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The Perils of an Echo Chamber: How to Know if You're in One and What to Do About It

Was an echo chamber to blame for Blockbuster’s collapse?

American corporate legend has it that back in 2000, when the founders of Netflix travelled to Dallas, Texas, to pitch a deal to the owners of Blockbuster Video, Blockbuster CEO John Antioco nearly laughed.

In his 2019 book That Will Never Work: the Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea, Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph wrote that he and partner Reed Hastings offered Antioco the chance to buy the fledgling video streaming platform for $50 million. Although Antioco had seemed interested, Randolph noted that mention of an actual dollar figure changed his entire disposition.

“I saw something new, something I didn’t recognize, his earnest expression slightly unbalanced by a turning up at the corner of his mouth,” Randolph wrote. “It was tiny, involuntary, and vanished almost immediately. But as soon as I saw it, I knew what was happening: John Antioco was struggling not to laugh.”

In the end, Netflix had the last laugh. Having missed a prime moment to modernize its business plan, the once-ubiquitous chain of video and DVD rental stores started to dwindle until, in 2019, all but one of its 9,000 stores were shuttered. Netflix, meanwhile, went on to become the multibillion-dollar global leader in streaming.

Whenever I think about that now infamous moment in business history, I can’t help asking myself a question: were Blockbuster leaders living in an echo chamber? Was there no one in that meeting who could stand up and say, “Wait, maybe we should consider this offer?”

It would be great that, right at the moment you become CEO, you also manifest an innate ability to read every situation correctly and accurately forecast the future. But even the best business leaders know that instinct will only take you so far. You need good people around you and a willingness to listen to their ideas.

If you don’t have those two things, you may find yourself trapped in the echo chamber.


The business world’s echo chamber 

The term echo chamber is used in many different contexts. It can refer to audio engineering, specifically a device used to create feedback in recording, or social media, where a group of like-minded people in an online community reinforce misinformation by shutting out contrary views. The latter example comes very close to the business context of an echo chamber, where leaders surround themselves with people who always agree, and never challenge ideas or opinions.

Far too many executive leaders are trapped in echo chambers and for good reason: being surrounded by people who refuse to challenge you is comforting. A lack of conflict or disagreement can often be misinterpreted as evidence that leaders are right.

Unfortunately, there are a myriad of examples of how the unjustified consensus endemic to an echo chamber is a path to misfortune, if not destruction.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, author and economist Daniel Kahneman described how a business leader’s unbridled self-confidence often translates into a propensity to shut out contrary opinions.

Kahneman spent a lifetime researching the psychology of judgment and decision-making and concluded that we are all very susceptible to misinterpreting our gut instincts as truth. So much so that we shut out dissenting opinions or the possibility that we don’t actually know as much as we think we do.

“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance,” Kahneman wrote.


An antidote for the echo chamber

It may seem overly simplistic, but leaders who want to fight the echo chamber need to ask for, and be open to, dissenting opinions.

It can be difficult to accept when confused with self-doubt. Leaders got to be leaders often by demonstrating superior judgment, the confidence to make the tough decisions, and the integrity to live by those decisions.

However, to really excel at leadership, we need to draw a distinction between self-doubt – the inability to make decisions or to make the right decisions – and a willingness to consider dissenting opinions.

Building a culture where you crave the honest input of others does not signify a lack of confidence. It’s actually the hallmark of a self-assured leader, a best practice that is used by many of the world’s most iconic leaders to guard against myopic decision-making.

If we accept that even the best business leaders don’t know everything, then the antidote for the echo chamber is quite clear: we need to make the cultivation of dissenting opinions, and the consideration of outcomes other than the ones we desire, a standard part of our decision-making.

The first step to dismantling the echo chamber is to admit you live in one

It will be hard for leaders to escape the echo chamber if they can’t admit they are already living in one. But how can someone who is comfortable with unjustified consensus recognize the problem and break free? A little honest self-diagnosis is going to be necessary.

The following questions, if answered sincerely, will help you determine the degree to which you are operating in an echo chamber. 

  1. Once I’ve given my opinion, does my team feel comfortable bringing forward contradictory views? If so, how often do they speak up?
  2. If someone offers a contradictory view, how do I and others react?  Some leaders do ask for alternative views, but only do it to placate team members. Others, aided by their most ardent devotees, encourage dissenting opinions only to create an opportunity to dismiss, disparage or attack those who don’t automatically endorse the original view?
  3. Can you acknowledge inherent biases that might cause you to filter out contrary views? We all have biases that inform our decisions. Great leaders don’t ignore their biases. Own them, be upfront with your teams, and vet your final decisions to ensure you’re not just defaulting to a biased position.
  4. Can you enunciate your disagreement with your team without disenfranchising them, making them feel as if they are not part of decision-making? People who offer alternative ideas that are rejected will feel hurt. It’s your job to keep them engaged and to show them that even though they may not have convinced you this time, there will be other opportunities in the future.

If you think that you may be operating in an echo chamber, take the time to challenge the current culture of decision-making in your organization. Consider, that you may have been inadvertently shutting out dissenting, but still constructive, opinions and ideas.

You and your organization will be better off.


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