What am I Missing?


Although I have enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s writings over the years, my initial reaction to his latest book, Talking to Strangers, was a bit lukewarm based completely on the title. It sounded like a self-help book for introverts. But after reading a few reviews, I realized the book had something to offer to the leadership conversation. Gladwell adds his voice to the chorus of writers reminding us we are not as competent as we think we are in some very important aspects of communication and decision making.


In Gladwell style, he illustrates his points with stories from the world of espionage, law enforcement, fraternity life, and  financial investing  to name a few. According to his research we are not very good at what seems like a critical life skill – determining other peoples’ intentions. It turns out knowing when people are telling the truth and when they mean us good or harm can be a difficult proposition.


The problem starts with our predisposition to believe what people say or the “Truth Default Mode.” Basically, as long as a story appears plausible, we tend to accept it. This is the reason that spies, Ponzi schemers, and child abusers go undetected for years. Most of us, even when things don’t seem quite right, choose to go with the story we are being told. Often, we need repeated confirmation to  reach the conclusion that the other person is capable of perpetuating a serious violation.


Gladwell shares the story of the financial investigator, Harry Markopolos,  who early on believed Bernie Madoff, the king of the Ponzi scheme, was a con man rather than a brilliant investor. Several others looked at the same data, talked directly with Madoff, felt uneasy but couldn’t reach the obvious conclusion. It took a naturally suspicious financial investor to see the reality. However, Gladwell also points out that this Markopolos didn’t trust anyone and lived in constant fear he would be attacked by a variety of individuals and institutions. Gladwell argues that society just doesn’t work if you don’t trust anyone and while you might occasionally get duped you live a happier life. 


An implication from this argument is the importance of systems that will override our natural tendencies to either be overly trusting or overly suspicious. A common example is getting multiple perspectives whether we are interviewing a new hire or interrogating a crime suspect.   It can also be helpful to develop approaches that allow us to track behavior over time rather than draw all our conclusions from a single encounter.


Another assumption is that we get better with discerning others with more experience as we develop pattern recognition. Gladwell argues this is true but only in certain circumstances. He points out that trained interrogators are quite good separating truth tellers from liars when their behaviors match their stories. For example, the person who makes strong eye contact is telling the truth and the person who seems uncertain about details is probably lying.  The problem is that not everyone acts according to those universal truths.


Gladwell tells the story of Amanda Knox who was imprisoned in Italy in a high profile murder case. Knox and her boyfriend were accused of killing Knox’s roommate even though there was little to no evidence that supported that conclusion. Knox implicated herself because she simply didn’t act like an innocent person. Gladwell argues the Italian investigators fell for the trap of believing people are always transparent or they should always act in the manner we expect.  Knox possessed a quirky personality that responded to her roommate’s death in an unusual and suspicious way. After four years, Knox was finally cleared of all charges by the Italian Supreme Court.


It takes a lot of humility to step back and say, “what am I missing?” and to withhold judgment and to ask for help. Most experienced leaders take pride in being able to read people and make decisions based on intuition. Similar to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, one message is that we must maintain awareness of our natural desire to reach the easy, obvious conclusion that initially appears when encountering new people and situations. As Gladwell shows throughout the book, the consequences can be devastating to all involved.