TEDxDayton speaker stresses communication

In the coming weeks in this space, we’ll take a look at some of the speakers slated for TEDxDayton 2014, the community’s second annual event that focuses on “ideas worth sharing,” in the style of the well-known online TED talks. The day-long event will be Oct. 17 at the Victoria Theatre in downtown Dayton, and is nearly sold out. For more on the event, visit TEDxDayton.com. Today we meet Dr. Ronald Storm, who studies human performance and will talk about groupthink and group dynamics. — Ron Rollins

Q: What’s your background?

A: I’ve had a varied career. I started as a submariner in the U.S. Navy, and from that time I’ve always had a passion for understanding how people interact, and human performance. Submarine life is the petri dish of social interaction — everything you’d ever want to see in humans occurs in submarines, and it happens over and over in a daily routine that’s like “Groundhog Day.” In that world, I learned how to push people’s buttons, and also how to get my buttons pushed. In the civilian world, I worked for Raytheon, and for a startup building space technology and satellites. I worked in the auto industry on the defense side, designing cool new vehicles. I finished my doctorate in business, and my area of interest is really quantifying human behavior — understanding why people do what they do.

Q: Why do they do what they do?

A: For tons of different reasons. It’s a lot to do with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — that people want safety, security, self-actualization, all those things. Everyone wants to be successful, happy — but some people just don’t know how to express that, or how to drive it.

Q: What do you now for a living?

A: I work for a Dayton analytics company called the Perduco Group. I work on the management consulting side, working with organizations on how to make them better, solve problems, quantify individuals, improve performance, all those things. We focus on defense, health care and sports.

Q: How does that all turn into a TED talk?

A: So, when I was a young engineer working at different companies, I looked around and saw that the leaders who were moving up fast seemed to have a certain kind of personality. They were arrogant, egotistical — generally, they were jerks. So me, being the inquisitive person, I wanted to know if I had to be that jerk — who steps on the little guy, undercuts my colleagues — to get ahead. I really hoped not. But I wondered, why do some people win in life, and why do some lose? Why does one group succeed, and another doesn’t? I wanted to quantify it.

Q: How did you go about that?

A: Well, I looked at the research I could find, and it didn’t help. Like the black bear experiment.

Q: The black bear experiment?

A: Right — your friend just got attacked by a black bear, so what do you do to make him survive? Or the Mars experiment, where you’ve just crash-landed on Mars, so how do you survive? What I looked at wasn’t true science; it was a lot of assumptions. So I did an experiment in which I modified a video game of a major battle and had players play it over 20 weeks, and I measured the progress of the groups to see how they approached the game — and did they make poor decisions, or less-optimal decisions, that caused them to lose.

Q: What did you find?

A: Well, what I expected to find was that the groups that followed a leader who was egotistical, arrogant and made snap decisions without taking in information from the other members of the group would be what drove the results. But what I found was the complete opposite — that working together as a group, strong group cohesion, played a bigger role. The egotistical leader model led to a lot of poor decision-making.

Q: So it’s all about the group?

A: Yes, but with qualifications. Everyone talks about esprit de corps, but too much of it is actually bad. There are two kinds of group cohesion — task cohesion and social cohesion. Task cohesion is where the task is more important than the group. Social cohesion is the group being brought together by the social feeling of being part of the group. Teams that were higher in social cohesion lost the game more — they were focused on not upsetting the team structure, and on the social aspects of the team.

Q: So, good group cohesion, with a lot of communication within the group and a focus on task, gets better results than the single strong, arrogant leader.

A: Correct.

Q: And yet, that seems counter to what our culture seems to think, and reinforce. Why do you think that is?

A: A lot of it’s from TV, movies — where you see the jerk boss being the one driving forward and taking charge. And there’ve been a lot of studies that seem to reinforce the idea that being headstrong and arrogant will get you promoted faster. But don’t forget that there’s a subtle difference between arrogance and confidence. You may see a boss or a leader from the outside who acts a certain way, but until you’re inside the organization and working closely with them, you really may not know that what seems like arrogance is really self-confidence.

Q: What do you hope people will take away from your talk?

A: I hope they’ll see the value in taking just a second to stop and understand what they’re doing and how they’re doing it — and that doing that will play a huge role in winning or losing. Just to step back, and put their ego in check will have a massive effect on their success. And it’s such a minor change. Also, I want to reinforce that groups that communicate more win more — that I’m a boss, if I talk to my people more, listen to them more, take their views and opinions and ideas in more, then I will have a greater opportunity to be successful than the other guy. I may not always win, but I will increase my opportunity to win.

Q: What made you want to be a TEDx speaker?

A: I’ve always been a big fan of TED and the way TED speakers express their ideas. I like the idea of ideas worth sharing, and I think I have a very good idea worth sharing that works across many industries, organizations and lifestyles. Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom, a corporate executive or a new employee working up the ladder, I think there’s something for everyone in my talk.

Q: As someone who studies how people function, do you think most people do live up to their potential?

A: I think that people have more potential than they often demonstrate, but not everyone has all the tools and understanding they need to maximize their potential. But then, not everyone wants to. That’s something I’ve had to come to terms with, in my own thinking — not everyone wants to be the most they can be. Lots of people are happy just being themselves.

Q: You sound kind of disappointed.

A: A little. Of course there are plenty of driven, Type-A people out there who want to be their best, but others aren’t there. Maybe they’re just not at that point in their lives. But there are little things you can do to get people a bit more to that point. It doesn’t take a lot.

Q: Are you Type A?

A: I guess I am. I’m not a chaotic Type A. My wife would probably say I am, but I know a lot of people around me who are a whole lot more Type A than I am.

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