Can Awkward Conversations Make for a Stronger Corporate Culture?

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You make a joke in a meeting and nobody laughs…. Your sister posts an unflattering teenage photo of you on Facebook…. A work discussion veers into heated politics…. Most of us spend a lot of time trying to avoid cringeworthy moments like these. We want to appear perpetually in control of ourselves and our lives.

“Normal people are really uncomfortable with awkwardness,” noted Wharton management professor Adam Grant at a recent Authors@Wharton event. Then he turned to the three speakers joining him. “But you all are not only comfortable with it, you seem to relish it. Like it’s joyful.”

The speakers were Daniel Coyle, author of The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, also the New York Times bestselling author of The Talent Code; New York magazine senior editor Melissa Dahl, author of Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness; and CNN political commentator Sally Kohn, author of The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity.

The books all involve taking a fresh look at awkwardness, vulnerability and uncomfortable truths, ranging widely over business, psychology and politics. Embracing the small moments that make us squirm, the authors say, can offer surprising benefits for our companies, our communities and our personal lives.

Showing Vulnerability at Work

“Think about the best team you’ve ever been on; the most cohesive, cooperative, deeply connected team,” Coyle asked the audience. Maybe it was a sports team, a family event, or a summer job, he said. How did it feel to be together, to be connected to something bigger, to kind of “lose yourself?”

He called this feeling the most powerful business asset on earth, likening it to a strong corporate culture. “CEOs have sleepless nights thinking about how to build that feeling you just created in your head.”

To illustrate the value of corporate culture, Coyle talked about a 1992 Harvard study in which researchers tracked a large group of firms over 11 years. The businesses that had a strong culture enjoyed a staggering net income growth of 756%. Those that didn’t grew only 1%.

Coyle said there’s a widespread belief that an exceptional company culture can’t be achieved intentionally; that it arises organically, part of a firm’s special DNA. He disagrees, saying that building a strong culture is a skill that can be learned and developed.

He did an experiment with the audience. Everyone paired up with a partner for an exercise in which they would both ask and answer a question. Participants on the left side of the room were asked to describe the last pet that they owned. On the right side, partners were asked to discuss, “Is there something you always wished you could do, and why haven’t you done it?”

After the exercise, Coyle noted that the pet-describing group had started talking right away. The “something you wished you could do” side was more hesitant at first, but once their discussion got going, they became visibly more animated and energetic in words and gestures than the first group.

In a 1992 Harvard study in which researchers tracked a large group of firms over 11 years, businesses that had a strong culture enjoyed a staggering net income growth of 756%.

He explained that there was a key difference between the two questions. “‘Describe the last pet you owned?’ I got that: Moby, 15 pounds, cockapoo. I could talk about it all day long. But, ‘Is there something you haven’t done, and why haven’t you done it?’… That’s hard. That’s a moment of disclosure.”

Coyle said that if the audience had then been asked to play a challenging game with their partners, the side of the room that had to open up about themselves would achieve higher scores, according to sociological studies. Moments of vulnerability like that group had experienced create closeness, trust and cohesion, he said.

Coyle said that for his book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, he spent time with organizations known for their exceptional culture: Pixar, the Navy’s SEAL Team Six, the San Antonio Spurs, IDEO, Zappos. He said what they have in common is that they have “operationalized” the moment of vulnerability. “They’ve turned it into a habit, almost like a cultural calisthenic, where they perpetually circle up and tell each other uncomfortable truths.”

According to Coyle, business leaders can learn to “dial in” to the behaviors — moments of vulnerability, safety and purpose — that create an extraordinarily effective culture.

The Importance of Being Cringeworthy

Waving back at someone who it turns out wasn’t waving at you. Showing up to a meeting with spinach in your teeth. The way you feel while asking your boss for a promotion. These are all situations most people find cringeworthy, said Dahl.

But there’s more there than just discomfort, she said. “We’re seeing a difference between the version of ourselves we think we’re presenting to the world and the version of ourselves the world is actually seeing.” We like to pretend those two things are one and the same, said Dahl, but that isn’t always the case. Dahl’s Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness is filled with accounts of her own cringeworthy moments, some self-induced: reading aloud from her middle-school diary to an auditorium of strangers; taking improv comedy lessons; accidentally responding to a group social media message as if were sent to her privately.

But how much are other people really noticing the embarrassing things we do? Psychological studies have been somewhat contradictory, according to Dahl. On the one hand, there is the “spotlight effect,” the tendency to think more people are noticing what you do than there actually are; on the other hand, there’s the “invisibility cloak illusion,” which refers to the fact that although you might spend a good amount of time watching others in public places, you unconsciously assume that no one’s doing the same to you.

“Even when people see your screw-ups, they aren’t judging you as harshly as you think.”–Melissa Dahl

She offers some good news for the overly self-conscious: Research has found that “even when people see your screw-ups, they aren’t judging you as harshly as you think.”

Dahl said the feeling of cringeworthiness is worth understanding, with the goal of becoming more comfortable with it. It may also yield valuable knowledge. “You can use this information to become a little closer toward the person that you think you are.”

She noted that cringeworthiness appears to be universal, describing a 1969 study in which anthropologist Edmund Carpenter spent time with the Biami tribe of Papua New Guinea. Carpenter believed the Biami had never seen images of themselves or heard their own voices played back to them; they had no mirrors, cameras or recorders, and the local rivers were too fast-flowing to catch a full reflection. He brought an array of modern devices with him.

When tribe members first saw their full-length reflections in a mirror, Dahl said (quoting Carpenter), “they ducked their heads and covered their mouths, and their stomach muscles betrayed great tension.” What struck Dahl was the familiarity of the physical response: “It sounds like exactly what I do when I cringe at myself for doing something stupid.”

Cringeworthiness shows us how much we have in common, said Dahl. “It highlights the sheer absurdity of the human experience.”

Is Hate Only Coming from the Haters?

After 15 years as a community organizer working on issues including immigration reform, criminal justice reform, and LGBT rights, Kohn was approached to become a TV pundit. She recounted how before her current gig at CNN, she spent nearly three years at Fox News representing the liberal point of view.

When she was offered the Fox job, she said, “I called my friends and said, guys, am I making a deal with the devil? [But] they gave me their blessing and said ‘There’s going to be some liberal on there, and you’ll stand up for what we all believe in.’”

Candidly describing herself as a “lefty lesbian,” she said that unsurprisingly there was no one else like her at Fox. But it was her experience there that inspired her to write The Opposite of Hate.

Kohn said she had assumed everyone involved with the network — on-air, behind the scenes, and all of its viewers — would be “hateful monsters.” Not only would they think a lot of terrible things about her and the communities she cared about, she said, but they would be “mean to me personally, just nasty, maybe foaming at the mouth…. I’m not proud to say this, but that’s what I expected.”

While she still found many of their positions and beliefs unconscionable, she also found areas of agreement. She noted that people were kind personally, and more complicated as human beings than she had unconsciously assumed. “They could care about my family; they could be supportive of my career, of my interest in the company.”  She also came to realize she had been bringing her own hatred to the table.

“We have a history and a present-day habit of demeaning and dehumanizing certain groups of people,” she stated. While she is primarily concerned with “our nation’s ugly, vast and still persistent history of racism, sexism, homophobia and classism,” she found that the tendency to dehumanize can play out in other ways, such as her preconceived notions about what her co-workers would be like. We have to address hate in our institutions and our policies, but also in ourselves, and take responsibility for our piece, said Kohn.

“We have a history and a present-day habit of demeaning and dehumanizing certain groups of people.”–Sally Kohn

The Power of Difficult Moments

The panelists agreed that discomfort in human interactions will never be eradicated — it’s in the nature of being human — but that we should recognize the power that lies in difficult moments and conversations. Kohn sees the potential of this for improving our national sociopolitical dialogue. She said America is reluctant to reckon with the negative aspects of its history.

“I don’t think it needs to be so uncomfortable,” she said. “I think we should be able to acknowledge the reality … not get laden down with guilt, because that’s a narcissistic navel-gazing thing anyway.” Instead, we need to be active and solution-oriented, she noted.

Coyle talked about how some of the most successful organizations he’s studied have significant problems but confront them instead of sweeping them under the rug. For example, he said, the Navy SEALS have a great culture, but “a lot of psychopaths join them. They do really well, but it’s a huge problem [they’re dealing with].” He noted that Pixar was also grappling with a major issue currently, “involving #MeToo.”

“The idea that we’ll change our culture and get to some higher plane where all friction will go away is not true,” said Coyle. “The friction is your friend. Excavating that tension and facing into it is where you want to go.”

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