Although decisions can often be made more easily in echo chambers, leaders should learn how to break out of their comfort zones of agreement in order to make better decisions.
Leadership is a responsibility to connect people and ideas for positive processes and outcomes. In early 2022, however, leaders operate amid a level of uncertainty not experienced since perhaps the 9/11 attacks of September 2001 or the Great Recession of 2007–2009. What makes the current level of uncertainty more intense than those in previous times is that this uncertainty exists within "echo chambers." Today, if people feel uncertain, they have channels (e.g., social media) to spread their feelings and thoughts to a large number of people, have those people echo and escalate the feelings and thoughts, and begin a dangerous cycle of confirmation.
Echo chambers have been characterized as "information-limiting environments" that can "constrain the information sources that individuals choose to consume, shielding them from opinion-challenging information and encouraging them to adopt more extreme viewpoints."Footnote1 In short, an echo chamber is the intellectual environment that people create to pad themselves from disagreement and to believe that their opinions are shared and correct.
Consider the significant events of the past couple years, and you won't have to look far to see an echo chamber in action. Many people and popular media have perpetuated recent leadership issues as binary constructs, painting them as either for justice, health, safety, freedom, and expression—or against all of that. There is no gray zone and very little room to consider the most likely scenario: that multiple truths coexist. The echo chambers on either side of an argument have become so strong that it is difficult for those within the chambers to see outside of them.
Leadership is often called to immediate and decisive action in this type of binary world, even if the information is scarce or unreliable. However, the risks of blocking out other opinions, even those that are contradictory, far outweigh the convenience of easily making decisions in an echo chamber.
Harvard Professor Cass Sunstein has spoken about the dangers of false righteousness in echo chambers for more than twenty years. In 1999 he published work that warned against the social fragmentation that results from small groups of like-minded people focusing on topics of high relevance and concern, and in 2002 he cautioned that the "personalization" of news consumption creates risks to both democracy and higher education institutions.Footnote2 The conversations and information that a group consumes can quickly become devoid of other viewpoints and fraught with confirmation bias. Echo chambers reinforce the work of the brain, which emphasizes agreeable knowledge and discards challenging narratives.Footnote3 Finally, leadership echo chambers demonstrate the dangerous truth noted by Daniel Kahneman, the author of the book Thinking Fast and Slow: "Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance."Footnote4
Most literature on echo chambers focuses on the use of social media. However, the term also seems appropriate to describe the decision-making experiences of leaders in the modern era. There has never been more access to information, and congruently, there has never been such urgency to make quick decisions. Leaders cannot possibly account for all the available information, but they must make decisions rapidly. To do so, they often rely on echo chambers, which are built from best intentions.
How to Recognize an Echo Chamber
Echo chambers are often invisible. Like Plato's Cave, echo chambers simply seem like everyday life if we fail to ever step outside of them. The first step in leaving the chamber and making better decisions must be the awareness that a chamber exists.
The first signal can be noticed when those with leadership titles choose to speak up and enforce a belief or stance. An echo chamber is present if opinions and input from the team consistently mimic those of the leadership voice. Having all team members on the same page about the mission and vision is essential for meaningful progress. However, there may be an echo chamber if no team members have recently questioned, asked for clarification from, or disagreed with leaders about a decision.
The second indication of an echo chamber can arise when leaders decide not to speak. When formal leaders are quiet, one of two things will tend to happen. In a place of echo chambers, team members will also remain quiet or will refer to something the leader noted previously. In a place where echo chambers are weaker, the team will move forward with conversation and creativity without a leader's direct input.
Next time a decision is on the line, try not to speak if you have a formal leadership title. Allow the team to take control. An echo chamber is in place if the team simply looks at you to confirm your thinking and can't take ownership.
How to Exit an Echo Chamber
The paramount principle that will move leadership out of echo chambers is intentionality. Leaders must be intentional with everything: team building, personal and business development, decisions, planning, and the list goes on. Without intentionality, leadership will enter an echo chamber and may not notice until it is too late and a poor decision has become big news.
Leaders can take five practical actions to ensure that their leadership does not default to echo chambers.
1. Hire for Addition, Not Multiplication.
Humans are at risk of anchoring bias, according to which people tend to be overly influenced by the first piece of information they obtain.Footnote5 When it comes to building a team, a leader may anchor on something about a job candidate in the first few minutes of a conversation or interview. On the surface, that may not seem to be a problem. Still, the conversations in the first few minutes of an interview or interaction may not be the correct information to anchor a hiring decision. Typically, early interactions denote possible multiplication, in which the ideas or skills that leaders and team members already have multiply with a new candidate.
Anchors of multiplication come from questions such as, "What can you tell us about yourself?" or "What brought you here?" Candidates may speak about the job, but more likely they will discuss their personal history, family, hobbies, or interests. When leaders in an echo chamber hear something they like or dislike, they will often anchor to it for the rest of the interview and will not be open to the additional job skills the candidate may bring (or not bring). Leadership working to step outside of an echo chamber must hire for addition—adding skills, personalities, and ideas not already held by the current team.
2. Use a "Yes, and . . ." Roundtable Approach.
The concept of "yes, and . . ." originated in improvisational comedy, in which performers maintain a story thread by accepting a situational offer and augmenting it with a new one.Footnote6 "Yes, and . . ." honors the present and gives space for a new reality. In contrast, when facing opposing ideas, echo chamber leaders tend to respond with a "yea, but . . ." approach to defend their stance and dismiss other opinions, leading to poor decisions and misinformation.
To create a "yes, and . . ." practice, leaders can host monthly or quarterly roundtable sessions. The task for the team is to think about decisions or projects with "yes, and . . ." approaches. Team members are not allowed to use the word "but" as they converse. The goal is to open conversations and decisions to as many new inputs as possible. The team is to lead with empathy and represent those stakeholders not physically at the table so that even a group of like-minded people can participate in the exercise together. At the end of the roundtable, leadership can debrief the agenda items and ask what new ideas were raised and which of those are worth considering as a team. Using the "yes, and . . ." roundtable format can help to ensure that echo chambers are not driving decisions before full input has been gathered.
3. Establish Norms to Bring Down the Walls.
Every team has norms of engagement, whether they are clearly articulated or not. Norms need to be clear—and in clear opposition to echoes. One norm that dismantles echo chambers comes from Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist. He proposed creating a "challenge network" in which leadership deliberately asks for voices that offer disagreement. Grant states, "The first rule: avoiding an argument is bad manners."Footnote7 It is not rude to disagree; rather, it is imprudent to merely agree and not offer a meaningful perspective. Although disagreeing with the boss is often considered disrespectful, the opposite is true when done with respect for the team and the organizational mission. If the mission of the institution or the team, not the ego of leaders, is the driving force, then healthy conflict is necessary to maintain focus.
A second norm to dismantle echo chambers is designating, for each meeting, a team member as "confirmation bias checker." This person's role is to be on the lookout for confirmation bias, the tendency to search for and favor information that confirms already held ideas. At the end of a meeting, this team member can ask: "Were dissenting opinions made? If so, were they heard fully? If not, why not?" Getting full consensus for any team bigger than five people is rare, so these questions are always worth asking. Because our cognitive biases, including confirmation bias, are so strong, having someone specifically on the lookout can ensure that the bias does not take over.
Default norms in much of Western work culture honor formal leadership titles perhaps too much. To make the best decisions possible, leaders need to create explicit norms that do not allow constant echoing.
4. Dismantle Personal Echo Chambers.
Leaders must also dismantle their own echo chambers. Doing so starts with conducting echo chamber audits and maintaining an openness to new perspectives. The goal is to discover existing echo chambers that do not allow for the empathy and perspective needed to lead complex systems and groups of people. Three types of audits can be helpful.
The Social Media Audit. Echo chambers tend to be built on any social media platform—from Instagram and Facebook to Twitter and LinkedIn. We cannot blame the platform for filtering information: our biases are genuinely at fault.Footnote8 Start by asking yourself these questions: "Who do I follow? Who shows up most often in my feed? Does everyone I follow look like me, think like me, or act like me? Could I seek out voices that might bring different perspectives?" If you find you need some other voices in your social media feeds, reach out to people you know who might think differently and ask for recommendations of people to follow.
The Circle Audit. An often-unspoken reality of leadership is that leaders' decisions are informed by every experience, not just those at work. Leadership is enlightened everywhere, all the time. If there is an echo chamber at work or elsewhere, leadership decisions can be at risk of seeming more strongly informed than they are. This can be avoided by consuming information sources—including newsletters, podcasts, and books—that offer differing views. In addition, those in leadership positions should audit their circle of colleagues, friends, mentors, and others they might talk to about opinions. If the majority of leaders spend time with people who echo their ideas, even outside of work, the habit of being comfortable in the echo chamber reinforces repeatedly.
The Self-Audit. For any leader, the work must begin internally. A self-audit can be difficult because it is less concrete than noticing external forces. This audit is intentionally last on the list because the first two will identify most echo chambers. Others can be so ingrained in an individual that only constant vigilance will identify them. To discover intrapersonal echo chambers, leaders may need to ask tough questions not only of themselves but also of the people closest to them: "What beliefs do I seem most stubborn about? What topics of conversation seem to challenge me the most?"
5. Keep a Leadership Decision Journal.
Keeping a leadership decision journal was an integral practice for U.S. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman. As the leadership expert Peter Drucker said: "Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action."Footnote9
To dismantle echo chambers, leaders can end each week by reflecting on three to five of their most prominent leadership decisions that week. These decisions may be the most impactful, meaningful, or dreadful. Each person can determine the criteria. For each leadership decision, leaders should decide what the outcome was or what it will be and note how they made each decision. Considerations include who was involved, the thoughts of leaders and team members, and whether alternative decisions were considered. Then, at the end of the month, leaders should set time on their calendars to look over the findings. Patterns will emerge: the same people regularly being involved; familiar ways of thinking or information consumption leading to each outcome; and ignoring or honoring alternatives. Though this practice takes intention and time, the goal of leadership is to make informed and wise decisions, not fast ones.
Leaders today are presented with an incredible opportunity lying below the surface of crisis and uncertainty. Perhaps at no other point in the past two decades has leadership been more challenging but equally so needed.
In these times of crisis and uncertainty, everyone carries a leadership responsibility—no matter their official title—to ensure that echo chambers are not driving decisions. If echo chambers are instead reinforced, by default or on purpose, the walls of division and anger will be built even higher. The opportunity today is to reach out and lean in not only to those people who see and experience the world similarly but also to those who do not. If leaders identify and dismantle echo chambers, they can pave the road to connection and positive progress.
- Brent Kitchens, Steven L. Johnson, and Peter Gray, "Understanding Echo Chambers and Filter Bubbles: The Impact of Social Media on Diversification and Partisan Shifts in News Consumption," MIS Quarterly 44, no. 4 (December 2020). Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
- Cass R. Sunstein, "The Law of Group Polarization," John M. Olin Program in Law and Economics Working Paper No. 91 (1999), later published in Journal of Political Philosophy 10, no. 2 (2002); Cass Sunstein, "MyUniversity.com? Personalized Education and Personalized News," EDUCAUSE Review 37, no. 5 (September/October 2002). Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
- R. Kelly Garrett, "Echo Chambers Online? Politically Motivated Selective Exposure Among Internet News Users," Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 14, no. 2 (January 2009), 279. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
- Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), 201. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
- Predrag Teovanović, "Individual Differences in Anchoring Effect: Evidence for the Role of Insufficient Adjustment," Europe's Journal of Psychology 15, no. 1 (February 2019). Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
- Viola Spolin is credited with creating the "yes, and . . ." rule. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
- Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know (New York: Viking, 2021), 87. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
- Lei Guo, Jacob A. Rohde, and H. Denis Wu, "Who Is Responsible for Twitter's Echo Chamber Problem? Evidence from the 2016 U.S. Election Networks," Information, Communication, and Society 23, no. 2 (July 2020). Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
- Drucker quoted in Henna Inam, "To Be an Effective Leader Keep a Leadership Journal," Forbes, April 2, 2017. Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
Ryan MacTaggart is Manager, Professional Learning, for EDUCAUSE and is co-editor for the EDUCAUSE Review Leadership & Professional Learning topic channel.
© 2022 Ryan MacTaggart. The text of this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.