The Hidden Force Causing Teams to Stagnate (And How to Break Free)

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The following is an excerpt from my book, Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work. It's available on Amazon in print, Kindle, and audiobook formats.

Jim Mourey is an assistant professor of marketing at DePaul University in Chicago and holds a PhD in marketing and psychology from the University of Michigan. He’s spent his career studying how subtle cues in influence our choices and behaviors. When we spoke, he recalled a pivotal moment in his career that, on the surface, seemed rather innocuous.

In his mid-twenties, as he was exploring the city of Paris, he noticed a woman take a cigarette out of her purse and start smoking. That seems simple enough, but Jim couldn’t stop wondering: why do we constantly make mindless decisions? 

“I’d grown up in a generation in the states where smoking is this horrible, abhorrent thing that nobody should do,” Jim said. “Here was a woman who was non-consciously going through the motions and smoking a cigarette.” 

When something feels easy and familiar to us, why do we seem to abandon critical thinking, even if what we’re doing isn’t a good decision?

It turns out the culprit is a phenomenon known as cultural fluency. 

“In every culture, there are expectations of what’s accept- able and what’s not acceptable,” Jim said. “If something is unfolding in a way that we’d predict it would, that would be an experience that’s culturallyuent. And when some- thing is uent, we don’t have to think very hard about it because the world is happening as it should.” 

On the other hand, when something seems unexpected or different or even counter to conventional norms, that experience is considered culturally “disfluent.” Unfortunately for those who want to think critically for themselves, culture operates in the background. We don’t often notice its effects but are influenced by them when we make decisions. Something that feels culturally fluent becomes more like an automatic behavior than a conscious choice, and that can be incredibly dangerous if our goal is to make the best possible decision in a given situation. 

“Culture guides our behavior on a very subconscious level, so when things feel culturally fluent, we go with the ow, and when they feel culturally disfluent, we stop, hesitate, and think a little bit harder.” This was Jim’s hypothesis. To snap out of any pattern of mindless decision making, you can introduce some cultural disfluency. 

Unfortunately, that might feel rather uncomfortable. Since moments of cultural fluency happen so organically that we hardly notice, moments that are culturally disfluent create some discomfort. In the workplace, that can feel nearly impossible to tolerate. Jim understood this, and he set out to test just how much disfluency a person needs to experience to make better decisions. Naturally, he decided to run a test at his mom’s Fourth of July party, experimenting on unsuspecting friends and family. You know, typical picnic stuff. 

As guests approached the buffet table full of hot dogs, hamburgers, and sides, Jim handed them plates. Half of the group received festive plates covered in American flags and fireworks, while the other half received plain white plates. Without knowing it, these guests had just been enlisted in a psychological test. Because picnic stuff.

Waiting at the end of the buffet, Jim then weighed each of their plates. The results revealed the unseen power of cultural fluency.

“What we found was that people with the Fourth of July plates took significantly more food than the people who got the white plates.” 

Jim surmised that, since the Fourth is an American holiday based on gorging yourself, it felt natural to those guests with festive plates to take more food. Those with white plates, however, were disrupted ever so slightly and subconsciously from the mindless ow of the holiday enough to consider what they were doing. 

Later that year, Jim ran the test again, experimenting once more on his friends and family, this time at a Labor Day picnic. In this iteration of the test, half the guests received white plates while the other half got plates intended for Halloween. As he predicted, people with the starkly out- of-place pumpkins and ghosts on their plates took less food than people with white plates. 

“So taken together, we get at least initial support for this idea that, when there’s a cultural fit, when things are as they should be, people don’t really think. They tend to go with the ow. But when there’s a disconnect, suddenly things are strange. They’re not so strange that consciously we think, ‘Oh, I should take less food.’ It’s just that, for automatic behaviors, we do them less. We hesitate a bit.” 

We hesitate a bit—that line really stood out to me. When our minds urge us to follow a best practice, what if we hesitated just a bit? That would create the necessary space we need to think more critically. According to Jim Mourey, when our minds notice a disconnect between what we expect and what actually happens, even if that disconnect is small, we tend to make more informed deci- sions. Those moments of cultural disfluency awaken our brains to the reality right in front of our faces that we’d otherwise miss as we follow the ow of familiar behavior. In that way, small moments that are uncomfortable can trigger the use of our intuition, i.e., that ability we have to contemplate our environment. Now here’s my question:

What if we could proactively create moments of cultural disfluency? What if we could awaken our intuition on demand?

I think we can, if we’d only master one skill above all others: asking better questions.

By asking great questions of the world around us, we can create some small but necessary distance between us and an expected behavior or flow. That helps us begin to form a more thoughtful answer. In other words, when we act like investigators, we break from cultural fluency to begin thinking more critically. 

“There are people who subsist in the status quo,” Jim said. “These are the people who see the numbers, they’re meet- ing the numbers, and life is good, so they don’t need to change anything. But if you want to be truly innovative, what my research suggests is that this is not the correct approach. If you truly want to innovate and change, you need to break up that ow. This can be something as crazy as redesigning the workspace so it creates an experience of dis uency, or it can be something as simple as traveling.” 

We don’t need to make ourselves unbearably uncomfortable to think more critically about our work. Sure, overhauling your entire workspace could do the trick, but so could a quick trip to a new location, or maybe a plate that looks slightly out of place at the family picnic. Yes, quitting your job to try to build something entirely new and different removes you from the daily flow, but so does simply asking good questions to better understand and test things around you. We need only experience some slight discomfort, and suddenly, we’re paying more attention. Our intuition has been activated. It can really be that simple and small. What matters is that we can see things more clearly, think for ourselves, and make the best decisions for us.

We don’t need to do anything radical to achieve that.

As we established earlier, intuition is the act of considering the world. Thanks to Jim Mourey, we’ve identified what appears to be the biggest barrier to doing so: cultural fluency. However, I actually think that cultural fluency is a symptom. It’s not the illness. Yes, it prevents us from thinking for ourselves, but we aren’t trying to merely think for ourselves. The entire purpose of this journey we’ve taken is to act in better ways. We want to create better work. That may start with making better decisions, but we’re not making these decisions in our heads. They have to inform and change our work each day. So if cultural fluency is the symptom, the blocker to better thinking, then what’s the illness? What is the final barrier between you and taking action?

That's what we explore next...

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(It's me again. Blog Post Jay.) Knowing about cultural fluency has changed my life. Seriously. I'm in love with the work that I do, and therefore, I can let my aspirations run wild on me. At times, I can let blind aspiration take over for critical thinking. "Blind aspiration," it turns out, can lead to the work equivalent of gorging yourself on the Fourth of July.

Because I'm hungry, and excited, and excitable, and adore creating, and get dopamine hits when people say nice things or when I earn that next show, or speech, or check ... well, I sometimes eschew mindful decision-making for moments of going with the flow based on what one is supposed to do in that situation.

Recently, for example, I was scoping my plans for Unthinkable Media for 2019 in a way that would have been truly detrimental to my happiness if I didn't catch myself. I was setting these aggressive financial goals, which runs exactly opposite to my OWN thinking on how to set goals.

And why? Because driven, ambitious people do such things? Because annual planning means setting huge growth goals? Because "success" means building a staff of people and passive revenue and becoming a zillionaire? 

Yep. Because of that. Because of cultural fluency. 

Instead, I've reverted back to my aspirational anchor. That means thinking about the craft and the process. It means focusing on RIGHT partners (growth-stage startups and challenger brands) instead of the BIGGEST partners (because I find the way most leaders act when they work for massive organizations to be insufferable). I scheduled video chats with subscribers (I'll do more again soon). I switched from mindlessly reacting to what "one should do" to a more proactive, mindful approach to figure out what I should do.

Look, I know this excerpt above wasn't the emotional gut-punch or inspiring story you might have come to expect from me. Maybe you loved it, maybe you didn't, but I am down on my knees (or, at least, reclined on my couch on a Friday night) and I'm BEGGING you: Take cultural fluency seriously. Don't make mindless decisions. All it takes it asking a few more open-ended questions about the working world around you. That's enough to create that necessary cultural DISfluency to the situation to think more critically and make better decisions. (If you need more guidance, that's why I wrote the book.)

I PROMISE you, if you do this, you'll avoid doing things because that's what "someone" in your situation should do, and you'll start down the path towards what YOU should do.

Because that's what matters.

Posted on November 9, 2018 .