The Smart-Talk Trap in the Era of Social Media (and What to Do About It)

I just came across an excellent piece in the Harvard Business Review thanks to my colleague Larry Pixa. Published in 1999 by Stanford professors Pfeffer and Sutton, “The Smart-Talk Trap” (PDF) is even more pertinent in today’s new media world where user-generated content is ubiquitous.  The key to success is action but the authors warn that we are increasingly “rewarded for talking—and the longer, louder, and more confusingly, the better.” This dynamic, which substitutes talk for action, is responsible for what Pfeffer and Sutton call the knowing-doing gap. The purpose of this blog post is to assess this gap in the context of social media and to offer potential solutions.

“When confronted with a problem, people act as if discussing it, formulating decisions, and hashing out plans for action are the same as actually fixing it. It’s an understandable response, after all, talk, unlike action, carries little risk. But it can paralyze a company.” In particular, the authors found that a distinct kind of talk is “an especially insidious inhibitor of organizational action: ‘smart talk.’”

The elements of “smart talk” include “sounding confident, articulate and eloquent; having interesting information and ideas; and possessing a good vocabulary.” But there’s also a dark side to smart talk: “first, it focuses on the negative, and second, it is unnecessarily complicated or abstract (or both). In other words, people engage in smart talk to spout criticisms and complexities. Unfortunately, such talk has an uncanny way of stopping action in it’s cracks.” This realization is in part what drove me to write this blog post last year On Technology and Learning, Or Why the Wright Brothers Did Not Create the 747.

Pfeffer and Sutton find that “because management today revolves around meetings, teams and consensus building, the more a person says, the more valuable he or she appears.” Studies of contemporary organizations show that “people who talk frequently are more likely to be judged by others as influential and important—they’re considered leaders.” People compete in the “conversational marketplace” where quantity is often confused for quality. Some scholarly studies on leadership called this the “blabbermouth theory of leadership,” which states that “people who talk more often and longer—regardless of the quality of their comments—are more likely to emerge as leaders of new groups [...].” And so, “people who want to get ahead in organizations [or communities of practice] learn that talking a lot helps them reach their goal more reliably than taking action or inspiring others to act does.”

The Stanford professors also note that “the fact that people get hired, promoted, and assigned to coveted jobs based on their ability to sound intelligent, and not necessarily on their ability to act that way, is well known in most organizations.” I would add getting funding to this list, by the way. It gets wore though. The studies carried out by Pfeffer and Sutton revealed that “junior executives made a point—especially in meetings with their bosses present—of trashing the ideas of their peers. Every time someone dared to offer an idea, everyone around the table would leap in with reasons why it was nothing short of idiotic.” This particular dynamic is amplified several fold with the very public nature of social media. It can take some tough skin to offer new ideas in a blog post or via a Tweet when some users of social media actively use these same communication technologies to publicly criticize and humiliate others.

This evidence is not just anecdotal. Citing an earlier Harvard study called “Brilliant but Cruel,” the authors relay that “people who wrote negative book reviews were perceived by others as being less likable but more intelligent, competent and expert than people who wrote positive reviews of the same books.” In summary, “Only pessimism sounds profound. Optimism sounds superficial.” This has a direct connection to the knowing-doing gap. “If those with courage to propose something concrete have been devastated in the process, they’ll either leave or learn to be smart-talkers themselves. As a result, a company will end up being filled with clever put-down artists. It will end up paralyzed by the fear and silence those people spawn.” Incidentally, “people will try to sound smart not only by being critical but also by using trendy, pretentious, or overblown language.” This describes so well some tweets and blog post comments that I come across. Some people have actually managed to make a career out of this by leveraging social media to magnify their smart talk.

The authors note that using complex language and concepts can also make one sound smart. Indeed, “rare is the manager who stands before his or her peers to present a new strategy with a single slide and an idea that can be summarized in a sentence or two. Instead, managers congratulate themselves and one another when they come up with ideas that are so elaborate and convoluted they require two hours of multipart, multicolored slides and a liberal sprinkling of the latest buzzwords.” Now, the authors are “not claiming that complex language and concepts never add value to an organization.” They are simply suggesting that such language “brings a lot less value than most executives realize.” In the context of social media like Twitter, however, I have seen people simplify or summarize a concept to the extreme in order to trash someone else’s point of view.

Do not despair, however, as Pfeffer and Sutton have found five characteristics that describe organizations that have managed to avoid the smart-talk trap. All of these characteristics are applicable in the era of social media. In fact, social media can perhaps even amplify these characteristics when leveraged carefully. Here’s a summary of the five characteristics and some preliminary thoughts on their intersection with social media—please do share any ideas you may have:

1. “They have leaders who know and do the work.” “Leaders who do the work, rather than just talk about it, help prevent the knowing-doing gap from opening in the first place.” For me, this means avoiding blog and twitter wars—you know, the endless back-and-forth with smart-talk experts. The only way to win, like in the movie War Games, is not to play. Otherwise, you’ll get pulled into an endless debate instead of doing the real work that actually matters. Doing the work also increases the chances that people who respect you will blog and tweet about your concrete actions.

2. “They have a bias for plain language and a simple concepts. Companies that avoid the knowing-doing gap are often masters of the mundane. [...] They consider ‘common sense’ a compliment rather than an insult.” Keep it simple. Blogging has actually helped me refine some of my ideas since blog posts are generally expected to be on the shorter side. Thus keeping a blog gives you an incentive to really think through the core elements of your new idea and prevents you from writing endlessly without a point. Also, bloggers generally want a wider readership so avoiding jargon and industry terms is a good idea (when possible). In terms of branding and marketing, this means focusing on creating a simple message about what your product, what you do and how that matters.

3. “They frame the questions by asking ‘how,’ not just ‘why’.” “In other words, the conversation focuses not on faults but on overcoming them.” I like this idea a lot and it can be imported into the social media space. Instead of shooting down someone else’s idea with a tweet reply “why in the world would you ever want to do that?!” invite them to explain how they’d implement their idea. The same tactic may help prevent blog wars.

4. “They have strong mechanisms for closing the loop.” “The companies in our study that bridged the gap [...] had effective mechanisms in place to make sure decisions didn’t just end on paper but actually got implemented.” “Closing the loop—following up to make sure something actually happens after it has been decided on—isn’t a very complicated idea. But it is a potent means for preventing talk from being the only thing that occurs.” Social media leaves a digital trace, which may help you be more accountable to yourself and your organization. There are parallels with the Quantified Self movement here. If you blog and tweet about planning to launch a new and exciting project, then people may ask what happened if you don’t follow through with more blog posts on the topic. Another idea would be to use Basecamp and tie to-do’s and milestones (that are not confidential) to your twitter account, especially if your donor follows you online.

5. “They believe that experience is the best teacher ever.” “They make the process of doing into an opportunity to learn.” One company “had ‘No Whining’ patches sewn on everyone’s uniform and explained that complaining about something without trying to do anything about it was not acceptable.” I like this idea as well. Don’t be afraid to try something new and iterate. “Fail fast and fail forward,” some software developers like to say. Share your experience with others via blogs and tweets and invite them to propose solutions to address your challenges. Make the smart-talkers around you part of the solution when possible and publicly invite them to act constructively. If they don’t and continue with their slander, they’ll continue to lose credibility while you focus on concrete action, which is the key to success.

6 responses to “The Smart-Talk Trap in the Era of Social Media (and What to Do About It)

  1. Pingback: The Smart-Talk Trap in the Era of Social Media (and What to Do About It) », News, Augmented

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  3. Trash talking of peers/new opinions is also a growing problem with internet communities (Reddit’s ‘hivemind’ is a good example). Definitely worth thinking about

  4. Pingback: Big Data & Disaster Response: Even More Wrong Assumptions | iRevolution

  5. Pingback: Crisis Mapping Haiti: Some Final Reflections – Blog | Ushahidi

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