I recently read Ellen Galinsky’s article in Harvard Business Review, “Getting Beyond Fear”. The author refers to a situation in which a woman is about to make her first presentation to her Board of Directors on the importance of diversity in the workplace. She is confident about her presentation, but when she enters the boardroom and sees all the serious faces, she immediately loses that confidence. She is interpreting their facial expressions and making assumptions that they will not be receptive to her ideas. This is an example of social referencing.
Social referencing is the ability to search for and to use social signals to guide one’s behavior in a new situation.
Galinsky makes the point of saying that even if one is “well prepared, if others aren’t supportive, our confidence is affected.”
What is the best approach then to introduce new ideas to a group when we are unsure of their position?
My suggestion is to set up individual meetings with the board members ahead of time to acquaint them with your agenda and solicit feedback. Building consensus beforehand helps your confidence and ability to present new ideas. Try to find at least one champion in the group; someone who will support you in your efforts to present and implement new concepts.
One person nodding their head favorably will not only give you confidence to introduce your ideas, but will affect the receptivity of the rest of the group. This is a good way to have social referencing work for you. It often only takes one person’s body language or outward approval to affect the overall behavior of the group.