What were they thinking?

I go looking for a leadership echo chamber when I hear that question asked about a decision. Inexplicably bad decisions are the product of logic of leaders disconnected from reality.

The corporate ‘yes man’ has been much derided. Leaders who surround themselves with sycophants know and deserve what they get. In exchange for ego support, they will find no challenge to their ideas, even the dangerously bad ones. However, most people are aware of the danger of ‘yes men’. The derision of the ‘yes men’ pushes sycophancy underground into a more subtle form of danger.

The echo chamber of leadership is a more subtle danger to organisations. An echo chamber may not say yes immediately. There may be extensive debate and analysis. However debate is structured within the defines of the logic and information of the leader. Those who would disagree or might introduce additional information know or learn to stay silent. Tragically many leaders hear later, ‘I knew it wouldn’t work but I didn’t say anything because you clearly wanted it’.

An echo chamber may have debate but it will carefully reflect the pros and cons inherent in the decision already made. Without the ability to extend the discussion, a bad decision will not be challenged and may even be strengthened by this groupthink. A group with limited goals and strong focus in discussions may not see how far their actions are from common sense to their stakeholders. In many cases, busy with the challenges of achievement, the group may not even be aware of how limited their considerations were.

Silence the echo

The simplest way to change the dynamic of an echo chamber conversation is to introduce new information from outside the group into the discussion. That new information may be new language, a new point of data, a new argument, more time for reflection or the perspective of an external stakeholder. Asking the group to step outside the logic of their decision and see it from an additional perspective can help breakdown the echoes of the leader’s thinking.

Another important challenge to the echo chamber is to ask people to explain the logic for the decision in the simplest language. Strip away the internal jargon and the internal logic also is more easily exposed.

A critical role for any leader in an organisation is to bring in fresh external perspectives to decision making from the system in and around the organisation. Network connections can help offer this additional perspective. Inexplicable decisions are a symptom of this flow of information becoming a stale echo chamber. The role of leaders is to watch for these reactions, extend the networks and change the group discussion.

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