’ll be an equivalently-smaller number of stupid questions. But get into a large group…

Here are two notable examples from my own experience:

Weekly Technology Conference Call: At my previous job, one of my tasks was to sit in on (and occasionally contribute to) the weekly technology conference call where Dan, the head of the technology group, would let us know about updates and changes to our web apps and allow us to ask any questions we deemed necessary so we could disseminate that information to our employees. Good plan, right?

Nope. Because there were 20 of us on the call plus Dan, and it was always Roy in Salt Lake City who had to ask specific questions about how updates to TOM, our primary internal database app, would affect his customers in SLC. Complete with examples. And Roy had such a booming, deep voice that even though he would say “Dan, this is Roy in Utah” we all immediately (a) knew it was him and (b) tuned out for the next five minutes while Roy and Dan haggled over tiny points that were irrelevant to everyone else.

Mercury Meeting: Yesterday’s post about CorporateSpeak’s new Mercury system covers what happens in big meetings here at CS. Pretty much everyone starts asking stupider and stupider questions until one person asks the one smart question that shuts everyone up. I hate being that guy, but I usually have to do it.

Meanwhile, I’ve spoken before about how the derailer (ie: Roy) can be fought off. That only works in a small meeting, though; in a large meeting, people are afraid to gang up on the person asking stupid questions. It’s because of one of my favorite communication principles*, the spiral of silence:

The spiral of silence is a political science and mass communication theory propounded by the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. The theory asserts that a person is less likely to voice an opinion on a topic if one feels that one is in the minority for fear of reprisal or isolation from the majority.

I should write a whole post about the spiral of silence. Maybe I will. But for now, just know that it will happen in every big meeting you’re in. No one will tell Roy to shut up — not even Dan, the meeting moderator. I wonder if my replacement at my old job is still tuning Roy out.

He** probably is.

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* In college, I wrote a paper about how it’s not actually a theory because theories must describe, explain, and predict, and the spiral of silence in and of itself does not explain — at least, if I remember correctly, that was my position. I got an A, so I must have either gotten it right or done a spectacular job of BSing the professor.

** I happen to know it’s a man, which is why I don’t use a gender-neutral assignation here.

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