WLP186 Thoughtful Thursday: Reading Between the Headlines

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Today’s unusual episode brings us an interview originally recorded for another show, but it’s a great fit for our audience here, with whom we often share and discuss interesting research findings from the changing world of work.

Journalism and scientific evidence have always had an uneasy relationship, because results don’t usually fit neatly into soundbites. Headlines can be very misleading. Libsyn’s podcasting podcast “The Feed” recently cited the statistic that “28.4% of all podcasts have ads” – and it was easy to overlook the detail that this referred to 28.4% of top 4% of all shows, which is a completely different statistic.

These misunderstandings are far from new, and once a popular myth displaces the reality it can persist for decades – the Freakonomics podcast recently mentioned the way the 1960s ‘Kitty Genovese’ case study about the Bystander Effect is frequently cited as being about a trend of societal decline, whereas instead it’s really a universally consistent bias of human behaviour in groups (that the more people there are around, the less likely each individual is to step up and go to the aid of another).

Good research is reported badly, completely distorting the message. Learning to read for the detail and critically evaluate the real stories and details behind the headlines and tweets is vital, and there are good resources for this, like the BBC’s “More or Less” podcast.

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When it comes to distilling the evidence behind business and work research, we always enjoy the valuable and high-quality content created by non-profit Science for Work - which is why we’re glad to share this interview with executive coach Mark Seabright with you today, writer of this post about effectiveness in virtual teams.

The article addressed a 2008 meta-analysis, examining elements of both theory and practice in virtual teams. Perhaps unsurprisingly, social factors and task factors were both identified as important, in determining performance outcomes, a result which wouldn’t greatly surprise us in 2018.

But a meta-analysis can only draw on the data already present, which can leave lots of holes in the bigger picture. Science For Work (scienceforwork.com) have many other evidence summaries help to fill the gaps and highlight areas where additional research might be needed.  As Pilar and Mark discuss, what’s missing can be just as interesting as what is present in the results!

Terminology and time can also affect how research is viewed, never more so in the fast moving space of virtual team collaborations – and comparing studies carried out even a year apart can be tricky. Consistent definitions are a challenge.

But an evidence-based approach does not mean taking your favourite bit of evidence, and following up with some cherry-picking confirmation bias! Rigorous research requires you to look at what’s really happening, even when it’s messy and complex, and comparing the perspectives of a range of stakeholders (including viewing organisations from the inside and the outside). 

And perhaps unsurprisingly Science For Work note that many of the management challenges we were concerned about 20 years ago are far from resolved – the same issues, about how we communicate and collaborate, resolve conflict, etc, remain to be solved - regardless of the tools or the tech involved, or whether the team is remote or colocated. 

Good practice and principles also remain unchanged – and that includes scientific empiricism, when it comes to testing the effects of changes in our own organisations, and evaluating and critiquing the results.

Science For Work are an international remote team themselves, and endeavour to apply all they learn within their own organisation. They focus on the social cohesion factors, and despite all being academic psychologists they try not to get too bogged down in the task detail and debate.

They’re perhaps an unusual group, of voluntarily-collaborating experts, and Mark’s comments offered some intriguing insights into how they collaborate.  They pay attention to the getting to know the whole person they are working with, and establishing agreed norms about how to use the different tools to communicate – many of the things we talk about regularly in our own client work at Virtual Not Distant, which is very reassuring.

And research is still needed in so many areas – humility and team effectiveness correlation is one thing that Pilar and Mark identified as a gap, please let us know if you have any good evidence-based research about that!

Meanwhile, enjoy the episode, and we’ll see you in a couple of weeks for a grand wrap-up of 2018 (and a brief look ahead to some things coming up in the new year). Whatever you are celebrating or anticipating, thanks for being part of the Virtual Not Distant community, and don’t forget to tell us what you think of our podcasts and articles.


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