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Human Interaction: It Can Make Us; It Can Break Us

By Dr. Laree Keily

For decades experts have studied the dynamics of humans coming together to accomplish things.  We have multiple fields:  sociology, social psych, group process, teams, org behavior, industrial psych, anthropologists….  We have studied groups, teams, families, tribes, communities.  There are thousands of books on the subject of how to make groups of people operate more effectively with one another.  Look on the Internet and see how many hits you get just on the word “teams.”  Check Amazon to see how many books have been written on these subjects.  And more every day.  With that much knowledge out there, how is it that we still aren’t better at this?

humaninteractionWhen studying these dynamics, we also throw around words like consensus, cooperation and the current buzz word–“collaboration.”  These words worked in an earlier world.  In a simpler world.  They are necessary but not sufficient in this one.  These terms are too soft and too passive.  Cooperation implies someone else decides it and we go along with it somewhat helpfully.  Collaboration implies it already exists and we get along with each other even more helpfully in order to accomplish it.  People have been mis-using “consensus” for years taking it to mean complete agreement and buy-in from all parties.  It actually means agreeing to disagree but moving ahead anyway.  In addition, people have been mis-using it to mean a process.  Consensus is not a process; it is an outcome.  No wonder most organizations today complain about too many meetings, too much talk and not enough action.

There is another word we now need to use to be more specific and clear.  It’s the word “co-creation.”  Co-creation implies something much more powerful.  It means that we are making it up as we go along and we are doing it together.

But co-creating reality isn’t anything new.  In 1967, Berger and Luckman wrote a paradigm shifting book called The Social Construction of Reality.  It was then that social scientists first, legitimately started asking the question “Yikes, what parts of our existence are human beings actually creating rather than just responding to??”  I am not taking on the grandiose philosophical question here of whether or not what is real is really real, I am just suggesting something that we all know:  when we come together, we collectively create stuff, both good and bad.  Since the first human discovered fire and tried to make sense out of it to someone else, we have been co-creating.  The problem is, we are just not consciously aware of this activity or intentional enough about it, and it’s starting to backfire on us.

For example, the number one way people in organizations solve problems, increase innovation, meet challenges and opportunities, etc., is to put the issue on the table and talk about it in groups.  Unfortunately, the minute anyone opens his or her mouth we are co-creating with contaminated data.  But why is it contaminated?

First of all, even though this is the 21st Century, we still care more about where information comes from than we care about the quality of the information.  In other words, information does not stand on its own merit.  This makes sense, of course, when we are looking for expertise:  I am not going to take my car to a grocer to get it fixed.  But what I am describing here is much more psycho-logical (with an emphasis on the “psycho”).  The way I “feel” about the sender of the message usually determines how I “feel” about the information.  If you and I have a healthy, trusting relationship, your information takes on more weight with me.  Even if you remind me of someone I trust, your information takes on more weight with me.  BUT, if our relationship went sideways at sometime, or you remind me of someone with whom I have had negative experiences, your information takes on less weight.  Neuroscientists can actually track these paths in your brain.  The scary part is that all of this takes place before we are consciously aware of it.

These are just old, bad habits.  We have the capacity to be more objective than this, but we have to be more seriously intentional.  We have to train ourselves to be more open and curious; to listen rationally to the SAPs (Severely Annoying People) in our lives  because they might have valuable information.  They might even become one of the most undervalued people on the planet:  a SAPWAGI (Severely Annoying Person With a Great Idea).

Another reason why a group’s verbal, conversational information can be contaminated is due to “cognitive anchors.”  If you put an idea on the table, my mind automatically focuses (anchors) on that idea.  How do I feel about it?  Good or bad?  Yes or no?  What’s right about it; what’s wrong with it?  I am now thinking about what you said thereby narrowing my focus.  Focus is a very valuable mental skill, but not when we need to think expansively or creatively.  We have learned in current research that the old model of “brainstorming” has a few weaknesses, but one element still rings true:  get as many ideas as possible before you start the winnowing process.

One of the weaknesses in the old brainstorming model is that you can’t do this out loud with one another or it unintentionally contaminates how we are using our mental processes.  The best way to “un-contaminate” is to use a type of Modified Delphi process where the group starts with a strategic question (be careful here, the quality of the answer is totally dependent on the quality of the question).  Next everyone answers the question to the best of their ability individually with NO conversation.  Then you pool the answers and find the patterns in the emergent data.  In control group design studies, we have found that the group that just discusses the question takes significantly more time and has significantly less data to work with.  The group using the Modified Delphi takes on average 1/4th the amount of time and yields up to 10 times the data to work with.  More importantly, the Modified Delphi group yields significantly better answers.

This new world is complex, volatile and high velocity.  We have to learn to co-create with multiple voices in the mix in the shortest, most productive amount of time.  This means reexamining the way we get things done.  It means getting rid of some old habits and finding new ways to interact with each other.  Humans talk.  We talk things into existence.  We use our language to create great things and, yet, also to destroy them.  William James once said, “Language is the most imperfect and expensive means yet discovered for communicating thought.”  We are so careful, so intentional, about our strategies, our finances, our accountabilities; do we dare leave our interactions to chance?

Laree Kiely, Ph.D., President, the Kiely Group.  Dr Kiely served on the faculty at USC for over 15 years.  In addition to currently leading the Kiely Group, she serves as faculty for leadership programs at Duke CE, UCLA, USC, Thunderbird, and Ivey (Toronto).  The Kiely Group specializes in Leadership and Organizational Impact.  Please send your comments, questions, and stories to us at:  [email protected]


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