Why is Everyone Missing the Gorilla? 🦍
Everyone's talking but no one hears the same thing.
Happy Sunday, friends! We’re enjoying one of our last weekends as a family of four - third boy due any day now. Quick request - if you have any favorite fiction books, can you send them my way? I see some sleepless nights listening to audiobooks in my future. Now, let’s talk about team communication.
“Our flight leaves at 10AM tomorrow morning.”
Dad hears, “I need to get packing.” The neighbor hears, “Better keep an eye on the house.” Mom hears, “We need to be pulling out at 8AM.” The kids hear, “We’re going to Disney World.”1
One statement. So many interpretations. Why does this happen? Everyone’s favorite ”Invisible Gorilla” experiment holds some answers.
If you’re not familiar, participants are asked to watch a video of people passing two basketballs back and forth. They’re asked to count the number of passes. In the middle of the video, a person in a gorilla costume strolls into the screen, does a quick dance, and then walks away. Half the people counting passes failed to notice the gorilla entirely.
Researchers call this “selective attention”. When we’re myopically focused on one area, we’re likely to miss unexpected objects - “even when those unexpected objects are salient, potentially important, and appear right where they are looking,” to quote the book based on the experiment.
Where are the gorillas in our communication?
“Share more” is common advice given to leaders and managers. This makes sense. The hardest piece of team communication across a team, project, or company is achieving a shared understanding of what’s going on and what’s important. To overcome communication hurdles, repeat things across meetings, status updates, 1:1s, etc.
Still, with all of this information, teammates still feel unsure of exactly what’s happening. I’ve seen this pop up on countless employee surveys and had two leaders at remote companies relay this same story over the past month. Our gorillas offer a simple explanation for why this happens.
“Share more” only works if everyone knows specifically what they should be looking for.
Otherwise, we miss the gorilla. Everyone engages in their own form of meaning making, which may or may not match the intention. This is how you write a status update every week for twelve weeks only to arrive at a conclusion and be met with instant pushback. Or, how the simple statement at the beginning translates so differently across the audience.
It’s not enough to share regular updates. We need to be explicit about what this means, why this is important, or what we hope teammates focus on.
👉 Hit reply and let me know how you think about preventing gorillas!
I wrote about decision breadcrumbs previously, which is one attempt at solving this problem.
Amplitude published an e-book on north star metrics. Related to this topic of gorillas.
I borrowed inspiration from a story in Essentialism about lead-writing. Students were tasked to write a lead based on the following facts.
Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Edmund ‘Pat’ Brown.
The “correct” lead was, “There will be no school Thursday.” Meaning-making!