'Breaking the Idiocracy Spell': How to Improve Business Amid Political Turmoil
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I credit the idea of “breaking the idiocracy spell” to a close friend and colleague I interviewed for this column — Dr. David Gruder, PhD, DCEP and entrepreneurial mentor and trainer. Gruder, a 12-time award-winning psychological business strategist and societal repair specialist, has written in recent months about The Dunning-Kruger Effect and Confirmation Bias — the inherent beliefs that we are smarter, more informed, and more capable than we actually are. This belief and our desire for closure convinces us that no matter the evidence, the conclusions that confirm our strongly held beliefs and biases are not only credible, but irrefutable facts.
As Gruder puts it: “An ego in search of evidence always finds it.”
Who is the winner in a political debate? We need only watch opposing channels to hear opposite conclusions, presented on both sides with equal conviction that each side is unequivocally “right.”
How do we escape this conundrum in business? According to Gruder:
1. The more we succumb to the Dunning-Kruger Effect and Confirmation Bias, the less open we become to empathetically and deeply understanding perspectives that are different from our own — which should stand at the core of all effective business, both from within (our internal company cultures) and without.
2. When we step forward with our flawed convictions, we get into fights with others who are doing the same thing as us. Innovation and engagement are halted with both sides locked in the quest to overpower the opposing “idiots.”
3. The result is what Gruder calls the “Idiocracy Spell.” (The term “Idiocracy” comes from a 2006 science-fiction satire movie about an average man who wakes up in the future to discover society is so incredibly dumbed down that he has become the smartest person in the world.)
For Gruder, the phenomenon reached its climax in a powerful lesson from a former professor at Alfred University with whom he’d enjoyed a wonderful relationship. Then Gruder attained a key administrative role at Alfred University in his senior year of college. The professor came to visit, not to congratulate him but to express dismay that Gruder had become a “sell-out” who had “joined the establishment and become one of them” by accepting his position.
In fact, however, Gruder was the same person with the same ideology he’d always possessed. The new position had simply given him the authority to act — a net plus.
How do entrepreneurs combat us/them positions today?
Gruder suggests the following:
- The Idiocracy Spell of polarization is society’s single biggest threat today.
- Thinking about our fear regarding today’s biggest issues — politics, the economy, equality, inclusion, and health — it can help to think about how we’ve been personally impacted when others have made assumptions about us. This can open our minds to how we’re also doing this to others.
- Allow humility and teachability to replace the unconscious arrogance and rightness addiction that is the cornerstone of confirmation bias in order to deeply understand the perspectives on today’s issues that are different from our own.
The steps to do this can benefit from the perspective of another expert I collaborate with frequently: corporate culture development expert Bill Stierle.
In his work of identifying and resolving conflicts for businesses and organizations, Stierle runs into situations on a near-daily basis in which opposing parties have diametrically opposite opinions about what should happen, with all sides sure they are uniquely and unequivocally “right.” One of the biggest challenges is that emotions override the logical and rational parts of the brain and cause a disconnect in decision making.
For example, he recalls a recent communication training of OSHA inspectors, nuclear scientists, and contract construction managers. In a room of 37 training participants, an OSHA inspector presented a situation where there was a mechanical problem that looked like a quick fix.
“It is urgent that we have this gauge replaced by the end of the shift,” said the construction manager.
“I can fix it; it will only take a few minutes,” said the contractor’s employee.
“The radiation levels are above safe level and too high,” replied OSHA inspector.
“I will be alright,” said the employee “It’s a tiny dial. And it would take me an hour and a half to put the suit on as well as an hour of decontamination. I’m just going to go in for a few minutes and fix it.”
The OSHA inspector weighs in again: “You’ve got to put your suit on.”
The contractor’s manager is now between a rock and a hard place. The employee meets the company’s needs for efficiency, saves money (time) or risks health, or the cost of a shutdown because of the OSHA regulation for the facility.
Logically, us outsiders reading this are seeing the issue clearly, health and safety ahead of cost and efficiency. Yet, in the moment, we often struggle between moral, financial, and legal issues. The pressure for profit and efficiency causes big challenges. How do we communicate to meet both the needs of the organization and the employee?
The OSHA position: shut the operation down for the next two days. It’s the law. The contract manager is in a bind: Cost the company $200,000 because we would have to shut off all the other systems as well? Or pay the overtime to simply put the suits on and fix it? What is morally acceptable? What are our acceptable minimums for behavior?
These are the kinds of situations that quickly devolve into reduced versions of thermonuclear war, with all parties equally individual positions are “right.”
So what can we do?
According to Stierle, in preparation for these types of conflict situations, we should ask ourselves (or ask the other party), "How can we meet our mutual needs?" Clarify: "What’s the worst thing somebody could say here?" And outline: "What’s the worst thing that could happen?"
Then pick one of the sentences, thoughts, or actions, such as “Now that I’m aware of this situation, I will need to shut the operation down for two days.” What are the emotional words behind this position? What are the motives, needs, or “good reasons” around this position? Now create a clear and present moment request. Perhaps it would be something like, “I am guessing you are feeling frustrated and need effectiveness in making the repair and are looking for some reassurance that we can both be in compliance with the safety regulation. Is that correct? Then role-play the scenario to uncover the additional information/ mutual needs that could have influence and a bearing on all.
Clarifying the needs for operations as a whole, before going forward reduces the emotional load and shifts the bias so the various parties move toward collaboration.
Poor word choice can be the equivalent of rolling an unplugged grenade into a room. Globalized statements such as, “Our organization supports 100 percent inclusivity” (someone, somewhere, does not believe you) or “We acknowledge people who protest peacefully” (some may believe is disingenuousness coming from an opportunist, selfish or short-sighted motivation) determine the vantage points of the strongly held needs that may get activated because they will trigger very impassioned emotions in the audience.
When you make a statement, you should study, prepare and then go forward with the inclusion of a thread that shows the listener you are hearing them, you understand their needs and motivations, and you care about them.
Develop empathy and compassionate skills, and be ready, when necessary, to clean up the mess. In this way, your business can move beyond the era of “we’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t” and come closer to a working environment that genuinely does strive to respect and reflect the good reasons and important perspectives of all.