Gulf managers crush curiosity and undermine their teams

Omar Al-Ubaydli
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For a team to excel, people must feel safe enough to ask their colleagues probing questions, and to receive them in return. In the Gulf, the prevailing culture works in the opposite direction, as managers regard curiosity as destabilizing and seditious. For innovation to flourish in the era of Gulf economic visions, organizational social norms must evolve to embrace those who ask questions.

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One of the most productive innovative enterprises in the 20th century was the famous Bell Laboratories, located in New Jersey, USA. The cluster resulted in innumerable technological advancements across many disciplines, and it remains an exemplar of interdisciplinary innovation.

When scholars wanted to understand Bell Labs’ success, they investigated the determinants of the productivity of the different scientists working in the organization. Surprisingly, they found that a key factor was having regular meals with a Swedish electrical engineer named Harry Nyquist.

The mechanism was not that Nyquist was dishing out cutting edge ideas to his colleagues. Rather, he would listen attentively when they discussed their ideas with him, and then he would ask them straightforward yet intelligent questions that made them think harder. Some of the questions might appear dumb at first sight, but the simplicity was often deceptive.

Crucially, the culture in Bell Labs allowed people to feel comfortable both sharing their ideas with others and probing other people’s ideas. Humans usually feel anxious when they present their work to colleagues lest they be judged negatively, and they interpret innocent queries as attempt to delegitimize their work.

That kind of reptilian thinking might be useful if you are hunting a mammoth or escaping from a saber tooth tiger, but it is extremely counterproductive if you are trying to make a path-breaking scientific discovery. That’s why Bell Labs’ successful embrace of open curiosity was central to its sustained high levels of innovation.

The Gulf is an area of the world that has chronically low levels of innovation. While the reasons are complex, one contributing element is the failure to absorb the lessons learned from successful innovation clusters such as Bell Labs. Rather than creating a culture where colleagues can be vulnerable and can pepper one another with questions regarding the organization’s decisions, curiosity is crushed by military style hierarchy.

Thus, consider a manager who has an idea for how to reform the production chain to improve its efficiency. Ideally, they would present that idea to their team and solicit open feedback. The manager would receive earnest questions – many of which might verge on the “silly.” Why did you do it that way? Did you not consider that alternative? What will happen if so and so occurs? And so on.

The team members would not fear retribution for exposing flaws in the manager’s idea, nor would the manager feel anxious about looking like a fool because their idea might ultimately appear inadequate. Certainly, nobody likes criticism, but this simplistic impulse would be overridden by a combination of mutual trust and a desire to get the best outcomes.

However, in the Gulf, the manager would usually present the idea in a manner that suggests: “this is what we are going to do,” rather than: “what do you think of this?” Asking questions is risky, and may even draw censure, because the manager and other team members will consider it as an open challenge to the principal’s authority. Anyone behaving like Harry Nyquist on a regular basis will either find themselves uninvited from the meetings, or uninvited from the organization.

As a result, rather than extracting the benefits of an open discussion between colleagues working toward the same goal, the gathering turns into a rubber-stamping exercise for an inferior idea. Had a culture of openness been embraced, an initially poor idea might have been refined into an excellent one, but instead, the potential remains untapped.

It may seem far-fetched to attribute low levels of innovation in the Gulf to something as mundane as whether people can ask probing questions during routine meetings, but this is the essence of scientific inquiry. One of the main reasons why science took off during the 18th century is that scholars who were far away from one another started being able to discuss their ideas and give constructive feedback. This was due to the development of scientific journals, and a common language for knowledge exchange.

In the 21st century Gulf, we have that common language, and we have those scientific journals, but we still lack the will to discuss ideas openly. Every Gulf office needs one or two Harry Nyquists enriching meetings, making us think and reflect, and turning our embryonic musings into game-changing innovations.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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