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How Ideas are Missed - The Echo Chamber

I was listening to Matt Mahan, CEO of the voter-empowerment app Brigade, on Dot Complicated with Randi Zuckerberg. He said something that hit me right in the third eye! He said that one of the lessons of the election is that—thanks to social media— we are all living in an echo chamber where the only opinions, voices, beliefs and perspectives that we read are ones that echo our own.

I began to consider how this is true. After all, most of my contacts are people who share beliefs, values, interests, and experiences similar to my own. He went on to say that is why the election results have been so shocking to so many across America. Based on our echo chamber of social media, many of us—regardless of which candidate we supported—believed that everyone else thought like we did.

Probably all of you have already thought of this, but I sure as heck had not. I was aware that my feed of friends and contacts was a relatively narrow slice of America, but then what he said next really blew me away. He said that the echo chamber phenomenon isn’t even 100% our choice or our fault. The narrow slice of friends, contacts, media updates, and ads that fill our feeds are actually created by algorithms that are designed to please us based on all the data selected by artificial intelligence!

Now I knew that ads and sponsored posts were selected, but I hadn’t thought through how much of an impact this has as to what I believe “everyone” is thinking. The reality is that much of my information has come through what the Internet chooses to serve up to me.

As I drove on my 5-hour commute, my mouth was a little agape. I thought back to all the times, including on this most recent set of client visits, that I had advised clients to avoid surrounding themselves with staff who think like they do. I had just recently been pondering another client for whom I performed a staff assessment to help explore where employees were becoming disengaged. I remember as I presented the information regarding what the data revealed about how she is viewed as a leader, her response was, “But I have only heard that I’m doing great. I understand the needs of staff. My open door policy is valued. I was told no one has any issues that haven’t been shared.”

“Oh. Hmmm. Who did you check in with?” I asked.

“I have two trusted staff people who I call upon to let me know how things are going.”

In the confidential interviews, many staff had indicated these two people were her “favorites” because they always tell her exactly what she wants to hear. These two employees were her echo chamber. In order to please her, they were willing to serve up only what she wanted to hear. It was a great survival strategy.

The echo chamber is a tempting but dangerous and expensive place from which to lead. It is so tempting to hire people who are exactly like us. Isn’t it? I mean, we know them and we understand them. And our brain even supports us to choose them because we are wired to be attracted to what is similar. Back in the day, when we were just starting to evolve, being around beings that were similar helped us to survive longer. So we do have to be intentional in hiring, listening to, and taking counsel from those who are less similar to us.

The danger to any organization is that when it is full of people who are just like you, innovation, creativity, new solutions, and ideas are missed.

The cost is that when leaders surround themselves with people who simply echo back what is easy or comfortable to hear, they become oblivious to those who are valuable to the company but who are unsatisfied. The cost in terms of turnover can be great.

According to Mahan, the echo chamber created by social media is unlikely to go away. Instead, that echo chamber will be further perfected. However, you as a leader, a teammate, a citizen, and a friend can choose to break out of any echo chambers you’ve created by simply holding space and listening. You may ultimately agree or disagree, but if you engage with an open heart and curiosity, you will have the opportunity to be fascinated by what you learn.

Most of us spend the major part of each week in the company of co-workers and clients. Be aware of the comments you make. Remember that it is not possible to know what people are feeling or experiencing. If someone indicates they don’t want to share their political or social views or opinions—or hear your’s—please let it go.

If someone is forcing their views on you or being disrespectful, remember to follow human resource policy and protocol by first asking them to stop and then report.

Leaders are encouraged to remind all employees:

  • about all anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies

  • that a discussion of politics does not give license to bully or harass other employees

  • what system is in place for those who are feeling emotionally or physically unsafe or harassed

As a leader, remember that legally you must be consistent. If you have a political opinion or feeling and you repress only comments that disagree with yours, you are setting yourself up for legal risk.

The holiday season is when employee conflict goes through the roof. People may be stressed or exhausted from trying to fulfill the promise of joy and magic for their families. They may be concerned about money and mounting bills. Or there may be disappointment with family or friends that gets highlighted at the holidays. I was once at a holiday cookie swap that nearly turned bloody, all due to triggers from the holiday season.

This year we have additional unease brought on by the tumultuous election, uncertainty about the future, the stress of the constant news cycle, and protests in the streets. It is critical for each of us to step into self-leadership. It’s important to manage ourselves and to be able to know when we are becoming triggered and responding irrationally, versus simply being frustrated because someone forgot to clean out the company microwave after they heated their tomato soup. As you remain balanced and clear, others will also find the space to self manage and deescalate. The end result is that your workplace will be emotionally and physically safe for all.

About Beth Wonson

Have you had to work with that person who is too valuable to fire but whose communication and leadership style continually make others cringe and put the company at risk? Beth Wonson’s unique combination of experience as a business leader, a non-profit leader and 20 years consulting on team development, organizational change and coaching leaders, make her the go to person for transforming personnel liabilities into personnel assets.


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