The Innocent World of Comfortable Ideas

Discomfort of Innocence, by Mohammed alalawi - Copy
Discomfort of Innocence.  Photo by Mohammed Alalawi

Why do you hang out with people like you?  Because you have to be friends with your friends’ friends.  Society does not give you permission to dislike (or not know) your friends-of-friends.  It’s called the forbidden triad.  There is a complex quantitative puzzle involving triangles with plus and minus signs, all coded and ready for an elaborate statistical analysis.  You can peek at the math in this October 2016 overview of the research by Dustin Stoltz, a PhD candidate at University of Notre Dame.

But back to people.  The main problem is cognitive dissonance, that feeling you get when you are obliged to maintain two contradictory opinions at the same time.  An example may be that you both love and hate a particular family member, politician, or manager in your workplace.  Cognitive dissonance makes you uncomfortable, and you aspire to greater comfort.  Therefore, you will choose between contradictory opinions and let one prevail over the other.  So, you decide that you like that complex person.  If you then meet a third-party who dislikes that person, you have to even-out the triangle.  You will be motivated to change the third person’s mind, change your own mind, or just stop hanging out with the third party.    If everyone does this, friendships and world views will evolve within cliques that are internally consistent, comfortable, and smug.  But that’s not so clever.

That is because social networks are held together by people who choose to maintain contradictory opinions.  They foster civil dialogue, cultivate plurality, and agree to disagree.  It’s not so much that they are smarter, although that may still be the case.  It’s that the exploration of the best information and the most diverse opinions guarantees contradiction.  You will find attributes that seem contradictory but not mutually exclusive, such as sensitivity and courage.  You will find rival facts, such as the prevailing research on global warming and colder winters in your own locale.  And there will be facts that change quickly, such the price of oil or a change of government.

Workforce Analytics and the Workplace Culture of Curiosity and Discomfort

If you place comfort ahead of maximum information, then you have to insulate yourself from contradiction.  Yet this can be a big mistake in the modern world.  How could you possibly choose a stable mindset when the amount of information is exploding, technology is disrupting everything, and ideas and opinions go round the world in a heartbeat.  It’s a wild and crazy world we live in.  You must choose discomfort, and reject the allure of smug.

In workforce analytics, there is a great divide between colleagues and clients who are curious about new information and those who are not.  It often feels like I exclusively support those hungry for the new, who like the challenge, who want to pick up a few tricks.  Yet those who are more settled in their views or slower to change need to be brought along for the ride.  That is because at the center of the social network people are obliged to commit to, and support, prevailing views.  They tend to agree with one another just like you might do with your own friends.  Looking outward to the fringes of the network, you might see a wider variety of irregular opinions, trends, and opportunities.  The fringe is full of people who are removed from the network in some way, be it marginal legal status, geographic isolation, exclusion, or just looking different.  To bring diverse views from the fringe to the center (and vice-versa) obliges us to maintain contradictory opinions.

The prescription that we must become uncomfortable applies equally to social trends, new technology, and disruptive workforce analytics.  In your workplace, you may have had one opinion for a very long time.  When you are presented with change or new evidence, it is one thing to simply obey orders or comply with the data.  But if you really want to be clever, it is far better to hold onto that moment of discomfort for a while to get a sense of what everyone else is going through.  Only then can you talk to diverse people who think and live in different worlds.  And only then can you fine-tune new evidence to make it presentable to a broader audience.

If we are to disrupt normal ways of doing things through emerging information, we must stand at the bridge between two worlds, be prepared to disrupt ourselves, and get used to discomfort.

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.

What You Figure Out Before Your Boss Tells You

Dominoes, by Jacqui Brown, cropped
Dominoes, by Jacqui Brown.  Cropped.

There is an emerging opinion that things get done in an organization more through social networks and less through the chain of command.  The best place to start on this topic is the great Wikipedia article which sets you up with the basics.  In brief, you are only partially a person who does the work in your job description under the orders of your manager.

An alternate way of thinking about this is that you pass along opportunities, ideas, and opinions through the web of people you know.  These are the people you meet around the office, at the coffee station, at lunch, or in the lead-up to meetings.  It’s not just your friends, but your friends-of-friends and beyond.  This environment – the social network – is a force to be reckoned with and can be more powerful than the chain of command.  Having a diverse network, keeping tabs on old friends, and talking with people who unsettle your complacent views are the things you need to stay in the game.

One of the areas where social networks are most powerful is in the transmission of new information.  If you can keep a good rapport with people who can feed you data, this is a good idea regardless of whether it is in your job description.  And those who create the information need that larger network of data consumers to give their new findings some reach.  We need each other.