Stepping Out of the Echo Chamber

November 12th, 2013

It’s a normal human tendency to want to build our teams with people we relate to and understand. Working with like-minded people is comfortable. Unfortunately, it can also lead to an office culture akin to an echo chamber.

In the echo chamber, when one person has an idea, the rest of her team will be quick to tell her all the things that are good about it. This is different than being surrounded by yes-men. The problem of the echo chamber, of being surrounded by people who think and act like we do, is that our team members have the same blind spots as we do.

We can build much stronger teams when we recognize the value of a diverse workforce and learn to praise our workers when they tell us things we don’t necessarily want to hear. It’s a two-step process that can lead us out of the echo chamber and toward a company culture of innovation and productivity.

Step 1: Hire a diverse work force. This could mean hiring more women, or people from different cultures, but it is just as important to consider personality types. Introducing a few number-crunching introverts to an office full of aggressive sales reps can add much needed substance to otherwise great sales pitches. Something as simple as bringing a democrat into an office full of republicans can create opportunity for new discussions.

Having different perspectives interacting can help teams to see holes in their work, question assumptions that might be negatively impacting performance, or recognize new opportunities.

The challenge is to get a diverse team to work well as a single unit. To do that, you must take one more step. You must learn to be open to ideas that don’t immediately mesh with our own.

Step 2: Appreciate people who bring you seemingly bad news. This is the harder step and the reason may people shy away from hiring individuals with opposing viewpoints. It can be hard to hear what’s not good about our work, but consider the upsides.

Imagine you spent a week compiling a presentation for your board of directors. In your mind it is perfect, but when you show it to your team one person notes a data point that was not included, and which dramatically affects the results as you’re presenting them.

Resist the urge to retreat into defensive rhetoric such as “you just don’t get what I’m going for,” or “that’s not important.” If instead we are able to recognize the value of having caught an error internally, we will see the employee who brought the bad news as the true asset they are.

Managers interested in fostering a truly creative work environment need to encourage people to voice their thoughts carefully. It’s important that nobody feel attacked during the feedback process. Using phrases such as “I noticed…” or “I wonder why you chose to…” can open discussion. Taking ownership of observations by using “I” can make feedback easier to receive and create space for dialogue.

By building a team with diverse perspectives and fostering an environment of creative feedback you will see new and interesting developments in office dynamics. Ideas that never would have occurred to you will come into play. Not all of them will be exceptional, but it only takes one great idea to change the course of a company.