Why Leaders Need More than Mirror Reflections

female-leaders-looking-in-her-mirror-reflection-featuredBy Aimee Hansen

Amidst increasing access to a broader worldview, we are paradoxically retreating into narrowing, amplified, separated tunnels of perspective.

One of the clearest examples is the side-by-side blue feed, red feed posted by The Wall Street Journal. These views are never side-by-side but rather constructions of completely different realities.

Social media (with Facebook at top) is a news source for 62% of U.S. adults, and when our Facebook newsfeed is increasingly a tunnel lined with mirrors, the sum reflection is silos of distortion.

Diversity of thought is a muscle that is essential to leadership, and one that we may be getting weaker at flexing when it comes to developing our worldview in our personal and societal lives. Whatever we practice, we become better at. So arguably, we are getting better at listening to people who think like we already do.

To be effective leaders, we have to increasingly be more vigilant about the practice of inviting diversity of thought in, even when it’s difficult to do so.

How Facebook Is Narrowing Our Feedback Loop

As highlighted in the The New York Times, it’s our interaction with social media that both biases and narrows our exposure to different viewpoints and different stories.

Frank Bruni writes, “The Internet isn’t rigged to give us right or left, conservative or liberal — at least not until we rig it that way. It’s designed to give us more of the same, whatever that same is: one sustained note from the vast and varied music that it holds, one redundant fragrance from a garden of infinite possibility.”

When our ideas and perspectives are not challenged, but only reinforced by our customized curation of news through interaction with social media,“we retreat into enclaves of the like-minded” with increased speed and depth, while missing out on a breadth of perspectives.

According to the NYT, “Technology makes it much easier for us to connect to people who share some single common interest,” said author Marc Dunkelman (“The Vanishing Neighbor”), and easier to avoid “face-to-face interactions with diverse ideas.”

According to network scientist, Vyacheslav Polonski writing for the World Economic Forum, previous research has shown that increased contact with people who share our previously held beliefs makes those beliefs more extreme.

We become more confident, vigorous, and emboldened as we begin to adopt a new group identity. At the same time, we becoming increasingly ignorant to the dynamics of alternative world views. There is both power and peril.

Confirming Our Own Biases

According to The Guardian, “Since online content is often curated to fit our preferences, interests and personality, the internet can even enhance our existing biases and undermine our motivation to learn new things.”

One bias that is supported by echo chambers is confirmation bias, where we look to see our own preconceptions confirmed rather than fully taking facts, data, or opposing viewpoints into consideration. We are drawn to prove ourselves right by consuming information that matches our opinions even though “being exposed to conflicting views tends to reduce prejudice and enhance creative thinking.”

As Warren Buffet said, “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” With too much information to deal with, it’s a survival strategy to ignore most of it, but we tend to selectively ignore what does not agree with us.

The Boardroom Echo Chamber

If we want to know more about the dangers of decision-making inside of a (digital) echo chamber, we can look to the corporate boardroom, because that has existed mostly as an echo chamber for decades.

In 2015, Fortune 500 companies filled 399 vacant or newly created seats, the highest number of seats since Heidrick & Struggles began tracking. But when faced with a record opportunity to increase diversity, the Fortune 500 boardroom stuck to its own kind.

Tapping from the “usual suspects” (73% of appointments were current and former CEOs and CFOs), the range of industry backgrounds narrowed, women appointments stalled, Latino appointments remained flat, and Asian-American appointments fell. The only improvements in diversity were African-American (1% point) and international experience (32.2% points).

In sum, older white male seats or new seats were filled with older white males with international experience. From the perspective of social diversity, boards elected more mirrors to reflect similar viewpoints, not more windows to bring in diverse perspectives.

Diversity Makes Us Smarter

According to the Harvard Business Review, the key differentiator of leadership (and the career arc of a leader) is a process of inclusiveness in decision making, the ability to take into account a 360 degree context.

Underlining the importance of gathering multiple perspectives, Associate Professor Laurence Minksy and Julia Tang Peters write, “Habitual outreach prevents insular thinking, opens doors to ideas and collaborative relationships, expands problem-solving perspectives, and increases the range of resources for implementation.”

As reiterated by Scientific American, social diversity enhances creativity, encourages the search for novel perspectives, and leads to better decision-making and problem solving. Katherine W. Phillips, a Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics, writes, “Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.”

“Being with similar others leads us to think we all hold the same information and share the same perspective,” writes Phillips. This keeps us from effectively processing information, and hinders creativity and innovation. Whereas in a context of diversity, we are less complacent with our perspectives and begin to consider alternatives even before personal interaction takes place.

“Simply adding social diversity to a group makes people believe that differences of perspective might exist among them and that belief makes people change their behavior,” writes Phillips. We work harder on both a cognitive and social level, become more diligent, and more open-minded because we anticipate it will take more to come to a consensus.

Also, disagreement with those who are socially different to us also does more to spark our consideration.

“When we hear dissent from someone who is different from us (eg. by race or political party), it provokes more thought than when it comes from someone who looks like us,“ writes Phillips. “When disagreement comes from a socially different person, we are prompted to work harder. Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not.”

Your Diversity Muscle

As Phillips points out, diversity of thought is a muscle we have to exercise. “You have to push yourself to grow your muscles.”

So as a leader, ask yourself where are you allowing yourself to be drawn into an echo chamber? Are you being inclusive in your own decision-making?

And, where in your workplace do you see a tunnel of mirrors in need of some windows?