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What People Managers Need to Learn from Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers

people management Dec 09, 2020
What People Managers Need to Learn from Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers

In the pre-COVID world, you might have had a check-in with a team member and thought: he is doing great. He was energetic, smiling, and sitting upright. You have nothing to worry about. You can see and hear happiness, passion, and engagement in his posture, facial expression, and tone of voice.

You would be in good company. According to Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers, a bail judge in New York City named Solomon felt he had the same ability. For Solomon, it was essential to look those up for parole in the eyes before deciding whether to release them. By doing so, he could tell if they were changed people or likely to repeat their crimes.

England’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain felt equally confident in his ability to read others during the events leading up to World War II. After meeting with Hitler on multiple occasions, Chamberlain proclaimed victoriously to crowds in London that Hitler had no intention of expanding beyond Poland.

But Chamberlain was horribly wrong. He overestimated his ability to read Hitler. Why? Perhaps, Chamberlain lacked emotional intelligence. Or perhaps, Hitler was exceptionally cunning.

Or maybe something more fundamental was to blame.

Judge Solomon thought that seeing his defendants enabled him to understand what was really going on inside them. Yet, when his decisions and those of other judges were compared to a computer model, the model far outperformed the judges with much less information. The defendants that judges gave bail to were 25% more likely to commit another crime than those the computer would have chosen.

Chamberlain was not an exception. His mistakes are the norm. Despite our belief otherwise, we are not good at understanding other people. “The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility,” summarizes Gladwell. (Note: Gladwell uses the term “strangers” loosely, such that much of what he describes is applicable to most anyone you may know.)

Enter COVID and ubiquitous work-from-home arrangements. Personal interactions are limited to small video squares or even more restrictive, audio-only conversations, making it more difficult to pick up nonverbal cues that some suggest make up 80% of all communication. If anything, your ability to understand what is going on inside your team members has declined.

And the stakes have increased. It’s a perilous time to misread your team members. As stress, hardship, uncertainty, and change have all increased over the last months, empathetic management is all the more necessary. Chamberlain’s mistake almost cost the world Europe. Your misreading of a team member may lead them to underperform or leave your organization prematurely.

In Talking to Strangers, Gladwell explains three principles that illuminate ways in which we commonly misunderstand people. By understanding these three, you can prevent regular misunderstandings and improve your team’s morale and performance.

Truth Default Theory:

There’s a good chance you begin conversations with team members and other coworkers with three simple words: “How are you?” In return, you likely hear the same thing most every time: “Good, how are you?” A version of this question shows up many times throughout the workday. “How do you think that call went?” “Is everything on track for the deadline and going well?” “Are you doing ok managing everything at home right now?”

Asking people to answer questions quickly without giving them time to think through their answers “may be doing many things, but one thing it does is make people lie to you and tell you what they think you want to hear,” says John Protzko, a University of California, Santa Barbara cognitive scientist who co-led the study investigating the effect of asking these types of questions. It may not seem that you’re telling people to give you a quick, thoughtless answer, but if you fail to ask follow-up questions, you’re telling them as much.

Why do we assume others are telling the truth to these types of questions even when we suspect they may be telling us what we want to hear? Truth Default Theory.

Truth Default Theory comes from University of Alabama professor Tim Devine. In repeated studies, he found that people are little better than chance at determining when people are lying (we get it right 54% of the time). However, when he dug into this data, he noticed an interesting pattern. When the actors in the studies were lying, people were wrong far more often than half the time. They did miserably. Yet, when the actors were telling the truth, people did much better.

We assume people are telling the truth unless there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to convince us otherwise. Gladwell puts it this way: “You believe someone not because you have no doubts about them. Belief is not the absence of doubt. You believe someone because you don’t have enough doubts about them.” It’s difficult and rare to have enough doubts about someone to believe they’re not telling the truth – especially in the workplace.

And so, leaders move on from conversations with team members believing everything is ok and on track even when the opposite is true. As a result, team members miss out on the support they need to perform well and thrive.

Despite the costs, our default to truth is not without benefit. As Gladwell explains, “The bottom line is that civil society simply cannot function without default to truth. I can’t converse with you, for instance, if I subject every statement that comes out of your mouth to critical scrutiny before I accept it as true. Conversation cannot proceed without default to truth.”

While Gladwell’s point is well-taken, in 2020 during the era of remote check-ins with quarantined colleagues, you may need to re-calibrate your tendency to default to truth. What you might not be seeing might be hurting your team and its members. Most people are struggling with some aspect of the events of the past year. Environmental and external factors should influence how we make sense of others’ actions, as we’ll explain in the third point. If you believe their dismissive attempts to provide the answer they think you want to hear, you’ll miss the opportunity to hear how you can support them.

Transparency Failure

Truth Default Theory makes it difficult for you to accurately read your team members. Transparency failure makes it even more difficult. Transparency failure happens because we think people’s outward expressions and actions accurately reflect their internal reality.

But if that were true, Yale researcher Michael Kaus’ experiments wouldn’t have ended the way they did. Kaus asked study participants to communicate with others in one of three ways: voice-only, video-only, and voice-video combined. Across all five studies, those communicating via voice-only scored significantly better on what psychologists call “empathic accuracy” – the ability to judge the emotions, thoughts, and feelings of others.

How could it be that we judge others more accurately when we can’t see them? Kaus offers two potential explanations. First, most people think certain non-verbal cues reliably reveal certain emotions and that people can’t alter those non-verbal cues to conceal their thoughts and feelings. Both of which are not true. Second, more information distracts us. Kaus found that study participants were better able to focus on the “linguistic and paralinguistic vocal cues that accompany speech” in the voice-only scenario.

Another study supports Kaus’ first explanation: our rules for translating what we see into what is going on inside people are faulty. Scientists tried to surprise participants and asked what they thought their faces would show they felt. Although most people thought they looked surprised, only 5% had the wide-eyed look and dropped jaws that we usually associate with surprise. The same thing happened with other emotions as well.

We think surprise, anger, sadness, happiness, and fear look a certain way, but they only do sometimes. You see a team member look down and away and you assume she’s upset about how her presentation went. You could be right, but you might not be. Rather than assuming that you’re reading people correctly, ask them.

As we learned in the exploration of truth default theory, asking a simple question often isn’t sufficient either. If you want to understand what is really going on, you need to ask follow-up questions. According to Harvard researchers, “people who ask more questions are better liked by their conversation partners.” They are better liked because they are perceived as being higher in responsiveness, which the researchers define as “an interpersonal construct that captures listening, understanding, validation, and care.” When managing a remote team in the age of COVID, racial protests, and contested elections, you want to be perceived as responsive.

So, ask more questions. In fact, the research cited above found that the more questions you ask, the more likable you’ll be. Follow-up questions show you care, leading people to share more openly and helping you understand what is really happening.


We assume people are telling us the truth even when there is compelling evidence suggesting otherwise. Should they happen to bluff, we assume we can read people accurately. But we often don’t, especially when we are most likely to believe we can. Unfortunately, this isn’t the end to our issues with understanding others.

We also struggle with the concept of attribution. When a team member misses a deadline, do you attribute their tardiness to their inability and write them off as irresponsible – or do you examine the surrounding circumstances to understand how the context could have caused them to deliver their work late?

Through a series of fascinating studies and stories about suicide and crime, Gladwell explains that our tendency is generally to attribute others’ actions to their character and ability. We assume that criminals are mean, aggressive, free loafers who will make any environment dangerous.

In reality, however, crime is linked more strongly to places than people. Research in a range of cities in the United States and elsewhere have repeatedly found that the majority of crimes in a city happen in a very small number of city blocks. Certain places facilitate criminal behavior.

Maybe the geographic concentration of crime happens because all the ‘bad’ people frequent those places? That is a fair assumption, but follow-on research points to the original conclusion. When perpetrators of criminal behavior were forced to relocate to even nearby locations, the high crime rates didn’t follow them to their new spots.

Gladwell calls this concept coupling: “Coupling is the idea that behaviors are linked to very specific circumstances and conditions.” We underestimate the prevalence and power of coupling when trying to understand why others act in the ways they do.1

People managers who fail to recognize the role of coupling are apt to blame team members for dips in performance that may be more driven by circumstances. This will lead managers to focus on individual interventions rather than looking into team- and organization-wide changes that can create environments that facilitate greater success.

This isn’t to say that people are never responsible for their failings. Far from it. But in a time of lockdowns, distance learning, social isolation, and a global pandemic, people’s external circumstances are even more likely to drive their actions. Failing to attribute others’ actions to their circumstances will lead to mismatched, ineffective solutions, and even a lack of compassion.

How to Talk to the Strangers on Your Team

Our errors in understanding those around us may lead you to feel discouraged about your ability to interpret others. And this may be a good thing. To reiterate a Gladwell line we quoted in the beginning, “The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.” A little pessimism about your mind-reading abilities may just cause you to hesitate before passing judgment, to ask another question before jumping to conclusions, and to consider a broader set of explanations for others’ behaviors. In doing so, you’ll be able to offer your team members the feedback, coaching, and support they need to survive – even thrive – in this difficult time. 


  1. Social psychologists call this underestimation of coupling the fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error originally suggested that people undervalue situational and environmental influences of all kinds on others’ behaviors. However, in the early 2000s, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Bryn Mawr College found the error of attribution tends to happen predominantly in situations where other people are trying to avoid embarrassment.

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