The recent political events in the UK have reminded me of a saying that I often use; ‘the only thing we can predict about people is that people are unpredictable’. You may be wondering what I mean by this…
As human beings we interact with people on a daily basis – on a train, on a bus, at the coffee shop, at the gym, in the office or at a restaurant. When we interact with people we observe their behaviour, we share our views and occasionally we have a conversation about our philosophy regarding how the world works and/or what is truly important to us.
Through such interactions we form our opinions of people and about what they believe, but are these opinions an accurate portrayal of their true feelings? The surface behaviour and rhetoric of people is often not enough to really provide us insight into what they truly believe, value and feel. How often do we talk unreservedly about our own values and beliefs with our colleagues, boss or direct reports? Or even with our friends? The answer is less often than you would think. Every day we are making judgements about people, but the reality is that these judgements are often superficial. Councillor Ian Payne, Mayor of Bromley, recently spoke at a prize giving at my son’s school and offered some advice to the children that resonates here - to ‘never judge a book by it’s cover’.
Let’s combine this tendency for superficial interaction with a fascinating bias that we are all prone to… have you ever heard of the false-consensus effect? Simply put, this bias means that we overemphasise the notion that others out in the world think the same way we do. We therefore make assumptions around other people’s behaviour based on our own mental models of the world. This bias contributes to us being less inclined to invest time to understand others’ perspectives and can lead to poor decision making based on inaccurate data.
If we never delve beneath the surface in our interactions with people how can we every really understand why people do what they do? If we never understand, how can we ever truly value difference or make the best decisions for our businesses and society?
The Brexit result provided me with some realisations, the chief one being that I’ve had insufficiently meaningful discussions with the people that matter and, as a consequence, made erroneous assumptions around how they would behave. The shock from the market and from betting agencies alike implies that I was not alone. When I work with organisations, leaders are often surprised by the actions of employees - right now, the government can’t understand the behaviour of junior doctors and the rail companies can’t understand the attitude of their workers. They are striking to be heard. In Brexit the MPs didn’t fully anticipate the actions of their constituents and the market didn’t predict the actions of the populace.
It seems that as organisations and as a society we are left wanting for some meaningful conversations.
So, for what it is worth here are some meaningful conversation starters… try them at your next coffee break, dinner party or team meeting.
• What is important to you and why?
• What is your most important value?
• What are you passionate about and why?