Dispatches from the Women's Networking Circuit: The Hidden Power of Context

situations matter.jpgSam Sommers from Tufts University spoke this week at the HR Leadership Forum on The Hidden Power of Context (in your work and your world). This program particularly resonates with me because at Simmons we pay a lot of attention to understanding and responding to context.

Sommers' thesis 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

Then Sommers turned to gender differences, so you can imagine how curious I was to hear where he was going.

He started by suggesting that there are several areas where there is robust research that documents differences between men and women. Three areas that are well documented are math ability, spacial skill, and aggression. We tend to explain this by biology, but in fact, very small tweaks to context can actually change those results. Here are some examples:

Math ability: On average, men will outperform women on math tests. However, if you give women the same test and tell them that it is designed to be a gender neutral test, the difference disappears. This is due to stereotype threat - women are aware that there's a stereotype that women aren't good at math, and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Alternatively, if you give that math test to women in a women-only environment, that will also eliminates the gender difference. So it can't be biologically based; if it were, the difference couldn't be eliminated so easily.

Spatial skill: One of the big differences in our society between boys and girls is video gaming. However, if you statistically control for video gaming activity, differences between boys and girls in spatial skills shrink dramatically.

Aggression: it is true that in almost every culture, males tend to show more aggression. However, aggression may take different forms in men than in women. In addition, there are ways to mitigate the differences between men and women by changing the context. For example, if you bring men and women into a research lab and ask them to play a "first person shooter" video game, the men will play more aggressively. But if you make the players anonymous, women will play more like men.

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