Embracing dissenters: why you need people who ask difficult questions

Embracing dissenters: why you need people who ask difficult questions

Dissent within organisations is not necessarily a bad thing as Colonel Bill De Marco (CJBS Fellow of Social Innovation) and Dr Ben Hardy (CJBS Fellow in Management, Finance & Physiology) argue in the blogs below; organisations need to embrace dissenters to ensure all the difficult questions are addressed, alternatives considered and to avoid groupthink.


Bill: Embracing rebels, mavericks and rogues

Colonel Bill DeMarco
Colonel Bill DeMarco

Throughout history we have lived in times of crisis, complexity, and confusion. What has changed today is the speed at which these forces pulls on each of us. We are simply moving faster than we ever have before.

Somebody isn’t thinking

Crisis, complexity, and confusion is revealed in bizarre ways in the workplace. Many leaders choose to ignore it in an attempt to maintain the status quo, which is impossible given the rate of change. The people we work with want to see leaders take action, but they rely on us to make smart decisions. Smart decisions demand input, yet none of us are as smart as all of us. Most leaders seek input from the people we know best, but we need to destroy that mold – now. These same influencers lead us to gather ideas only from those who share our viewpoints. General George Patton once said:

“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”

If we are all thinking the same, we are trapped in unilateral thinking – or in other words – we are all adopting the same point of view. In today’s environment this destroys innovation, slows the organisation down, and can result in disaster.

Rebels, mavericks, and rogue thinkers

To bust out of unilateral thinking, we must ensure the people we work with feel free and trust leadership to hear their ideas. People must be empowered to voice their opinions and ideas that are indeed contrary to the prevailing thoughts in the organisation. As leaders we have to go out of our way to over-communicate and seek alternative approaches to problems posed by the rebels, the mavericks, and the rogue thinkers.

Mavericks may be hard to find (particularly in public bodies) but it will force us to engage with folks we don’t know well. We will have to actively seek those that think differently. Diversity has become a buzzword in the circles I travel, but it is indeed one of the strongest assets in any organisation. Different ideas, methods, competencies, experiences, and thought processes are huge advantages when it comes to collaboration and creative thinking.

The tension

Differences can also cause extreme stress and strain on an organisation. Some leaders seek to avoid tension as tension is hard to deal with. It is painful and can cause many evenings of lost sleep, but we cannot shun it. We have to pull on it, revel in it – we can’t try and minimise it. We have to use it as a force for creativity. The key is to over-communicate and prepare those around us to embrace and understand differences without pre-judging differences. Leaders are responsible for nurturing an eco-system where individual ideas are of the highest value and where those ideas can be fostered and grown into amazing initiatives.

In the end, leaders must encourage “out-of-the-box” ideas generated from a diverse workforce and in turn highlight, recognize, and reward ideas and success resulting from rogues and diverse individuals. Embrace the tension, don’t mitigate it. Revel in it. Our teams will amaze with their innovation.

Ben Hardy
Ben Hardy, Fellow in Management, Finance & Physiology at CJBS

Ben: The right stuff

The world rewards people for being right and punishes those who are wrong. Bosses get paid for being right, referees get booed for being wrong. Often, though, it’s quite hard to know what is right and what is wrong before we see the outcome. We try and tackle this by gathering information to help us make our decision. We then analyse this information to help us make the best decision possible. This is where the problems start.

The preconception problem

The thing is that we usually approach any issue with some preconceptions. These may be because we know a little about it already, it may be that we have a particular political viewpoint, or it may be that it looks a bit like a situation before. These preconceptions help channel us down a particular path without us even being aware of it.

How so? The problem is something called confirmation bias. This was a term coined in the sixties but, as a concept, it has been discussed since the ancient Greeks. In essence we seek and weight heavily information which confirms our views and neglect or discount that which does not. As the Greek historian Thucydides put it rather more poetically:

“…it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.”

(Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. London, J. M. Dent, 1910)

Surely I’d never do such a thing, you think to yourself. Sadly, it is all too likely that you would. In fact, we all do, as a huge number of studies attest. A great illustration of one of these studies by Peter Wason can be seen in the clip: “Can you solve this”, YouTube, Feb 2014

In the clip, the interviewer has a rule in his mind which he presents an example of. He gives the numbers 2, 4 and 8 as an example of the rule. The people he interviews guess numbers like 16, 32, 64; 3, 6, 12; and many more. Crucially, most of these guesses look very like the original sequence. In fact, they are consistent with the original sequence. The people in the film attempt to confirm their theory of what the rule is. Very few people make the leap to try and disprove the theory. After all, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t propose 8, 4, 2, is there?

This is an illustration of confirmation bias, which is a flaw in thinking which shows up in many different places. You could be sent to gaol because a police officer had decided that you were guilty and then selected the evidence that supported this theory, and discounted evidence which would have exonerated you. You might invest in a particular project because you only paid attention to the things that suggested that it would succeed, ignoring the portents of failure. You might decide on a particular policy because the evidence pointed in its favour, quietly marginalising the evidence which suggested that it wouldn’t work.

‘Confirmation bias is rife’

In business and politics, confirmation bias is rife. The people running things like to be decisive, to move forward, to take action. These qualities are laudable for getting things done, but less helpful when we have to consider what it is that needs to be done. They can also meant that people do not pay attention to dissenting voices – ‘you’re always bringing up problems’.

Help needed: Highly motivated dissenters

But those problems and concerns are exactly what we need. To overcome confirmation as we need to seek evidence that proves us wrong. Highly motivated dissenters are just the people to provide this. They don’t believe in what we’re doing and they may have facts and arguments that we need to hear to try and prove ourselves wrong. The difficulty with these people is that we disagree with them. We’ve written them off. They’re just against us. Consequently we tend to reject the person and, in doing so, their arguments. We need to engage with their arguments even if we can’t quite stomach engaging strongly with the person.

This is not to say that the other person is right. That is not their role here. We’re not adjudicating between who is right and who is wrong, we’re dealing with confirmation bias. What we’re really interested in is in proving ourselves wrong.

Scientists are acutely aware of this bias and so do not try and prove themselves right. Rather they spend their time trying to prove themselves wrong. They (should) construct experiments that show that the effect they think they have found is not present, or not the result of the things they think it is. In short, they look for the ‘Wrong’ stuff, not the ‘Right’.

This all boils down to a simple principle that we should hold to in all works of life including social innovation. Whenever presented with any information, theory or idea, we should always ask ‘how might this not be true?’ We may not like the answer or we may not be able to answer the question, but attempting to do so will expand our thinking. As a consequence we are more likely to find the right stuff by looking for the wrong.

Colonel Bill De Marco

Colonel Bill De Marco

Colonel Bill De Marco

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