The bad equilibrium of office conversations

Photo by Daquella manera

Dan Ariely reports, both on HBR.org and on his blog, on a fascinating experiment that I think has many implications to managing people. The setting they chose for their example was online dating and first dates. The idea was that during first dates or first encounters online, the two people usually are carful and don’t want to rock the boat. So they limit their questions and conversation to boring stuff like the weather or the food. These if of course not a conversation that is in their best interest, because although it means not offending the other side, the couple does not actually learn much about each other and might waste time and effort going into a relationship that is not right for either of them. This is what economists call bad equilibrium.

In order to change that, the experiment took willing participants and gave them a list of pre-approved questions that were anything but small talk – questions ranging from “whether you have STDs?” to “Have you ever broken someone’s heart?” to my favorite ice breaker: “How do you feel about abortion?” (which always reminds me of that Seinfeld episode). What they found out was that these questions actually prompted livelier, deeper more meaningful conversation.  As Ariely summarizes it:

By forcing people to step out of their comfort zone, risk tipping the relationship equilibria, we might ultimately gain more than if we just fall back on those tropes that are safe for everyone, and useful to no one.

Usually when people talk about stepping out of the comfort zone, they talk about new skills or behaviors that people need to acquire. While I am not sure I completely agree that in terms of skills we should push people so hard to go out of their comfort zone, there is no denying that there is opportunity for learning in these kinds of situations. However, you will never find people talking about deliberately pushing people out the comfort zone in emotional relationship oriented situation. But this is exactly the kind of behaviors we need to see more from managers.

Think about all those undiscussables that were just under the surface in your your last meeting. Or how weekly gathering of your team looks like. Do you feel like everybody is just being careful not to rock the boat? But isn’t rocking the boat, to a certain degree what these gatherings are really about? Do we really need to put everybody together in the same room so they can talk about the things everybody already know? Isn’t facing the issues, talking about them and finding shared ways to deal with them is the point of all of these meetings.

This experiment is a great example of the fact that managers should sometimes take a stand and make their people go through uncomfortable processes in order to stimulate discussions that open issues into the air. I am aware that it is a challenge to find the right process and right questions to ask. But the only way to find them is to experiment. Will it be awkward? Yes. Will you make mistakes and cross the bar and maybe insult people? Probably yes. But in the long term, it is worth the effort.

How can you change the bad equilibrium so you’re the important thing are discussed?

Elad

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