“Research shows…” we could be talking SH!TE

Adam Grant is a well known popular science author, Organisational Psychologist and Professor at Wharton Business School.

His book ‘Think Again’ is well worth a read. I agree with the premise of his book, as described on his website.

“Intelligence is usually seen as the ability to think and learn, but in a rapidly changing world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn.”

And like Adam, I reserve the right to change my mind and have a different view at any stage in the future 😉.

Which leads me to something that’s bugging me at the moment. Especially in the ‘popular science’ category of books, podcasts and “research”.

I was listening to Grant being interviewed by Steve Bartlett on the Diary of a CEO podcast last week (I’ve some issues with this podcast that bug me too, I’ll save you my rant on that).

In the episode, Grant talks about “research” on the Babble Effect. On the face of it, most of us can probably relate to this summary from our experience at some point in our careers:

  • The more you talk in a meeting, the more likely you are to get selected as a leader of the team.
  • We reward people who dominate the conversation.
  • These people can be so obsessed with being the smartest person in the room that they fail to make the room smarter.
  • What happens is we consistently mistake confidence for competence.

As I listened to the podcast on my run, I made a note to check out the research. Whilst something resonated, something else felt amiss. How could they conduct such a study? It felt overly-simplified.

I listened back to it, and I checked out the research.

Turns out that the “research” was conducted by Neil G Maclaren of Binghampton University, published in ‘The Leadership Quarterly’, conducted with 256 college students.

Grant’s exact words on the podcast were; “There’s a bunch of findings that might surprise people. The first one is that we elevate the wrong people to leadership roles, consistently”.

So far, so good. It’s my view that this phenomenon is still at play in many organisations. Moreover, human error and bias will ensure it remains at play in the foreseeable future.

He then says “There’s research on what’s called the Babble Effect which suggests that….” and he explains the points in bullets above.

I expected Adam Grant to be linking something evidential to back his points up. I don’t see how a small non-scientific study, involving a few hundred students, can be extrapolated out to the workforce as a whole.

He didn’t say it could be extrapolated out, in fairness. But he joined up the research in order to back up his prior point. He may not have intended it to be this way, I’d give him the benefit of the doubt.

So here’s what it brought up for me. And what I want to check with you.

Sometimes we put too much trust in other people’s perceived authority.

Do you?

In the fields of human potential psychology and the behavioural sciences that people in my profession study and share, it’s awash with “studies” and “research” claims that have little substance when probed.

Same with diets, nutrition, exercise, productivity and so on.

Social media, bookshelves and podcast libraries host mighty claims of whatever product, service or theory that is being pedalled.

I’ve bought into plenty of them over the years, that’s been part of my learning for myself. I will again, I’m not expecting anything else. I’d rather be open to things (growth) and willing to change my view again than never be open to them in the first place.

There are two things I urge you to consider on this subject:

  1. Be open to changing your mind on something you’ve thought to be true – challenge the status quo.
  2. Get a sense for your gut and instinct on things, not just your mind/thoughts.

Coaching is a process that helps you find your own way forward. Not some prescribed way, there is no one way that works for us all. Your way will be partly guided by your experiences, but more so by your interpretation of that experience and how you can apply its insights today and going forward.

Coaching is just a cosy chat without challenge. Challenge is key, being open to it is a prerequisite.

Please reply with any stories that illustrate either a considerable u-turn on a long-held thought/belief OR where you trusted your gut despite perceived logic pointing in a different direction.

I’ll share my own next week.