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National Institute of Can’t Smell

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If your ears are in decline you can buy hearing aids. Poor vision? Depending on the cause you can be fitted with glasses or contact lenses, or get cataract surgery or cornea transplants.

Can’t smell well? Mostly, you’re out of luck.

Being insensitive to aromas can be debilitating, as when I briefly tried to become a wine snob. I had to give it up after drinking a glass that supposedly “… opens to reveal lifted fruit aromas of bright strawberry and jammy fruit, mocha, and vanilla, along with toasty oak notes. Expressive boysenberry, blackberry, dark cherry, juicy strawberry, and toasty mocha flavors lend complexity and depth on the palate.”

The gentleman running the wine tasting provided this account (well, it was sorta like that recitation; my memory isn’t good enough to provide the verbatim version) shortly after I was asked to provide my assessment. “Well,” I suggested, “It’s a dry wine, and I’m pretty sure the recipe included grapes of some kind.”

Actual anosmia and hyposmia, while rarely tragic, are still worth curing when a cure is possible. And yet we, as a nation, invest little in developing better treatments, as evidenced by the National Institutes of Health, which includes the National Eye Institute and National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, but no National Institute of Schnoz Syndromes.

Canines live in a different umwelt (perceptual universe) than human beings. If they ran the country, olfactory impairment would be a much higher priority, smell being a dog’s most important sense.

They don’t, and there’s a parallel in the business world (of course there is!).

If you’re among KJR’s IT readership, the situation is familiar to the point of distraction: Something in the IT architecture needs to be fixed because in its current state it’s debilitating with respect to IT’s ability to do what its business partners want it to do, or it’s well beyond its end of life, likely to fail unpredictably, or otherwise in an unacceptable state for highly technical reasons that are very real but quite difficult to explain to a non-technical audience.

That is, you’re the dog. You and the rest of your pack can try to explain just how bad it smells to the humans who decide priorities, but their umwelt limits their ability to truly(oh, what the heck, as long as we’re shoveling obscure terms around) grok the situation.

Reverse roles: If you’re among the humans who are listening to the dogs barking about the need to invest more heavily in the IT infrastructure, your eyes will start to glaze. They more or less have to as the primary arguments are aromatic, not visual, and there’s no way to add fragrances to a PowerPoint deck.

And … trust me on this … if your IT dogs are barking about infrastructure risks you aren’t going to placate them by scratching behind their ears while saying, “Who’s a good sysadmin? You’re a good sysadmin! Yes you are!”

It’s become commonplace to gripe about the extent to which humans base their (not our!) decisions on emotion rather than logic. I’ve made this point myself (for example, here). Mr. Spock notwithstanding, the criticism, while not wrong, is often a misdiagnosis of why people find even the most compelling evidence and logic unconvincing.

More often than not the problem is as much a matter of conflicting umwelts as of emotion overpowering logic.

In most companies, engineers, including IT professionals, live in a different perceptual and cognitive universe than business management. Fail to bridge the gap and tragedy ensues, as it did with the Challenger disaster, and again more recently with Boeing’s 737 Max.

The deep-root-cause isn’t emotion-based decision-making, or corporate greed, or some other personal characteristic.

It isn’t, that is, personal so much as it’s interpersonal. People have trouble spanning the gap that separates different umwelts. In my experience, at least, what more often needs to be fixed is a lack of sufficient empathy on both sides of a conversation.

When I can’t see the world through your eyes … or, more significantly, when I see the world through my eyes and your understanding of the world is based on your nose … all the evidence and logic in the world aren’t going to paint a picture I can properly understand.

So if you want to become more persuasive, don’t start with evidence, logic, or emotion.

Start by understanding how the other person experiences the world.

Comments (6)

  • I read your column as a direct and accurate analysis of our so-called “polarized” society. But, the fine print is that parties have to choose to get an understanding of how the other person experiences the world. And, the really tiny print, is that both parties have choose to set aside their prejudices long enough to hear and understand the content of what the other person is saying.

    Creating an effective context for this to happen is the key challenge for our nation, as well as the CIO. Perhaps a statement as simple as, “I don’t think you are really hearing me, but maybe I’m not really hearing you. Are you willing to take a few minutes to clean it up with me?”, creating a neutral space ,and suggesting a structure, might help in the difficult situations you described.

    Reply
    • I think you’re on target. What most of us (including me) find most difficult, I think, is that in order to persuade you I’m right I first have to understand why you think you’re right.

      And the process of achieving that understanding carries the risk of discovering that I wasn’t as right as I thought I was.

      Reply
      • This is a great illustration of the challenge with getting IT leaders to understand why they should support integrating accessibility into their operating lifecycles. It’s not as if they have to guess: WCAG 2.0 AA lays out clear guidelines. And there’s oodles (technical term) of data on how accessible systems work better, lower the TCO, and increase engagement. Yet IT leaders persist in hearing only barks whenever anyone brings it up.

  • Oh my. Great column, Bob! Yet another strong case for hiring anthropologists! And learning a second language. As wordsmith.org recently reminded us, “One must be very naive or dishonest to imagine that men choose their beliefs independently of their situation. –Claude Levi-Strauss” KEEP CALM AND GROK ON.

    Reply
  • Amazing.. I was tested for smell by a research at MCV (Well, VCU Health System, excuse me!)

    and have NO sense of smell at all..

    Jim

    Reply

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