SEASON 2: EPISODE 6
The Author of “The Cure for Stupidity” On Radical Curiosity
In the polarized landscape of our times, communicating with others who hold opposing views can be a challenge. Yet, we can engage others with more mutual understanding and respect if we develop our openness- a willingness to listen, receive feedback, and look for commonalities in opposing viewpoints. Being more open-minded is important, especially at work, because it helps us improve our interpersonal skills. Studies have also shown that this dimension of emotional intelligence allows us to be focused, innovative, and enhances our working memory.
In this episode of Breaking the Bias, Consciously Unbiased founder Ashish Kaushal (virtually) sits down with Eric Bailey, author of The Cure for Stupidity: Using Brain Science to Explain Irrational Behavior at Work and President of Bailey Strategic Innovation Group, for an unplugged conversation about how we can develop our openness and follow principles that are rooted in psychology and neuroscience to help us communicate, lead, and collaborate more effectively. Eric also informs us that once we educate ourselves about why we express certain feelings when we have disagreements, we will be able to engage with others with more empathy and impact.
Listen to the full conversation here, and read below for some key takeaways.
ASHISH: You describe yourself as a “lifetime learner of human and organizational behavior.” I love the concept of “lifetime learner,” because it’s important to keep pushing ourselves to grow. How did you get into this line of work?
ERIC: “When I was 12 years old, I told my mom that I wanted to inspire a million people, but I didn’t exactly know what that meant yet. I just knew that I had something inside of me that I wanted to share with folks. Over the course of my many different career paths, I noticed they all centered around helping folks get from one place to another by learning something new. I’ve been learning my entire life, and I’ve found ways to help share that learning with other folks. I have worked at the Phoenix zoo, led leadership trainings and customer service trainings, worked in the finance sector, the healthcare sector, and then I got my master’s degree. I finally realized that leadership, organizational development and organizational psychology, are what really speak to who I am—giving folks things that they wouldn’t otherwise see and help them take their next step forward.”
ASHISH: In a nutshell, how do you help organizations?
ERIC: “I respond with two answers when people ask what I do. First, I always say I do the things that I put on the website: leadership development, strategic planning, coaching, and D&I plans. That’s what I say I do. But, I really teach humans to see humanity on the other side so that they can get work done faster, and I help people understand the brain science behind why we fail to communicate. Meaning, if you have ever been in an argument or debate and felt angry, frustrated, or annoyed by the way the other person communicates, then you understand what I’m talking about. There are baseline universal human principles based in psychology, neuroscience, physiology, anthropology, and linguistics that help us understand why those annoyances or frustrations show up. If we can start to put labels to them and create tools around them, we can do all of our work more efficiently.”
ASHISH: Can you share a time when you had to push yourself to be more open. What was the result?
ERIC: “One time I engaged with this person during my D&I work. During the session we were talking about systemic racism and this gentleman responded, ‘systemic racism is a figment of your imagination.’ Initially I thought, I teach this for a living and I have a pretty good grasp on what this means. I’m pretty sure that’s not true. I got a little defensive and started doing the natural human thing, having the urge to prove that he was wrong, to put him in his place, and tell him why he was incorrect.
But, then I just caught myself and thought, ‘Eric, you teach this. Why don’t you put it into practice, really engage with this person who thinks differently than you and see what’s on the other side.’ So, instead of what I wanted to do, which was to say some facts, reasoning, and logic to prove him wrong, l decided to figure out what he was thinking and feeling. I said, ‘Interesting, why don’t you tell me what you hear when you hear the phrase ‘systemic racism?’’ At this moment, I had to open up to the possibility that there was logic and reasoning behind his comment, even though it was very hard for me to accept. I started to realize that instead of trying to force him to see it my way, I opened myself to seeing it his way. Once I was able to do that, we could have a more meaningful dialogue and get to a place where we were able to talk. This process of opening myself, which seemed very counterintuitive at first, actually allowed me to move the conversation forward.”
ASHISH: Can we learn to be more open, or is it something that is innate?
ERIC: “We are naturally a curious species. We all have a very clear mental model—the internal representation between a set of elements—of who we are, such as: I’m a good person, I’m a kind person, or I’m a smart person. If information comes out that challenges your mental model, you experience what psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance’ or an unpleasant feeling that your mental model may not be correct.
That’s when I think, yes, it’s innate because we’re naturally curious. But, if this new information challenges what we think of the world or think of ourselves, all of a sudden it can really grate on us and people will push away forcefully. So, in this case, it does need to be learned and we should be learning what bias actually means. For example, a lot of people think that bias equates with racism. People frequently say, ‘Are you calling me a racist? Or, are you insinuating that I’m a racist?’ My response would be, ‘No, I’m not. What I’m saying is that thing that you said was insensitive and it affected me or affected someone else.’ The racist intent does not mean you are racist.”
ASHISH: You developed the 22 Principles of Understanding. Can you tell us what that is?
ERIC: “The 22 principles are the brain science and psychology behind collaboration, communication, leadership, and relationships. They are designed to help people see the world around them, and help us understand why we do things we do. Once we learn about them, we can rehumanize ourselves and rehumanize the other person we’re speaking with so we can engage differently.
If you get frustrated with someone, you can probably find three or four principals that are responsible for why you are feeling that way. The problem is that people enjoy trying to win too much. One of the principles, ‘fight to be right,’ describes how we stay so high at the surface level of trying to prove the other person is wrong and we are right. When we do this, we never take the time to go deeper and realize that we are looking for the same thing. If you think about it, just because I might disagree with you doesn’t mean I disagree about who you are. Our thought on one topic doesn’t define who we are as people. I think we seem to align ourselves with one thing, but we are actually much more complicated than that.”
ASHISH: You’ve mentioned the importance of Radical Curiosity. How does this relate to openness?
ERIC: “Radical curiosity is this idea that if we show up in the world hyper curious when we find things that make us uncomfortable or things and people that are difficult, we can view these situations as opportunities for being wide open and understanding humanity.
To do this, you don’t need to give up your opinion, change your opinion, or say that you or someone else is right or wrong. We talked about the level of method earlier. We actually want to go with those levels into purpose. The ‘why’ underneath is where we should be curious: ‘I would love to understand your humanity. I want to know why you care. I want to know why you’re so passionate about this.’ Radically curiosity forces us to be open. If we’re open and acknowledge that we don’t know things, we have just identified things we can learn. Enlightenment is all about realizing how much you don’t know, and that is when radically curiosity becomes really powerful.”
ASHISH: What can you tell us about your 21st principle, The Blind Spot List?
ERIC: “The blind spot is this idea that we have this natural ability, called ‘fundamental attribution error.’ We have a fundamental ability to judge someone’s character when they make a mistake instead of giving them an environmental explanation.
For example, if someone is driving too fast on the road or texting while they are driving, we look at them and we judge their character and not the situation or the environment. We say: they’re crazy, they’re stupid, or they have no regard for human life. This idea of the bias blind spot list is used to describe that we have a natural ability to very clearly identify the biases of other people. It’s so obvious to us when it regards other people, but we can’t see them in ourselves. Because of this, we end up creating a list of things that people need to fix or a list of people that need to be fixed. What we don’t see is that we are on the list for somebody else.”
ASHISH: At Consciously Unbiased, we have this idea of microprogressions, or small action steps that we can take as leaders to promote D&I. Can you give me an example of one microprogression leaders can do to make the workplace a more open and inclusive space for others?
ERIC: “Most successful leaders across time have one trait in common: They listen much more than they talk. Unfortunately, most leaders end up talking much more than we listen. The one microprogression I would say is to just shut up and listen. Instead of trying to tell people why they’re wrong, just shut up and listen to what they misheard. When you want to say, ‘Oh, that’s not what I meant when I said it,’ remember that it doesn’t matter what you meant. Listen to what they heard. That will give you insight into what might be going on for them, and also show you where you might have failed in your communication. This idea changes the way in which we engage with each other.”