In his latest book, Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the problems which can result when we expect that there is alignment between how people act and how they really feel internally. Gladwell call this the transparency problem and provides multiple examples to illustrate the challenges we face when we assume that what we see is what we get.
He presents the assumptions which Neville Chamberlain made in the years leading up to World War II based on the meetings he had with Adolf Hitler. Chamberlain assumed that Hitler was being genuine when he indicated that he had no interest in starting a major conflict in Europe and yet his near term actions clearly showed that this was not the case. He talks about the difficulties which judges face when having to decide whether or not to grant bail based on not only case information available to them but how an accused behaves when they are in front of the judge. And he writes about the Amanda Knox case where Italian authorities assumed that she was guilty of murdering her roommate primarily because of her behavior when she was questioned after the incident.
Gladwell sorts people into those whose external behavior matches what is happening inside of them and those who don’t. We are quite good at identifying matched people. In fact, Gladwell indicates that our ability to detect when a matched person is lying is almost as good as that of law enforcement experts. What’s chilling is that when dealing with mismatched people these experts are no better than we are.
It is not that assuming transparency is a bad thing to do. As Gladwell states, Charles Darwin felt that transparent behavior was critical to creating trust between strangers which enabled our species to survive.
But what’s the relevance of this to project delivery?
When interacting with those who we’ve never worked with before, most of us default to expecting transparency. When someone appears to be acting in a negative manner, this assumption might result in us becoming offended. Alternately, we might be getting warm, friendly vibes from a team member which causes us to assume that they are on our side only to be shocked when their subsequent actions prove they were not supporting us at all. In the latter situation, the individual may be purposefully deceiving us by providing false “tells” (to use the poker term) but in the former, it might simply be a case of someone who is mismatched.
This is illustrated in the movie Joker. Joaquin Phoenix’s titular character is prone to burst out laughing hysterically at inopportune moments as a result of childhood head trauma. Strangers exposed to this behavior assume transparency and respond negatively. To attempt to compensate, he has cards which he hands to offended strangers providing the justification for his inappropriate laughter.
But once we get to know that these team members are mismatched, we begin to understand them for who they truly are, and the likelihood of misinterpreting their behavior is vastly reduced. When we are part of long-lived, stable teams, we are able to appreciate the diversity of those who work with us and are able to leverage these differences as strengths and not as sources of conflict.