Beware The Bubble

4 minute read


bubbleOur first blog of 2017 is a Guest Blog written by Danny Herbert, Caffeine Associate, communications strategist and expert in building brands.

2016 was a year in which many people discovered that the way they see the world isn’t shared by everyone.

So when a blog from my Caffeine colleague David Kean appeared here, it was well timed. Describing the role of the ‘trusted advisor’ David talks about how vital it is for leaders in business (or any leader in fact) to listen to people whose judgement they value but who will challenge their viewpoint, who will dare to speak ‘truth to power’. If you only listen to what you want to hear, and encourage everyone around you to share your views, you can make big mistakes.

Within any ostensibly open society, organisations or peer groups, there is, paradoxically, a fixed set of parameters within which it is acceptable to speak. In other words, there are certain views or opinions with which, even if you believe them to be true, it is positively dangerous to you on a personal level to be associated.

I am sure that plenty of British and American corporate executives, sales directors and small business managers voted either to Leave the EU, or for the Donald. But those people knew they had absolutely nothing to gain by flagging that this was their opinion. Consequently, as rational practitioners of self-interest, they kept absolutely quiet… and the revolutions occurred, to the utter amazement of their noisier colleagues within the middle class ‘echo chamber’.

I’m not sure this was the case when I was 20, at which callow age I was accustomed to saying pretty much anything that occurred to me yet managed both to see out my University degree and stay out of prison. But it seems increasingly to be true and even, alarmingly, in the academic world.

“It is vital leaders in business listen to people whose judgement they value but who will challenge their viewpoint, who will dare to speak ‘truth to power’”
It’s probably easier than we think for particular opinions to dominate, to the extent that their opposites are seen as puzzling, immoral or even indicative of low intelligence. If we’re not careful such conventions can become hardwired into our brains, to our detriment. Ex Radio-4 editor Rod Liddle wrote an excellent Spectator article last year in which he suggested that broadly conservative thinkers actually possess superior emotional intelligence and empathy, when compared to broadly liberal thinkers.

Many people might find this counterintuitive, arguably because in Britain at least the ’conventional thought’ for decades has been that liberal, (‘progressive’) thinkers are nice, people-orientated types and conservatives are nasty, bean counting fascists. But Liddle argues that, generally, people holding conservative opinions – on the economy, on benefits, on migration or whatever – hold such views despite being perfectly capable of understanding why other people might contrastingly support socialism, or open borders, or whatever more liberal opinion applies. Conservatives generally understand liberals perfectly well, in other words – they just think they are wrong.

Liberal thinkers however, Liddle claims, often literally cannot understand how anyone might hold a right-wing view on any given subject. Even though such views might be expressed perfectly rationally, the mindset required to accept they are valid opinions, eludes them.  We can see an example of this in Britain, in the post-rationalisation of Leave votes by some members of the Remain camp. Leave voters rapidly found themselves being told that they hadn’t voted the way they had for the reasons they thought they had, but for some other, quite separate set of reasons that fit in better with the Remain way of looking at things.

This sort of ‘bubble-dwelling blindness’ can happen to individuals who are otherwise highly effective. And it happens frequently in business, in my experience.

We have probably all worked for large, blue chip companies in which particular ways of looking at business, at customers and at markets are taken for granted. Sure, people talk happily about ‘pushing the envelope’, ‘disruption’ etc – it sounds good and possibly a bit macho – but if you look carefully there will always be a ‘shibboleth’ or two that forms the basis of most strategic decision-making. Colleagues who ask genuinely awkward questions, or suggest that alternative, inconvenient opinions might be perfectly valid, are the exception not the norm. There were no doubt people at Kodak in the 1990s who questioned whether sticking with film rather than switching to digital was a good idea.

Take the example of Western office workers’ unspoken attitude that those who work long hours are dedicated and effective. There is plenty of evidence that fewer/more flexible hours of more focused work can in fact achieve better results. Yet it would be a brave boss in any large white collar company who championed a board proposal mandating shorter hours of attendance for their workforce. Their colleagues would pretend to listen… but wouldn’t really ‘get it’, would find ways of undermining such a proposal and undoubtedly damage the boss in the process.

We probably can’t change all this quickly but we can certainly try to work around it. And we must try. Understanding our customers and our colleagues points of view will be essential for any successful business. Understanding our fellow citizens’ points of view will likewise be essential for a successful society. It is uncomfortable to walk in someone else’s shoes, but it is necessary. Perhaps a good exercise for 2017 would be a role-playing one.  Find a set of attitudes that are the polar opposite of your own, on some aspect of your business that matters right now, and see if you can think your way into those attitudes. It will be rather like putting on a hat or taking on a part in a play. Now think about your interpersonal issues with senior colleagues, or your customer challenges, with your new hat on. What you discover could be very enlightening.


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Danny Herbert
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