December 13, 2011
News & Opinion: Situations Matter
Sam Sommers', Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World is one of those great books that make you look at completely normal situations in a whole new way. From assumptions to knee-jerk reactions to decision making, Sommers tells us some interesting stories and evidence that the outcomes of situations could be much more positive if we understood that each one matters. How does this translate to work and business? Think about all the times when you thought the worst, but everything worked out OK, or the times you had "everything under control," only to discover that you forgot a key element in a project. We've all been there, and we'll all have a better chance at keeping the good situations, and avoiding the bad, through Sommers' research and insight. Here are a few questions I sent him after reading the book (which was also recently featured as a Jack Covert Selects book): What was the impetus for you to write this book? Sam Sommers: Years of teaching and talking to people about the power of situations to shape how we think and act. The book addresses a range of questions that many of us wrestle with on a daily basis, from our professional lives (How do I frame this product/service in as attractive a way as possible? How do I get my employees and co-workers to maximize their potential?) to our personal lives (Why do I feel drawn to certain people and away from others? How independent a thinker am I really?). So over the years, I've engaged in many a riveting conversation about these issues with many an audience, and people are often amazed to learn that there's actually a science to studying questions like these. They're questions we often ponder on our own, at the water cooler, in the boardroom, or over drinks with friends, and the book is very much an effort to continue these conversations through a lens that combines behavioral science, current events, pop culture, and even a bit of humor. How might a person more accurately discern truth from assumption when operating via WYSIWYG? Sam Sommers: Well, the scientific research makes it clear: many of us jump quickly to WYSIWYG (What You See is What You Get), the notion that other people's behavior must reflect their stable personality or internal character. Viewing our world this way makes the social universe a more manageable, more predictable, and less threatening place. But, as the book spells out time and again, when we think this way we miss out on the true nature of human nature. How can we snap out of this mindset? First and foremost, just by knowing it's there. The analogy I use in the book is that it's a bit like learning the secret to a magic trick (or one of those M. Night Shyamalan movies), in that once you know what to look for, you can't go back to seeing things the way you used to (wait, if Bruce Willis was dead the whole time, how come no one wondered why this kid was on a city bus by himself?). But beyond that, also by goading ourselves to go beyond knee-jerk, emotional responses to those around us. By forcing ourselves to stop, take a breath, and consider the situations and interactions we're in from multiple perspectives. Yelling and righteous indignation rarely win you the battle with customer service, even when they're understandable reactions; taking the time to calmly explore the parameters of the negotiation you're in produces the better outcome every time. How do crowds change our responses to individuals, and how might this play out in social media? Sam Sommers: We're different people in a crowd. Though we like to fancy ourselves independent spirits, the attitudes, expectations, and behavioral precedents of those around us shape our own instincts and actions. We can learn to identify (and avoid) the circumstances that promote a herd mentality, but that basic underlying tendency remains. And the same goes for our interactions via social media: the classic findings in behavioral science research also play themselves out in cyberspace. Being part of a virtual crowd-- or even just imagining ourselves as part of a group of people-- leads to similar outcomes like feeling anonymous, diffusion of responsibility, and reduced personal accountability. How might companies balance loyalty and individuality with employees? Sam Sommers: It can definitely be a balancing act, as the science tells us that many of the forces that promote group cohesiveness and allegiance are also ones that promote conformity. But it often comes down to climate. My book is about the power of situations, so the questions to ask include, In which type of situations are you putting your employees? What kind of climate have you created? How are you framing the idea of "loyalty"? It is possible to create a company climate that conveys that being a "good" employee is consistent with being someone who pushes the envelope-- who questions why we do things this way? and could we maybe better ourselves by trying it this other way? There's no reason that loyalty has to be pitted against individuality. To me, it's a lot like the fallacy that one can't simultaneously be a patriot and question whether the government is making wise choices; many a great citizen has done both. Organizations suffer (including at the bottom line) when they prioritize morale and cohesiveness over individual thought and healthy debate. So whether through explicit mission statement, leading by example, employee incentives, or other means, one key is to persuade employees that you deem loyalty and individual thought to be the same thing. How might individuals better avoid "bad habits in the daily grind?" Sam Sommers: Put people in unfamiliar situations. Don't let yourself fall back on routine and comfort zone. We only have a finite amount of cognitive energy to exert on the world around us, so we often look for short-cuts to conserve mental resources. Routine is one of them. So when you make people (including yourself) try out unfamiliar roles, take on unfamiliar tasks, work with unfamiliar partners, or adopt unfamiliar viewpoints, you shake them out of heuristic, short-cut ways of thinking. Few experiences are more enlightening for even the most veteran of teachers than being forced to take in someone else's class from the audience-- you notice and remember all sorts of little things you'd never think of otherwise. Same goes for the customer service rep, the physician, the CEO... we can't get a full grasp of the situations we live and work in from our usual perch in our usual tree. You know how it's not until you leave home and then make return visits back that you realize your childhood house had a distinct smell, sound, and feel, just like other places do? We simply don't notice the situations we're in while we're in them unless we force ourselves into a different viewing angle. As interesting as these answers are, they barely scratch the surface of the book. Pick up copies for your group today and start creating situations you can all benefit from together.