Diverse Thought Prevents Dangerous Echo Chambers

by | Nov 5, 2018 | Leadership & Personal Development

This blog is part I of a five-part series on the theme of ‘Valuing Your Difference: Your “Shortcomings” Are Your Superpowers’. It is based on the presentation of that title delivered at Nottingham UK’s #WomenInTech event in October 2018.

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We all know the importance of diversity in the workplace. Whilst it is essential from an equal opportunity standpoint alone, the commerical incentives for businesses are compelling.

According to Catalyst’s report, The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards, on average, companies with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the least by 53 percent. That’s a huge performance jump for diverse decision-making groups. 

Despite this evidence, we are all guilty of falling into groupthink at times. It is especially difficult to avoid when you represent the minority; always having an opinion that challenges the collective mind is exhausting. This is true whether you’re an employee, board member or entrepreneur challenging the status quo.

Valuing your own unique skills, experience and beliefs is the foundation layer for fostering diverse thought in business, politics and education. It is by first respecting and giving power to our own voice, and then encouraging others to do the same, that we can create inclusive environments for progress and avoid dangerous echo chambers.

What is an echo chamber?

If everyone in the room thinks the same way, it creates an echo chamber. As a result, progress is not bred in an echo chamber. Instead, the collective minds reinforce the same opinions until they are presumed fact. Techopedia describes the term as —

an “Echo chamber” is a term widely used in today’s lexicon, that describes a situation where certain ideas, beliefs or data points are reinforced through repetition of a closed system that does not allow for the free movement of alternative or competing ideas or concepts.

Echo chambers cause groups of people to make dangerous decisions, as they become so confident in their collective opinion that they don’t see what could go wrong. In other words, they refuse to acknowledge the “inconvenient” truths.

In Helena Morrissey’s book ’A Good Time to Be A Girl’, she argues that the financial crisis of 2008 was most likely caused by echo chambers within the finance community at the time.

There was not enough diversity of thought to challenge the decisions that were being made at a high level, and this groupthink resulted in compounded risk-taking. There were not enough voices to the contrary, to challenge the widely accepted attitude of inevitable return and economic prosperity.

The 2015 film ‘The Big Short‘ is a great example of this groupthink in action during this time. It presents an incredible story of a few outsiders who predicted the collapse of the American housing market that caused the financial crash, and ultimately bet against it.

How Do We Avoid Echo Chambers?

Echo chambers are shattered when diverse thought and experience is introduced. Vibrant discussions and heated debates demonstrate a collective intelligence that can achieve much more than the intellect of these individuals when working alone.

The purpose of a team is to become a unit that together is greater than its individual parts. It is not simply to add more firepower to the workforce. Instead, the best teams will be made up of incredibly diverse opinions, experiences and skill-sets. Though it may seem counterintuitive, undisputed agreement is not a good sign, as it suggests a single collective and unchallenged team perspective.

Your job (and everyone’s job) is to challenge a group’s way of thinking and the assumptions that are being made. Don’t fall into alignment and agreement because it feels easier, hoping to survive a conversation unnoticed. The business, the team and the project needs your voice to be heard.

An echo chamber has no place in a business environment. It will stunt growth and increase the likelihood of mistakes.

Avoiding Echo Chambers As AN Early-Stage Founder: Patterns To Avoid

As a woman, you’d be right to assume that diverse thought would be at the forefront of my mind whilst building startup companies. But realistically, when you are exhausted and facing setbacks you can loose sight of important principles and become impressionable.

Here are some suggestions for fostering a diverse and open-minded, yet unshakeably focused attitude to your business:

  • Don’t allow groupthink to derail your business idea. You will encounter groups of people who think the same way and will be reluctant to embrace your idea. Particularly if you threaten to disrupt an industry. You need to be able to recognise those who reside in echo chambers and not let them advise you. Instead, let them teach you what objections you’re likely to face, so you can tailor your marketing accordingly.
  • Hold on to your voice. Everyone you meet will have “business advice” to impart and feedback on your product. You must keep your bullsh*t filters high and be able to recognise whose opinion is valid and what to ignore. And most importantly, don’t let your own voice be drowned out in amongst a sea of industry “experts”. You might think they know more, but your naïvity can be your superpower and allows you to look at the world differently.
  • Craft a diverse team of mentors. Look for progressive, open-minded mentors and advisors from all walks of life and industries. These are the people you want to listen to. There will be times when you’re off-track and your business is at risk – these are the people who will give you those warning signs and allow you to shortcut potential mistakes using their experience.
  • Don’t hire people who look, talk and think exactly like you. As reassuring as it is to hire people who think like you do, it will limit the growth opportunity of your company. Your job is to hire people with different skillsets and world views. This can be particularly tough if you’re hiring young talent to mentor, often we look for a “mini-me” who reminds us of our younger selves. Try not to be predictable here.
  • Understand that you don’t have a monopoly on good ideas. As you hire and expand your team, recognise that others have valid ideas and feedback. Provide an inclusive environment where everyone feels respected and heard, so the business can benefit from the diverse minds and experience.

What’s your experience of echo chambers in business? Share your story in the comments below.

Read part II: Discomfort Is A Learning Space.

 

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