I Like Your Style, You’re Just Like Me

Apostrophe Absent. By Michael Derr
Apostrophe Absent. Photo courtesy of Michael Derr.

Are you compatible with your organizational culture?  I sure hope not.  You need the freedom to break from the pack in order to pass along new information and adapt to disruptive change.

In the 2011 book Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, the authors describe the way opinions and behaviors spread through social networks.  They describe a Three Degrees of Influence rule: we influence and are influenced by people three degrees removed from us, most of whom we do not even know.

You might know one hundred people, but those people may know another one hundred people (each), and so on.  This could result in a million people crowd-sourcing shared opinions.  You would pick up many opinions from this extended network.  The reverse is true as well.  You could spontaneously assert that we should have all better table manners, and a million people might change their behaviors.  Or maybe they’ll just talk about having better manners.

The implication is that you do not entirely experience independent thought.  You might control what time you arrive at work, what garments to wear to the office, and how you respond emotionally to what  your manager just said.  But the allocation of housework in your household, the social norms in appropriate dress, and the organizational culture of two-way conversation could all be things that have significant third-party influence.  You’re not exactly an autonomous hero in the workplace; you are a team-player in an environment where culture runs deep.

This critique has been revisited in a recent book review in which Yuval Harari summarizes The Knowledge Illusion by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach.  Sloman and Ferbach posit that individual thinking is a myth, and that we actually think in groups.  With modern civilization we have come to rely increasingly on the expertise of others.  This crowd-think has mostly been good for us, but it also has a downside.  People “…lock themselves inside an echo chamber of like-minded friends and self-confirming newsfeeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged.”

Group loyalty and pride in our presumed intelligence causes us to stick to the normal way of doing things.  This is a challenge to those of us who produce or consume new information.  New information and new ideas disrupt stable group environments.  If we are trying to change the workplace so that things are done differently, we must exchange discomforting opinions.  We must propose ideas that will be rejected.  We must try things out that won’t work.

Are You Blinded By Your Own Smarts?

Then he laughed into my eyes. By Josh Pesavento
Then he laughed into my eyes.  Photo courtesy of Jose Pesavento.

Too much knowledge can turn you into an idiot.  The curse of knowledge is that problem where experts in a field are unable to explain their great knowledge to a lay audience, because they can’t bring it down to earth.  The speaker might have good information about the base knowledge of their audience, but they just don’t “get” that their audience hasn’t taken the introductory course in their subject area.  It’s odd that someone can be highly esteemed for their knowledge, yet get short-tempered with the very people who hold them in high regard.  I think this is why it’s so hard for experts in two different fields to communicate with one another.  There is a special skill set in talking to intelligent people who don’t understand what it is that you do.

You’re Smarter Than You Were an Hour Ago

Rear-view mirror of Zion Mountains, by daveynin
Rear-view mirror of Zion Mountains, by daveynin.

One of the greatest adventures in uncovering new information is the clash between our new ways of thinking and the opinions we had moments prior.  Our brains play tricks on us, through cognitive fallacies, when dealing with disruptive evidence.

One such fallacy is called “hindsight bias,” a kind of knew-it-all-along effect.  I have given complex and novel findings to clients who quickly proclaim that the information is basic and obvious in some way.  Sometimes it is basic and obvious, but quite often they had opposite views minutes earlier.  Learning and research can be thankless because it is so common for smart people to quickly absorb new information.  They don’t recall being ignorant.  If they do remember being ignorant, they’re not tempted to draw attention to it.

Those who neglect to pursue new knowledge and feed their curiosity become less savvy over time.  The times change, people change, and evidence shifts.  People who figured out the ways of the world many years ago start to lose their grip.  They have dubious clothing, haircuts, and social views.  They overlook emerging evidence.

Real smarts are not really about having a vault of information; it is the act of striving to explore.  I watch new data make its way through the organization, with little or no attribution to me or the original source.  Things quickly become known.  The culture becomes smarter.  It is quietly satisfying.