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Beware of “Nodding Along Syndrome”

A common challenge that emerges when pursuing change in organisations is that of illusory agreement. This can manifest itself in many ways, and it’s likely that you will have experienced it yourself. Perhaps a meeting is held where it genuinely appears that consensus has been reached on a tricky subject, but fast forward a month and the cracks begin to show. Stakeholders are in conflict, each retrospectively expressing a very different perspective over what was supposedly “agreed”…  it’s like the meeting never happened at all!

There are many reasons why this unfortunate situation might have occurred and as Business Analysts it’s crucial that we look out for the subtle but important warning signs. One particularly troubling pattern we might refer to as Nodding Along Syndrome (NAS). This occurs when a stakeholder, colleague or even a senior decision maker, signals agreement or understanding by nodding during a discussion but hasn’t thoroughly considered the items being discussed. Perhaps they agree at a surface level but don’t understand the detail, so to “save face” they smile and nod along noncommittally. It is possible that they are nodding to show recognition of what is being said but not to show agreement. Other meeting participants make a tacit assumption that nodding equals agreement when this isn’t actually correct. After reflection and consideration of further information, there may be little or no agreement, resulting in overturned decisions and even conflict.

NAS is subtle in that on the surface it doesn’t seem that problematic. However, the risks associated with NAS are extensive and it can cause real practical issues. It may begin with a small and largely inconsequential misunderstanding but, without correction, may extend to become disruptive with attendant significant consequences. Since the first (small) misunderstanding wasn’t addressed, further conversations are built upon a set of implicit and possibly incorrect assumptions. Something that would have once been a quick clarification is now tangled into a complex web of misunderstandings in a stakeholder’s head—and like a skyscraper built upon sand it is only a matter of time before things come noisily crashing down. Even worse, by this point stakeholders may feel entrenched in their views and keen to maintain stated positions. There may be too much political capital at sake for them to admit that they had misunderstood the original discussion and had given misleading tacit acceptance of the decisions made.

The NAS phenomenon occurs whenever someone is under pressure so arises in various forms – to make a decision, to confirm understanding, to acquire knowledge, are just some of the many examples. While this is clearly an issue for organisations and projects it can also impact individuals. “Nodding long”, rather than seeking understanding, robs the “nodder” of the opportunity to learn. Worse still, it hides the very human vulnerability that we all have:  If a manager feels that they must “show no weakness” and certainly not admit a gap in their knowledge, what message does this send to their staff?

Business Analysts tend to have a finely attuned radar that is alert to potential stakeholder issues. We might pick up on non-verbal cues—someone’s eyes gloss over as they are nodding for example—and adapt our approach accordingly. Seeing evidence of multitasking in a meeting (whether a virtual or real-world meeting) is another warning sign. If our stakeholders aren’t attentive, how can their ‘nods’ be interpreted as authentic and reliable?  How can we be sure they know what they are agreeing to?  They may well have inadvertently missed something crucial.

If we suspect that we have spotted an incidence of NAS we might choose to call out the issue being discussed and dissect it. We might subtly change gear, saying something like:

“I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page here. I think we’re agreeing to XYZ, for the reasons A, B & C. Is that correct? Have I missed anything?”

We probe and prod and in doing so make it easy for someone to raise a different view or to expose where a tacit assumption has been made. We make the implicit explicit which creates the conditions for openness, transparency and greater understanding.

Of course, it’s important to note that it isn’t just stakeholders who engage in NAS — as Business Analysts we might slip into the trap too. Self-awareness, reflection and focussing on really listening (as opposed to just hearing) will help us avoid this. As we gain awareness of where we as individual practitioners engage in NAS, this will strengthen our ability to see the pattern in others too.

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