As a business leader, I’ve found that I often opt to do business with people I’m aligned with in terms of how I view the world — specifically, on political, social and business matters. I think many of my peers would say the same. After all, according to research by Wellesley College and the University of Kansas, people gravitate toward those who think similarly to themselves.
However, I’m now rethinking this habit of mine. I’m wondering: By tending to stick with those who have similar beliefs about the world as I do, am I cutting off the opportunity for valuable lessons, both in terms of what I can learn from people with different views and what people with different views can learn from me?
The uncomfortable answer is that, yes, I am denying myself and others that opportunity by regularly opting to collaborate with people who view the world in a similar manner. I want to change that.
Why We Shouldn’t Put Ourselves in Echo Chambers
When we place ourselves in echo chambers online or in our lives beyond the internet, we’re only exposing ourselves to ideas and beliefs that align with our own, making it harder for us to gain broader perspectives about the world.
In 2013, Deloitte compiled three benefits organizations can gain from “diversity of thought.” Those three benefits were that diversity of thought “helps guard against groupthink and expert overconfidence,” “helps increase the scale of new insights” and “helps organizations identify the right employees who can best tackle their most pressing problems.”
For instance, say you run a nonprofit and exclusively only hire team members with work histories in the nonprofit sphere. When the resumes of those with corporate work histories land on your desk, you brush them off, thinking they don’t have the right passion and skills to thrive at your nonprofit. By brushing them off, however, you’re likely cheating yourself out of some fantastic employees who you could offer fresh takes that help your nonprofit grow faster than ever.
So, let’s not surround ourselves only with those who mirror our views. Instead, let’s try to expand the ideas we’re exposed to so we can become better thinkers and leaders.
Dissent Can Lead to Powerful, Positive Outcomes
When we avoid echo chambers, we can encounter dissenting views. I believe that respectful dissent betters us no matter which end of it we’re on. Researchers Charlan Jeanne Nemeth and Alexander O’Connor stated that in a group, when someone “shares a dissenting viewpoint, group creativity is often increased. Dissent stimulates thought that is divergent, and, on balance, leads to better decision-making and more creativity. This is true even if that dissent is wrong and even if the dissenter(s) are not valued.”
Consider that the very existence of the United States as we know it is due to the dissent of our Founding Fathers and others. Our First Amendment rights protect our freedom of speech. So why are we so afraid of having confrontational conversations?
I think the answer could be because we’re afraid of shattering our perception of something, whether that something is an idea at work, a political stance, etc. Perhaps we’re also concerned about getting on someone’s bad side. I get it. Especially in the times we’re in, I start pulling back when I encounter discussions that make me uncomfortable. I shut down when people push against what I believe is true. But what if I didn’t do that? What if, instead, I opened up?
Talking about differing views can be immensely valuable in our professional and personal lives. Here’s just one example from CBC News, in which a man who said “he spent years as a self-proclaimed” anti-vaxxer “had a change of perspective” and got vaccinated against Covid “thanks to a single, calm conversation with health-care professionals in his family.” That’s the power of a conversation. Let’s not rob ourselves and each other of such potential outcomes.
Listening Is the Strongest Tool in Our Toolkits
I believe the strongest tool we have at our fingertips is listening to each other. When people listen to each other instead of brushing each other off, they can understand why different people hold the beliefs they do.
Researchers Guy Itzchakov and Avraham N. (Avi) Kluger studied listening. They found that employees who took part in “listening circles reported lower social anxiety, higher attitude complexity, and lower attitude extremity regarding various work-related topics” when compared “to employees who participated in one of the control conditions that did not involve trained listeners.” The researchers continued that their “findings suggest that listening seems to make an employee more relaxed, more self-aware of his or her strengths and weaknesses, and more willing to reflect in a non-defensive manner.”
Think about how powerful listening can be for us all, in all the different areas of our lives. When we genuinely listen to each other, instead of dismissing each other, we give each other a chance to grow. And those chances can be monumental in our lives. As psychology professor Carl R. Rogers wrote in 1952, “We know from research that such empathic understanding—understanding with a person, not about her—is so effective that it can bring about significant changes in personality.”
Critical Thinking and Emotional Intelligence Are More Important Than Ever
Ultimately, all of my points above fall under critical thinking and emotional intelligence.
Look, I’ve been guilty of holding strong opinions in the absence of good evidence. That’s a lack of critical thinking. I, and many others, usually equate conviction with what we believe. But conviction should rely on facts. I’ve also been guilty of being adverse to having difficult conversations. But I want to turn all of those things around.
I believe everyone needs strong critical thinking and emotional intelligence skills now more than ever — especially leaders. We should seek facts (even if they go against what we think is true), thoughtfully express ourselves and understand how to connect with people in a way that welcomes them.
As business leaders, it’s about staying in the arena, having a voice and enabling others to use their voice. We don’t have to withdraw and shut others down from having conversations, even if those conversations end in “Let’s agree to disagree.” Doing so means losing opportunities for life-changing discussions.
Moving forward, let’s encourage ourselves and others to truly think, ask self-reflective questions, not shy away from tough discussions and listen to each other. Because ultimately, curiosity is what’s going to save us all.