Don’t get trapped in your echo-chamber

Communication  Learning
06 November, 2017

The value of “diversity tension” and hearing the other side of the story

Remember the first time you discovered an echo? And you were fascinated by how when you shouted out something, it came bouncing back at you from all directions?  And if you did it again and again, trying out new combinations and each time, it came back. It was exactly what you said, just a bit louder or a bit fainter, depending on the space you were in.

As a leader, do you also enjoy listening to your echo?

Think hard about this. Do you actually seek out differing opinions? Do you actively try to create an environment where ideas can be challenged? Or do you tend to cut off people mid-way in a meeting? Do you discourage your team members from sharing information with other functions? Do you take up a lot of air time in meetings?  Do you hesitate to admit when you are wrong?

Whether we are willing to accept it or not, many of us get stuck in our own echo-chamber. We feel comfortable and surround ourselves with people like us. We start to enjoy listening more and more to our own voices (especially the more senior we get). We keep on reinforcing the status quo, as that feels safe. We start rejecting new ideas or fresh perspectives, making excuses along the way.

Drawing from this, my message this week is on the dangers of the ‘echo-chamber effect’ – why you should be on the watch out for this and what you can do to ensure that you don’t end up trapped in it.

Why do you need to be concerned about echo-chambers?

Because they are a real thing and there’s a good chance that they are probably springing up in different forms all around you. Also, because the effects of such echo-chambers can be much more damaging that you may realise, both to you as an individual, as well as, by extension, to your team and organisation. Here is why:

1. You can’t recognise your blind spots any more

This is arguably one of the biggest worries with echo-chambers. If you’re fostering an environment where all you hear is what you want to or like to hear, then you’re going to end up very insular and unaware of what your blind spots are. Taken to an extreme, you may actually start believing that they are strengths. It can deeply affect how you take decisions and build relationships as a leader.

2. Differing opinions become completely irrelevant

You just don’t see other points of view. You’re so caught up in the echo-chamber, that you become quite oblivious to anything but your own perspectives. You can’t even seek alternative opinions because you’re quite unaware that they exist. People around you will also be less inclined to come to you with anything that may open up a debate, so it pretty much ends up being a vicious cycle of no questioning.

3. Your points of view tend to become more extreme

Research shows that the more time that like-minded people spend discussing a point of view, the more likely they are to tend towards a more extreme perspective overall. You can see this reflected in some ways on very vocal Facebook conversation threads.

4. You form an exaggerated sense of self-worth

Leaders trapped in echo-chambers really let themselves believe that their ideas are the only ones that matter and that they are also the best. They will convince themselves that they are above reproach and that they are actually superior in many ways to the people around them. One of the aspects of The Godrej Way that we have been focusing on, is the need to be humble and how this is becoming increasingly crucial to the success of leaders.

5. You miss out on new ideas and opportunities

Not surprisingly, echo-chambers stifle innovation and experimentation, which are also the very things that we believe form our competitive advantage as a business. To continue to be successful, we need to break out of silos, and adapt and innovate faster and better.

So, given just how dangerous echo-chambers can be, what can you do to break out of one? 

Here are some suggestions on how you can go about identifying and then working around the trap of echo-chambers:

1. Find your echo-chambers

The thing about echo-chambers is that you’re not likely to realise very easily that you’re living within one. The boomeranging similarities are comforting and self-perpetuating. It’s likely in fact to be what gives you a lot of reassurance; you may be well enjoying and encouraging this space. So, the first step really is to figure out if you are trapped within one or not. You will have to step back and introspect more deeply on this.

2. Foster a more inclusive culture

As leaders, we need to very actively foster a culture where we really encourage people to be their ‘whole selves’ and that includes being different from one another. We have to get much better at encouraging healthy debate, asking for contradictory points of view, and appreciating people who do all of this – and do it while being respectful.

Becoming more diverse and inclusive is imperative for us to drive design thinking and innovation, which is critical to our success as a company. Our multi-local approach to running our businesses also necessitates that we are able to appreciate and more than that, actively draw from local nuances. We don’t want to have a one-size-fits-all approach. So, to make this possible, we must have shared trust and agree to disagree – to draw from ‘diversity tension’, as Marshall Goldsmith put it.

We must attempt to increase, not quell, the tension that is so inherent to differences. We must use it to innovate and push our boundaries to grow even faster and better. We want people who join us to help change our culture and make it more inclusive, not conform to it.

3. Become more inquisitive

When was the last time you did something for the first time? Echo-chambers tend to leave you caught up in doing and hearing the same thing over and over again. So, to break out of this, ask more questions, meet more people, travel to more places. Basically, experiment much more and become much more inquisitive. The more you look actively to learn, the more you will find ‘different’, even opposing things, less abrasive and more approachable. Making this shift in perspective can be very helpful in opening yourself up to new experiences.

4. Don’t be a victim of the algorithms

Much has been written about how the algorithms of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter basically build you into an online echo-chamber. Every time you choose to watch or like or follow an article or vide or post or page, your preferences are being tracked and more of such similar content is pushed out to you. So, whether it is politics or economics or fashion, you’re likely to hear only one side of the story; a side that you would be most likely to enjoy and agree with. Given that isn’t changing anytime now – and there’s no avoiding the impact and influence of online platforms – you should consider shifting this around. Start being more conscious of what you are following and liking and build in some newer pieces, or pieces with differing points of view. Do this more often and you should see a switch in the kind of suggested data that shows up on these platforms.

5. Reflect

We all come with our set of biases, which if left unchecked, can impact our effectiveness as leaders and keep us from making objective decisions. Use these new inputs and perspectives to reflect on your approach and become a better leader. Think about some of the assumptions you have been making, how that impacts your choices, and what you could do better with a deeper, more rounded understanding of people and experiences. You can read more about combating unconscious bias in an earlier blog post.

As always, I look forward to your perspectives.

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