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Beware of Cultural Echo Chambers

on April 20, 2021
Resources All Employee Engagement Managing Change

It is a widely understood phenomenon that as a country we have become more partisan. One of the main drivers has been the information echo chambers that are consciously or subconsciously part of our routines.

We have a media echo system that benefits from fostering and nurturing a partisan divide, as that creates more loyal and fervent followers. More views and more hits mean more profits. They feed us what we want to hear and read, things that get us worked up and things that keep us coming back. COVID has made all this worse because we’ve had more time to consume information and, for many of us, we primarily consume information we agree with rather than information that challenges us.

Additionally our accidental collisions with people outside our inner circle at work, at church, in our communities, or with friends has been reduced to a minimum. That means many of us are living in tightly defined information echo chambers that make us pretty sure we are right and right to be outraged and a whole lot of other people unreasonable and wrong. Should make this year’s Thanksgiving dinners more interesting than ever.

Ecosystems and Your Corporate Culture

How does all this connect to corporate culture? I was talking to one of our consultants a few weeks ago and, even though we had a challenging year as a business due to COVID, they thought our culture was as strong as ever and they were very excited about both where our business is and where we are heading. It was great to hear. Within a couple days of that conversation, I talked to someone else at Root who had a very different perspective. They felt we took a really hard hit culturally in 2020, that some of the Root spirit was gone, and that the road back will be a struggle. They made a point that it is just not as much fun as it used to be.

Cultural perspectives are never universal, and shouldn’t be, but the contrast struck me as stark and stronger than normal. I investigated a bit further and found that the different people they both primarily worked with held very similar opinions. So there was a whole group that was ecstatic and a group that was rather distraught. I chatted with others and found additional cohesive groups with differing perspectives. I found this both disturbing and fascinating. I started paying attention to this phenomenon with clients and saw similar patterns emerge all over the place.

The Impact of Ecosystems on Corporate Culture

I believe what we are starting to see is a serious side effect of our largely current way of working that requires awareness and discussion to minimize. It is the emergence of subcultures that have vastly differing views on the organization and the loss of a more cohesive cultural connectivity primarily driven by the smaller circle we work with.

Many of us regularly meet with a small circle of people and have a strong cadence with them. Outside of that, a lot of our other interactions in a COVID world are more transactional and tactical than they have ever been.

The absence of the accidental collisions with different people during lunch, in the hallways, in the rest rooms, at breaks during meetings, or while walking in and out of work are lessening our empathy and limiting our ability to have broader and different perspectives to shape our own.

In short, we are all at risk of cultural tunnel vision, which is inherently unhelpful and unproductive. And as is often the case with echo chambers, our positions firm up so that opinions within the echo chamber are trusted and believed and other sources of information are explained away or discredited.

The dangers are two-fold. One is that you can have a much more fragmented organizational culture. The other is that you could have disenchanted subgroups that are harder to reach or that could turn over in clusters.

Breaking Down Corporate Ecosystems Before They Break You

What to do from a leadership standpoint:

  • Go on a bit of a listening tour and see if the cultural echo chamber phenomenon shows up.
  • Be frequent in your messaging on the narrative of the business. Provide a lot of context and emphasize the things that bind us as an organization.
  • Find ways to connect people across functions and natural work teams to create mutual empathy and stronger connectivity.

As an individual, ask yourself these questions to make sure you’re not stuck in a cultural echo chamber:

  • Are your virtual hallway conversations with largely the same small group of people? Are the perspectives and conclusions similar or diverse? Be sure to really check yourself here, as most of us often don’t realize when we’re in a cultural echo chamber. We just think we have the answer and are pretty darn sure we’re right.
  • How proactive are you in seeking other perspectives on meaningful business or cultural questions that are not a part of your day-to-day norm? How many conversations have you had with people outside your normal workflow on these issues in the last four weeks?
  • How do you consciously weave empathy and curiosity into your conversations? Work for most people was harder rather than easier last year, whether as a leader trying to figure things out while the rules were constantly changing, as a manager looking to execute and hold a team together in entirely new circumstances, or as the person on the front line just wanting to do a great job without fully knowing what great looks like in a COVID world.

Inclusion is an idea that rightfully has been part of many organizations’ ambition to be a better version of themselves. As leaders and as individuals, one way to ensure a more inclusive environment and make a contribution to this positive movement is to first be self-aware of cultural echo chambers that we’re part of and might even be enabling. A second way is to lead with empathy and build bridges that enable honest dialogue and understanding and enhance the cultural fabric of our organizations.

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