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Last week I had the good fortune to meet a postgraduate class studying organisational and social psychology at the LSE to discuss the practical applications of various strands of psychology in coaching. This blog is the first in a series building on this conversation.

Of course we are all familiar with the Cognitive Behavioural approaches – holding a mirror to clients’ thinking and helping them acquire and practise new habits are excellent starting points. But there are many other theories – mainly from social psychology – that are really useful, especially when working with teams, or when leaders need to engage followers in innovative ways. Today, let’s discuss Minority Influence.

Do you remember 12 angry men? – How Henry Fonda patiently seeds doubt in the mind of the 11 other jurors and then convinces them of just the possibility of another verdict? This is Minority Influence in action… The theory was developed by Serge Moscovici (no family connection!) in the late 60s and went against the thinking of the time: received wisdom was that the pressure to conform to the majority view was such, that minorities didn’t stand a chance. Moscovici demonstrated through laboratory experiments that minority groups could change the opinion of a majority. This in turn explained regular occurrences in history: think suffragettes or gay rights for example. Research since then has demonstrated that four attitudes favour the emergence of strong minority influence:

  • Consistency: confronted with a consistent opposition, members of the majority will sit up, take notice, and rethink their position. Consistency needs to be high over time as well as between minority group members. Consistency is reinforced if minority members appear confident and resist social pressures to conform (including various forms of abuse or bullying)
  • Flexibility: consistency must be moderated by the need not to appear dogmatic; perhaps negotiating a first step solution that is still clearly aligned with the values of the minority. This is much better than being ‘right but not listened to’. The minority view can progress from there
  • Engaging the majority in thinking: a clash of ideas may initially appear as stubborn on each side. Minorities stand a much better chance of changing minds if they use their skills and ‘charm’ to engage the majority in thinking and empathy as opposed to simply arguing – this creates the first crack in the majority’s existing model of the world
  • Identification with the minority: If the majority identifies with the minority, it is more likely to empathise with their views and be susceptible to change. Finding a common denominator is therefore essential (values, group, culture, etc.)

This has profound implications for coaching and leadership work. Many of the models of minorities eventually winning the day are essentially heroic and derived from David against Goliath. The myth of the isolated hero winning against impossible odds of course makes for a great film or novel and reinforces the trait approach: if you are not that hero, then what can you do? Learned helplessness is not far behind.

The key word in this theory is influence and the coach’s role is to help their clients develop professional influencing skills applied through a pragmatic plan. In other words, to use cognitive and behavioural techniques to support a social model. A nice way to go full circle.

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