situationsI heard Sam Sommers from Tufts University speak on The Hidden Power of Context (in your work and your world). His thesis, which is detailed in his book, is that if we can learn to do a better job of fully appreciating our context and acknowledging how our environment shapes our thoughts and actions, we can be more effective. Here’s his argument:

We see people in our environments and we assess their personality type and expect them to have a consistent character. That’s a short cut, it’s our default way of thinking, but it doesn’t give us a full picture of how human nature actually functions.

For example, one of the strongest external forces that affects our behavior and thinking is being in a group. Three things happen to us in a group of people:

1. In the presence of other people, we are less likely to notice what’s going on around us

2. If we are in a group and we do notice what’s going on, we pay attention to how other people are reacting to the situation. In a corporate context, we make an assumption that there must be a good reason for why we do things the way we do, because no one else is talking about it. This is a major roadblock to innovation.

3. When we’re in a group of people, we assume that someone else will take care of things. In organizations, if something isn’t assigned to a particular person, we will assume someone else will complete that task.

In fact, just thinking about being a part of a group is enough to elicit this behavior.

So that brings us to the question – how can we minimize the impact of the group context?

1. Force ourselves to take off the blinders – foster interactions and relationships with new people, because when you know someone, you are much less likely to fall victim to the kinds of inaction described above

2. Don’t assume everything is OK – if you think there might be a problem, investigate it even if no one else seems concerned

3. Stop diffusion of responsibility – assign specific tasks to specific people

For a more in-depth exploration of this idea, see Prof. Sommers’ book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World.