The power of the misfit

Professor Smaranda Boros argues how dissidents have the power to change the world by challenging current beliefs and pointing to errors in our unquestioned assumptions

Smaranda Boros

By Smaranda Boros

Professor of Organisational Behaviour

29 August 2022

Ever felt like the odd one out in your organisation or team? Like you don’t fully fit in with the others or the mainstream organisational culture? Ever left a meeting mesmerised by how easily consensus is reached, and how some vital information seems too easily ignored? And yet, you stayed silent, or gave up after an attempt that received a response clearly showing the others didn’t understand - or want to understand – what you were saying? You are not alone.


Source: Management Team; 20/07/2022

The emperor has no clothes

The need to fit in is a common theme in organisational life. On the one hand, organisations are actively selecting people who fit well with the culture. In that way, organisations behave like complex systems that strive toward maintaining the status quo. Implicitly, this creates a majority who will keep doing things ‘our way’ – and who will inadvertently select and promote more people who think like them – and, quite often, who look like them. The implications for increasing diversity of thought in organisations, and for opening the door to historically marginalised minorities are immediately obvious[1]. But leaving that aside for the moment, what do you do if you are that person who thinks differently – how do you get yourself to shout ‘the emperor has no clothes’ without loosing status, popularity and becoming – if not a pariah, then at least isolated?

Eppur si muove

The French social psychologist Serge Moscovici opened the field of studying the answer to this question more than half a century ago, with his research on minority influence. The premise was simple: change in society and organisations is less often brought about by majority members, who generally want to preserve the group harmony and their own position. Instead, it is minorities who can plant the seed of doubt – and with that, open the door for paradigm change (a classical example was that of Galileo’s famous words ‘Eppur si muove!’ – ‘And yet, it moves’, after being forced to recant his claims that the Earth moves around the Sun, rather than the converse). In today’s world, we need more than ever these minorities who challenge current beliefs and point to errors in our unquestioned assumptions, if we are to overcome the current intractable dilemmas that surround topics of sustainable business, climate crisis, social equality, escalation of global conflicts and tensions.

7 tips for successful dissidents

So if you want to exert power as a misfit in your group, what do you need to do? Here are the key tips research has validated on how to dissent like a pro:

  • Be visible and draw attention to the problem. It all starts with breaking the silence.
  • Negotiate similarity and difference with the other members of the group. If you are seen as completely different from the others (e.g., the token woman), your influence becomes very difficult; so step one is to highlight the similarities between you, in order to create lenience towards your dissenting opinion.
  • Create seeds of discontent; dare to interrupt established norms and spark up uncertainty in the mind of the others.
  • Simultaneously, point to the existence of a coherent alternative.
  • Imply that the only way to solve the discrepancy is that the majority reconsiders its initial position.
  • Exhibit certainty, trust and commitment to your point of view.
  • Be consistent and do not give in. Stay the course. This might seem counter attitudinal and you think that if you give in here and there, you will gain sway. This is not true for minority influence.

Consistency is key

If you are a minority trying to exert influence, then consistency is key[2]. Minorities have the most influence when they are consistent and maintain their viewpoint over time. Furthermore, consistency triggers an attribution of confidence: “This person seems confident in their opinion, let me reflect on it a bit more – have I missed something?”. Through triggering the majority to reflect deeper on the issue instead of going on the well-worn path of habit, you help complex thinking, search for information to build the big picture. Even if the others will reflect more on the issue and search for info just to shoot down your proposal, you have achieved, as the misfit, to get them to think.

One of the most fascinating bits that research showed here is that even if the majority will not change their mind on the spot, they usually change their attitudes in a related topic (this is called indirect change) in the short time. More importantly, research shows that those who have accepted this indirect change on the spot are more likely to also change their focal attitude (i.e., what you originally tried to influence a change in) with time. This is because attitudes are not floating alone in space, but are part of larger attitudinal structures, and we constantly strive for consistency (and not, sadly, rationality, as we like to believe). So in order to rebalance our structure where an attitude has changed, we are likely to change more attitudes in time.

Sadly, this does not mean that you will get recognition for the influence you exerted. Usually, change sparked by minority opinions are easier if the misfit leaves the group – in which case the tension that comes with the process goes with them, but the change in thinking remains. The power to influence a majority to change course means that you are willing to go all the way for your beliefs – just so you can leave a legacy behind and spark meaningful change. The power of the misfit is the power to change the world, not the promise of the happily ever after.

[1] In this article, I am talking about minorities of opinion or thought, and will leave the more complex discussion of the double minority (i.e., you are an outsider to the group and you challenge the group with different worldviews) for part 2 of the discussion on minority influence.

[2] One caveat on staying the course and remaining consistent in your arguing: dogmatism is the end of it all. If you are seen as dogmatic when you argue, by for instance resorting to mindless repetition, you lost your power. So argue in a flexible way – i.e., alternate between more than one counter-argument while maintaining the consistency of your viewpoint.

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Smaranda Boros

Smaranda Boros

Professor of Intercultural Management and Organisational Behaviour