[PMC Weekly Consulting Insight] "I didn't want to offend you"

Philip Morgan

Quick tophat: If you manage an overseas dev team, would you be willing to spare 2 minutes for a survey? In exchange, I will share the results with you. -> https://forms.gle/QaNfP1SbWAQ9FEJb9

I used to be afraid to ask clients about money. This behavior came from social training that it's impolite to talk about money in some situations. I over-applied that social norm.

Naturally, this paper was of interest to me: "I Didn’t Want to Offend You: The Cost of Avoiding Sensitive Questions" by Einav Hart, Eric VanEpps, Maurice E. Schweitzer

The abstract is a good summary, with my bolding added to emphasize a few key points:

Within a conversation, individuals balance competing concerns, such as the motive to gather information and the motives to avoid discomfort and to create a favorable impression. Across three pilot studies and four experimental studies, we demonstrate that individuals avoid asking sensitive questions, because they fear making others uncomfortable and because of impression management concerns. We demonstrate that this aversion to asking sensitive questions is both costly and misguided. Even when we incentivized participants to ask sensitive questions, participants were reluctant to do so in both face-to-face and computer-mediated chat conversations. Interestingly, rather than accurately anticipating how sensitive questions will influence impression formation, we find that question askers significantly overestimate the interpersonal costs of asking sensitive questions. Across our studies, individuals formed similarly favorable impressions of partners who asked non-sensitive (e.g., “Are you a morning person?”) and sensitive (e.g., “What are your views on abortion?”) questions, despite askers’ reticence to ask sensitive questions.

As I've matured as a person I've moved from avoiding sensitive questions (about money, for example) to leaning into those same sorts of sensitive questions. I now have a bias towards asking sensitive questions. This study confirms my bias.

Let's not over-apply the conclusions of this study to real life. Exporting results from Mechanical Turk and a university behavioral science lab to the real world is a big leap. The study’s environment was simple. Perhaps the real world calls for more nuanced decision making.

Still, it's valuable to be reminded that our social training -- or how our personality is wired -- might hold us back in some business situations.

What do you do when you identify some behavior that's holding you back?

I like experiential learning, otherwise known as the "Just do it" method, pioneered by Wieden+Kennedy and Nike. I'm kidding about the W+K part, but not kidding at all about the experiential learning part.

This other study explores something I've sensed about experiential learning: Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Here's the key part:

Despite active learning being recognized as a superior method of instruction in the classroom, a major recent survey found that most college STEM instructors still choose traditional teaching methods. This article addresses the long-standing question of why students and faculty remain resistant to active learning. Comparing passive lectures with active learning using a randomized experimental approach and identical course materials, we find that students in the active classroom learn more, but they feel like they learn less. We show that this negative correlation is caused in part by the increased cognitive effort required during active learning.

Here's my short version: experiential learning works, but it's harder, so we dislike it.

This study is consistent with my experience: learning-by-doing has outperformed learning-by-reading-other-people's-advice in my business. I see changes in my Expertise Incubator participants that advice alone could never produce. They earn these new capabilities and expertise assets through experiential learning and flat out hard work. By just doing it.

What might be your entry point to experiential learning? A few simple suggestions:

  • If you underprice your services, ask "how much money will this project make for the company?" at the next opportunity. Remember that you might be trained to avoid asking sensitive questions, so your evaluation of "the right opportunity to ask that kind of question" might be screwed up. If so, compensate by just doing it at the earliest possible time (just rip the bandaid off). And then doing it again with another client or prospect. Then for a third time. Don't quit after the first time, which might be an outlier of some sort.

  • If you think you understand something, challenge yourself to teach it. Try to explain it in 900 words or less of writing, or in 15 minutes or less of speaking, ideally in public. The word or time limits are artificial constraints, meant to reveal how deep your understanding really goes.

  • If you're intimidated by something, build a scale model. This is not exactly the "Just do it" approach, but sometimes we really do need a lower stakes way to begin. A scale model could be a pilot project or proof of concept or merely a scaled-back version of the thing you're intimidated to do or build.

Have a great day,


PS: I'll be participating in a writing retreat in Tennessee next week, so there will be no Weekly Consulting Insight issue the week of October 7 - 11.

Here's what's been happening on my paid Daily Consulting Insights email list:

Try it out for free: https://pmc.substack.com/trial2w