Silence is NOT Consensus!

Dagmar   Cole
Dagmar Cole Business Analyst / Project Manager, Read Author Bio || Read All Articles by Dagmar Cole

A new Business Analyst (BA) lamented to me the other day that she was shocked when the team rejected the business rules she delivered. "I just don't understand! In the meeting, EVERYONE agreed to these business rules!" The term 'everyone' caught my attention. I asked her, "When you say, 'everyone agreed,' did they say they agreed, or did you assume they agreed?" She looked at me surprised and replied, "No one disagreed in the meeting, so they must have all been in agreement, right?"

A core skill for BAs is the ability to elicit information from stakeholders. Unfortunately, BAs can fall into the trap that "silence is consensus" and assume there is consensus when there is not. They have been deceived by the psychological phenomenon known as Pluralistic Ignorance and its bad buddy, the Bystander Effect.

In my Calculus class, the professor lectured on natural logarithms based on an irrational and transcendental number; I descended into a transcendental state of irrational panic as I was unable to follow the lesson. I looked around me; every classmate sat nodding in understanding. Alone and feeling like a dunce, I raised my hand and confessed, "I'm lost!" The professor voiced her displeasure having to repeat the lesson for one student followed by smug smiles from my classmates. After class, the other students thanked me as they were also confused. I was mystified. Why didn't anyone else ask for help? I later learned; I was involved in the perfect examples of Pluralistic Ignorance and the Bystander Effect.

Pluralistic Ignorance is a phenomenon where "no one believes, but everyone thinks that everyone believes."[1] Each individual privately holds an opinion they incorrectly perceive the group does not share and they are the only one with the dissenting voice. With the Bystander Effect, the larger the group, the more likely individuals will "stand by" silently because they are waiting for someone else to act. Often, no one does. Just as I did not want to appear to be the only person who did not understand natural logs, your stakeholders do not want to appear to be the only one who disagrees with the team. The result? A team collectively provides inaccurate data and makes poor decisions.

As BAs, we need to master the skills to monitor and diagnose the mood of each meeting. The BA needs to recognize that silence is not consensus but may be resistance. The team is not agreeing; rather, fear is suppressing their action to bring up an opposing perspective. The BA needs to provoke action such as questioning various stakeholders to confirm their position and provoke stakeholder discussion. In addition, the BA needs to practice mindfulness to be aware of the silent lapses and, unafraid, speak up when the group goes quiet.

You may not get an "A" in Calculus, but you should get accepted business rules!


[1] David Krech and Richard S Crutchfield, Theories and Problems of Social Psychology, New York: McGraw-Hill (1948), pp. 388 – 389.

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Standard citation for this article:

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Dagmar Cole, "Silence is NOT Consensus!" Business Rules Journal, Vol. 20, No. 10, (Oct. 2019)

About our Contributor:

Dagmar   Cole
Dagmar Cole Business Analyst / Project Manager,

Dagmar Cole has over twenty years of experience working in all facets of the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC). Her interest in applying quantitative management techniques to software began at George Mason University. While majoring in Decision Science, she published a paper on Software Quality Assurance. Later, she published her master's thesis in strategic information systems planning at Marymount University.

As a business analyst and project manager, Dagmar continues her quest to apply quantitative techniques to the SDLC. She is an active member of the Fort Worth Chapter of IIBA and was a speaker at the IIBA BBC 2015 conference. She also has extensive training in conflict resolution and is returning to the IIBA BBC conference in 2016 to discuss conflict resolution.

Read All Articles by Dagmar Cole

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