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Weekly 3: Managing external influences


Idea Journal Weekly 3

October 20 · Issue #109 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Question the group. Manage the work environment. Watch for stress. (~5 min read)
Note: Idea #2 is taken from a previous issue, and we’ve included it here because it fits well with the core theme: managing external influences.

#1. "The calamity of conformity"
In his book The Art of Thinking Clearly, author and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli writes that if you’re like most people, you’ve had the experience of biting your tongue in a meeting: “You sit there, say nothing, and nod along to proposals.”
You don’t want to be the naysayer. Besides, you might not be sure exactly why you disagree, whereas the others are unanimous. 
As Dobelli points out, when each person thinks and acts like this, it can lead to groupthink: otherwise smart people make reckless decisions because everyone aligns their opinions with the supposed consensus. Plans and proposals are passed that each individual member would have rejected if no peer pressure existed.
As Dobelli points out, when groupthink leads to negative outcomes, it’s usually because everyone in the group shares the following three illusions: 
1. A belief in invincibility: This sounds like, “If both our leader and the group are confident that the plan will work, then luck will be on our side.”
2. Perceived unanimity: No one wants to destroy team unity. If others are of the same opinion, then any dissenting views must be wrong.
3. Fear of exclusion: In our evolutionary past, expressing reservations and being excluded from the group meant death. So each person has a strong urge to remain in the group’s favor.
Dobelli cites the defunct airline Swissair as an example of groupthink gone awry in the business world. A team of highly-paid consultants rallied around the former CEO and, bolstered by the euphoria of past successes, they developed a high-risk expansion strategy. The team built up such a strong consensus that even rational reservations were suppressed, which led to the company’s collapse.
To guard against groupthink, Dobelli suggests that whenever you find yourself in a unanimous group, you must question tacit assumptions and speak your mind – even if your team doesn’t like it. 
And if you’re the leader of a group, appoint someone to act as devil’s advocate: “She will not be the most popular member of the team, but she might be the most important.”
#2. When managing people, create a "rockstar" environment
Authors and entrepreneurs Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s write in their book Rework that instead of trying to hire a room full of rockstars, you should worry about the quality of the room itself.
They acknowledge that people have different abilities and interests, and simply creating a rockstar environment won’t automatically generate great work on its own.
But as they point out, the environment has a lot more to do with great work than many people realize.
For Fried and Heinemeier Hansson, there’s a ton of untapped potential “trapped under lame policies, poor direction, and stifling bureaucracies.”
Creating such an environment isn’t about casual Fridays or bring-your-dog-to-work days. They ask: if those initiatives are so great, why don’t people do them every work day?
Rockstar environments develop out of autonomy, responsibility, and trust: “They’re a result of giving people the privacy, workspace, and tools they deserve.”
#3. Stress as a window into a person's character
In addition to other people and your physical environment, circumstances, especially stressful ones, can exert considerable influence. 
Author Robert Greene writes in his book The Laws of Human Nature that while the people around you generally appear sane and in control of their lives, you will see “a different reality” if you put them in a context of rising pressure. 
Under stress or any threat, the “cool mask of self-control” comes off. 
They may suddenly lash out in anger, reveal a paranoid streak, and become hypersensitive or even petty. That’s because under such circumstances, the most primitive parts of the brain are engaged and aroused, overwhelming people’s reasoning powers. 
With this tendency in mind, Greene recommends actively observing people in such high-pressure moments as a way to judge their true character: “stress or tension can reveal flaws in people that they have carefully concealed from view.”
He suggests applying this same lens to yourself.
Whenever you notice rising stress levels in your life, you must watch yourself carefully. Monitor signs of unusual sensitivity, sudden suspicions, and fears that are disproportionate to the circumstances. The key is to observe yourself with as much detachment as possible, finding time and space to be alone and regain perspective. 
Greene warns that you should never imagine yourself as someone who can withstand rising stress without some “emotional leakage.” 
It’s not possible. 
“But through self-awareness and reflection you can prevent yourself from making decisions you will come to regret.”
Quote of the Week
“This interaction of genetic and external influences makes my behavior unpredictable, but not undetermined. In the gap between those words lies freedom.”
- Science writer Matt Ridley in his book Genome
Idea Journal
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