Can too many cooks not spoil the broth?

Too many cooks spoil the broth” — this popular idiom implies that when too many people work together or are involved in an activity, the final outcome or result becomes inferior.

While we all agree to the idioms with our versions of experiences, a popular management term “synergy” comes into mind. On a flipped perspective of the idiom, shouldn’t multiple cooks be rather reinforcing the broth with their own camaraderie and united strength than spoiling it?

This proverbial expression metaphorically denotes employing excess resources causes inefficiency. On a more literal term, too many cooks might not always spoil the broth. It is having multiple inputs from too many people that derails the progress. Contrary to the belief, there can be multiple number of people and less number of inputs. Sounds superficial and counterintuitive, but it is not impossible to achieve.

The Earned Dogmatism Effect: Culprit for the Spoiled Broth

“We don’t know everything, and we probably never will.”

This sentence sums up the antidote to the earned dogmatism effect, which explains that as we start becoming more experienced and knowledgeable – and thus, move from amateur to expert, we start becoming more close-minded and adopt a relatively dogmatic orientation – inclined to lay down certain beliefs as incontrovertibly true. Little do we know, multiple truths exist.

Read in detail about ‘The Earned Dogmatism Effect’ here.

When the cooks start believing that their way is the “ultimate right” way, the broth gets spoiled. If the cooks (or anyone in general) become more self-aware of their own dogmas and its impact on the bigger picture (i.e., the spoiled broth), they can help prevent this accident. Of course it is against the common human nature to not add recommendations in such quandary. But this should not be seen as a “sacrifice” because one does not necessarily have to put forward their ideas and recommendations all the time.

How to Save the Broth?

Here are a few steps (out of many) to help us save the broth and move towards achieving ‘synergic’ results.

1. Self Awareness

Checking in with yourself always helps. As the popular saying mentions, “the only way out is in“. It becomes important to understand how our thoughts, emotions, and actions are ever evolving and changing as we learn, and grow more with education and experience in life. The more we know, the more likely we are to fall into the diagnosis pitfall. The diagnosis pitfall notes that the “experts” at times are blinded by their past experiences, and could be fixated on the new event being the same as their past events. When we tend to selectively focus only on a part of the event that triggers our inner advice monster, we succumb into this trap of diagnosis pitfall. 

Read in detail about ‘The Diagnosis Pitfall” here.

As credible and knowledgeable experts, it becomes easy for us to advice people irrespective of their need for the guidance. Taming our inner advice monster is essential, and so it understanding that advice giving is not the problem.

Advice giving becomes problematic when i) we fail to understand the real depth of the challenge or the problem, ii) we think our advice is amazing when it might not be (Knock, knock: The Dunning-Kruger Effect), and iii) most frustratingly we cut away the other person’s sense of confidence and autonomy by trying to be a messiah or savior with our advices.

Self awareness helps us to check our biases within us, and realize that these cognitive biases can be problematic not just for us, but for the overall team and the outcome of the project/activity.

2. The golden pyramid of conscious and empathic listening

The golden trident of listening effectively comprises of three components – i) Understanding, ii) Humility, and iii) Curiosity.

Listening to someone should be more about understanding, and not about responding or reacting. And to make things clear, understanding does not mean agreement. We can develop this amazing ability to listen to someone say a complete opposing view without agreeing to them, but trying to understand where they are coming from.

The second component is about having the intellectual humility, since we do not have the knowledge of everything in the world. Even if we might have mastered cooking, we might not have full comprehension about all the dishes of the world. This humility allows us to listen rather than recommend more inputs to spoil the broth. Finally, the third component is about curiosity. Curiosity can be summed up with two words – asking questions.

Imagine you were about to clean the dishes voluntarily. Then someone comes in and then asks you to clean the dishes. You, now, might still do it but not as wholeheartedly as you would have done it before. Now imagine that instead of that someone ordering you to do it, they come up to you and simply asks, “what are you about to do?” Your probable response would be, “I’m about to do the dishes”. You might find the difference in your thoughts, emotions, and actions while doing the dishes now.

As human beings, being asked questions is a way to open up discussions and create platform to express ourselves. Asking questions implies that the other person is curious to listen, know, and understand about your views. Asking questions and staying curious in the conversation is more likely to push you to a listening zone. As the principle of reciprocity goes, when you listen to someone, you get listened to as well.

3. Imposed gets opposed.

Finally, when we try to impose our ideas and recommendations on others, we can expect it to be challenged, criticized, and even opposed.

Imagine your vegan friend pressing you hard to leave your juicy steak and turn into adopting a plant based diet. Imagine a religious priest avouching you to turn into following a certain religion, or trying hard to turn your atheist views to believing in god. Imagine someone with high inclination towards alternative medicine trying to influence and persuade you into following their methods. When you feel these things being imposed on you, you won’t budge no matter how much of logical statements they make, or how much evidences they present to you. They simply come across as “logic bullies“.

Any idea or change that is imposed will largely get opposed. In order to save the broth, we need to remain mindful that we are not imposing our inputs and recommendations to others. Understanding this simple rule will help us to easily get things done through our teams and groups.

Even the recommendations mentioned here in this article are not imposed; people are free to practice their own will. Just don’t impose it to others.

Dreading the Difficult Conversations

We probably have faced difficult conversations, at least once in our lives.

Ending a relationship. Asking your friend to repay his share of debt. Giving a critical feedback to your supervisor. Talking about financial issues with parents. Discussing about personal possessions with coworkers.

We absolutely dread talking out these difficult and crucial issues and either do it badly or postpone it for some other time, which never seems to come.

Crucial & difficult conversations can happen with everyone – families, friends, spouses, significant others, and colleagues. I’m convinced that the inability to hold space for these difficult conversations ends majorly either in silence or violence. The more we keep these emotionally charged situations and conversations to ourselves, the nastier its result is going to be for our interpersonal relationships.

Whether we like it or not, difficult conversations aren’t something we can avoid. Mastering it, however, is a crucial skill that rarely anyone talks about. But we rarely muster up courage to speak up. We tend to ignore it because that’s how we are wired. Our evolution comes with the “fight-or-flight” mode which proves to be counter-productive for such situations where opinions vary, stakes are high, and emotions are strong.

What to do in difficult conversations?

During such difficult conversations, at times we indulge so much in “winning the conversation” by focusing too much on the topic being discussed. We use our rationale, logic, and reasonings to make our point heard. We try hard to look for evidences that backs up our hypotheses, and give in everything to prove our point. We might win, but at what cost?

Sometimes that cost is losing social credibility and coming across as a tyrant boss, strict parent, inconsiderate colleague, apathetic friend, or an arrogant partner/spouse. When conversations start to turn toward either silence or violence, focusing on the surrounding climate can be of advantage.

If you’ve faced something like that or are someone who is focused hardly on putting your message across, try to look for the two things:
(A) What do you really want? E.g. To be understood.
(B) What do you really NOT want? E.g. To spoil my relationship.
Once you get it, try asking your mind: How can I have a conversation about (A) and avoid (B) from happening.

The elusive “and” is the key.

Sometimes, people just focus on what they want, and leave what they NOT want as a byproduct. I’ve seen people say “I’m just telling the facts. If the other party can’t digest it, I’m better off without them.“We need to understand that both these parts can be achieved together. But when we start ignoring how people are reacting to our words in the conversation, we might be flying too close to the sun like Icarus with his waxed wings; we would evidently be bound to fall down soon.

As the persuasion paradox goes, the most argumentative people rarely persuade anyone of anything. On the flip side, the most persuasive people don’t argue – they observe, listen, and ask thoughtful questions. This is another useful key in the bag to unlocking the difficult conversations door.

As Susan Steinbrecher – author of Meaningful Alignment – says, “Only when we can get out of judgment and blame — and have the willingness to understand why someone is doing what they are doing — can we hope to solve anything.” Note that elusive “and” here as well.

This quote further brings the issue of understanding our own judgement, getting out of blaming someone, and finally our willingness to understand through empathic listening. That is how we can come out of the vicious spiral of resolving through difficult conversations.

Listening – with intent and empathy – is always the numero uno tactic for every conversation, be it difficult, crucial, or regular.

Conscious And Empathic Listening

“Through empathic listening, the listener lets the speaker “I understand your problem and how you feel about it. I am interested in what you are saying and I am not judging you.“

This piece of information is extracted from Barbara A. Bullen’s book, “Mediation: A Training & Resource Guide for the Mediator“.

While I read and contemplated this piece of text, I remembered a few incidents of myself listening non-empathically. Reflecting back to my own actions, I have made plenty of mistakes in listening to other people, and being aware of them is usually my first step in correcting them.


One of the most common mistakes I have found myself doing repeatedly was saying “I understand your problem” without actually understanding it to the full context. A few years back, I remember I was with one of my trainees, and he was sharing his career related confusion with me. The speaker was sharing his feeling about the career choices he had made in his undergraduate years, and I was thinking of a similar incident in my mind. My thoughts at that moment were being clouded by the similarity of the event that occurred in my life. That is where I was not being fully conscious and empathic towards the speaker.


Another mistake I now realize I have been doing was to jump into advice. As a consultant to various individuals and organizations, I hand out a lot of knowledge and advice. But now I realize that at times I have jumped into advising mode without listening. What now seems even more dangerous is that I have formed an “advice” in my mind, or at least thought of an appropriate advice right after listening to a few sentences from the speaker.


In my early days, I have asked people to shut down their feelings and to make it worse, even have asked them to “feel differently” about a particular event/person/thing. I have asked a sad person to cheer up, and not to be sad. If I could go back in time and change my actions, I would happily do so.

Also read: Can we be authentic-self? What’s adaptive authenticity?


I have shared my mistakes I have committed in the past. Not repeating it itself is one way forward. Furthermore, to move towards more conscious and empathic listening, one can start asking more questions about the speakers’ feelings. It becomes important to know that s/he might not be asking you for feedback, but just needs someone to listen non-judgmentally. One question I like asking is “How were you feeling when you …? “. This opens up a space for their personal reflection as well as it will help them understand their own perspectives in a better way.

When you are listening empathically, you do not get engaged in other tasks simultaneously. You might think you would quickly reply to a text, or just glance at the notification bar, but this multitasking is what kills the conscious and empathic listening. In addition to this, sometimes one needs to get comfortable with silences. Some people do find silences in the conversation as awkward. However, I have been learning and trying to embrace the silence as much as possible. The moment of silence creates the pause, which forms a space that allows me to choose my response.

In pursuit towards more conscious and empathic listening, one elementary point you can start off with would be understanding this statement:

“If you are framing a response when the other is speaking, you are not really listening.

If you can catch yourself trying to find a response while the speaker is speaking, then it’s step one towards being aware. The step two would be to ask your brain to postpone the response. The third step? Listen!