Vail Daily column: The echo chamber
Making good short- and long-term decisions is a core function of the leadership in any organization. Both in terms of distant work like strategic planning, and in executing a timely response to a clear and present threat, making sound judgments and decisions can mean the difference between success and peril.
Business and organizational writers Chip and Dan Heath took an in-depth look at the science of good (and bad) decision making in their 2013 book, “Decisive.” One of the key “villains” of good decisions is what the Heath brothers called “confirmation bias,” the tendency we all have to only consider information and evidence that confirms our prior assumptions and predispositions.
In our organization, we call this phenomenon the “echo chamber,” meaning a closed system where the same ideas are amplified and reinforced continuously.
The echo chamber is dangerous for organizations, because it does not allow competing or contradictory thinking to come forth — leaving the organization (and the people in it) unprepared if things go wrong. Even worse, the echo chamber can allow leadership to set the organization on a perilous course of action that will ultimately lead to disaster, if they haven’t evaluated the alternatives or too narrowly considered their options.
What causes the echo chamber? In an organization like ours, one contributing factor is a unified commitment to the mission. Most everyone who works in a school district believes and supports public education and is primarily motivated to do good things for kids and community.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to go to work in a place where most everyone wakes up motivated to do the work because, in their hearts, they care deeply about our purpose and what we are trying to accomplish. In an educational organization, people tend to come hard-wired with altruistic values.
But it can also create an environment where “groupthink” can take hold. That is, in an effort to create harmony and minimize conflict, good ideas aren’t formulated and proposals aren’t critically vetted. Getting along and doing it (whatever it is) “for the kids” supersedes idea generation and a tough-nosed examination of potential options.
This phenomenon is not isolated to public schools systems — to be clear, any organization of any kind and size can fall victim to confirmation bias, the echo chamber, and groupthink.
Counteracting these is not an easy or pleasant task, but it must be done in order to protect the organization, its purpose, and its people from the bad decisions that result from unexamined scenarios.
In Eagle County Schools, we take some proactive steps to avoid these pitfalls.
First, I frequently ask staff to “argue the other side” of some decision we are about to make and work to create an environment where ideas are openly critiqued. Never is this disagreement personal — we make it about the issue, not the person.
Second, we force ourselves to stare deeply into the unpleasant abyss of critics and complainers. That is, instead of ignoring or whitewashing these perspectives, we analyze them closely — hoping to understand the opposing view so we don’t miss something important or so we can thoughtfully design around a potential problem.
Finally, we rely on honest and respectful relationships among one another and with the community. In doing so, we create a safe and “say anything” atmosphere, appreciating and thanking critical friends who can point out flaws in our thinking and decision making.
It’s no secret that the school district is considering tax questions for the November ballot. In our initial discussions and brainstorming, we focused on what our organizational needs were to achieve our vision of a globally competitive school system. We’ve tested some of these ideas with our own staff to see what they thought.
This was good work and a necessary first step — but if we stop there, we are still inside the echo chamber.
So, we’re also taking a bunch of steps in the next few weeks to let critical voices participate in shaping our direction. We’re bringing together focus groups of diverse perspectives and business oriented citizens to take a tough look at our thinking. We’re also reaching out to the larger community in a variety of ways (polls, surveys, etc.) to get an even larger lens on our ideas.
By actively stepping out of the echo chamber, we hope to find honest critics who will push our thinking and help us develop the best possible plan for our community.
In the coming weeks, be on the lookout for opportunities to help us in this work. We appreciate the head nodding and affirmation, but we also need the straight talk that only someone outside the echo chamber can provide.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.