Perhaps one of the most well known theories in sociology is that of ‘homophily’ – the tendency of people to form connections with others who are similar to them in characteristics such as socioeconomic status, values, beliefs, or attitudes.
This is evident in society, where people tend to try to live in areas with people like themselves. We associate socially with people like ourselves and we interact in business with people like ourselves. This tendency can have negative effects in society, where people start to develop a dislike for people who are not like them, and this can lead in extreme situations to racism, religious bigotry and social snobbery.
By following our instincts to cluster together with like-minded people, we reduce our exposure to different people and experiences. It is interesting when you attend a motor industry dinner or visit a dealership, there is a definite similarity in the people present.
Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School, found that when a group of like-minded people get together, they do not challenge each other, in fact they make each other’s views more extreme. He also found that rather than broadening attitudes, the process of discussion within these groups actually rendered them blind to alternatives.
We may think that we want to be challenged, but our intellectual homes are just as self-selected and exclusive as our physical homes.
So why is this important? We create organisations in our own likeness. We recruit people like ourselves, often in the belief that anyone who is different would not fit in with ‘us’ and would therefore be a disruptive influence. This has been the conventional wisdom for many years and many large corporations try to inculcate an even more aligned perspective by mandating training programmes that seem at times more like indoctrination than education.
The problem with this is that few challenge the norm from within, leaving it to the mavericks and outsiders who come along to question the processes and attitudes in our industry.
The strength (and weakness) of our sector has always been the ability of staff to interact and form relationships with customers, whether it be in sales or service. As senior managers, we have got to where we are today based on this model.
However, with the rise of the internet and the role of social and digital media, there is a massive challenge. In a world where the people like us may not be the future, how do we prepare for that future if we continue down the same path.
Maybe our challenge is actually breaking the hold of homophily and starting to bring in people who challenge our assumptions and, in so doing, make us more ready to face an uncertain future.