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A Look At The Invisible Forces Controlling Your Workplace

The team behind the Invisibilia podcast shares how they explore the powerful forces we can't see and how they affect us.

A Look At The Invisible Forces Controlling Your Workplace
[Photo: Flickr user Nick Kenrick]

Are invisible forces controlling you and your co-workers?

The popular podcast Invisibilia, co-hosted by Lulu Miller, Hanna Rosin, and Alix Spiegel, is based on the premise that there are things we cannot see—and of which we may not be fully aware—that influence our behavior. Ideas, beliefs, assumptions, and emotions shaping the way we interact. The trio of journalists is committed to exploring the scientific and sociological data behind these phenomena. In the podcast’s second season, which debuted in June, they begin to look at the impact beyond the individual, including how these factors influence government policies, institutions, and companies.

Invisible Forces In The Workplace

When the team decided to look at social norms—those "rules" that define acceptable behavior in various settings—they initially weren’t going to look at workplaces. But, soon, it became apparent that these guidelines are a big part of workplace cultures, and can also influence everything from safety levels to how people interact and communicate on a day-to-day basis.

In the "New Norm" episode, they look take a look at how changing social and emotional norms can transform culture. They recount the experiences of a group of oil field workers on Shell Oil Company’s massive Ursa deep water oil rig. These are people who do dangerous work. Interviewees tell harrowing stories about getting just 15 minutes to grieve after watching co-workers die in grisly rig accidents, then being required to get back on the job.

But, to create a safer environment, it was important that workers communicate better, including being able to admit needing help or having concerns. Roughly 100 Shell workers participated in sessions that had them sharing details of their personal lives, admitting mistakes, receiving honest feedback, and feeling vulnerable—a far cry from the steely compartmentalization they had mastered to control their emotions. The effort and its effects contributed to an 84% decline in accidents company-wide and a rise in productivity.

Invisible social constructs also affect companies doing business across borders. When McDonald’s expanded to the Soviet Union in 1990, workers were puzzled when they were asked to smile and make eye contact with customers. That's commonplace behavior in the U.S., but not as much in the former USSR, where an environment of shortage made people accustomed to being treated harshly by restaurant staff, possibly being turned away because of their attire, even if a restaurant was empty, or waiting up until two hours for a meal. But as workers were trained to smile, make eye contact, and interact pleasantly with customers, a remarkable thing happened: The customers responded positively and other companies began to adopt such seemingly common customer service basics, creating widespread cultural change.

An episode from last season, "How to Become Batman," looked at the effect our expectations can have on other people—and even animals. Delving into research psychologist Robert Rosenthal’s "Pygamalion effect," they shared an experiment where rats performed in accordance to whether when their handlers had been led to believe that they were exceptionally smart or dumb.

In another segment, the hosts share the story Daniel Kish, founder of World Access for the Blind, and sometimes called "the real-life Batman." The moving story relays how Kish’s mother's refusal to limit her expectations for her son allowed him to develop a form of echolocation that he now teaches to other blind people through his nonprofit, allowing them to move more freely in the world. Kish is actually able to ride a bike. The exploration poses compelling questions about how our attitudes about people around us and their abilities can have an impact on what they do.

Can our expectations affect those around us in the workplace? That’s not yet clear, Spiegel says. But the episode provides some interesting food for thought about how expectations affect others.

Everyday Invisibilia

Invisibilia doesn’t stop at some simplistic happy ending in its explorations. The social norms episode reveals that the revelations caused one oil rig worker to experience a psychological issue that needed treatment. (He recovered.) A psychologist shares research about the negative fallout from forced smiling. And Kish is not without his detractors. Rosin also emphasizes that it’s important to look at research about these forces as a body of work and not take one study or anecdote as proof positive of any given theory.

"Let’s say one of us came across an intriguing study, let’s say [the rat] study. We have the luxury of time to read every single study that was done on that, then back off and figure out how to portray it if it’s unusual or we don’t use it because it’s too anomalous," Rosin says.

In other words, be open to the concepts you observe and learn, but don’t assume that one finding or a-ha moment is gospel. Keep a healthy interest in the world around you and keep investigating to get a balanced view and better insight into the invisible factors that affect us all.

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