Monday, June 29, 2020

A Culture that Supports Dissent: Lessons from In Defense of Troublemakers by Charlan Nemeth

Charlan Nemeth is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley.  Her research and practical experience inform her conclusion that the presence of authentic dissent during the decision making process leads to better informed and more creative decisions.  This post presents highlights from her 2018 book* and provides our perspective on her views.

Going along to get along

Most people are inclined to go along with the majority in a decision making situation, even when they believe the majority is wrong.  Why?  Because the majority has power and status, most organizational cultures value consensus and cohesion, and most people want to avoid conflict. (179)

An organization’s leader(s) may create a culture of agreement but consensus, aka the tyranny of the majority, gives the culture its power over members.  People consider decisions from the perspective of the consensus, and they seek and analyze information selectively to support the majority opinion.  The overall effect is sub-optimal decision making; following the majority requires no independent information gathering, no creativity, and no real thinking. (36,81,87-88)

Truth matters less than group cohesion.  People will shape and distort reality to support the consensus—they are complicit in their own brainwashing.  They will willingly “unknow” their beliefs, i.e., deny something they know to be true, to go along.  They live in information bubbles that reinforce the consensus, and are less likely to pay attention to other information or a different problem that may arise.  To get along, most employees don’t speak up when they see problems. (32,42,98,198)

“Groupthink” is an extreme form of consensus, enabled by a norm of cohesion, a strong leader, situational stress, and no real expectation that a better idea than the leader’s is possible.  The group dynamic creates a feedback loop where people repeat and reinforce the information they have in common, leading to more extreme views and eventually the impetus to take action.  Nemeth’s illustrative example is the decision by President John Kennedy and his advisors to authorize the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.** (140-142)

Dissent adds value to the decision making process

Dissent breaks the blind following of the majority and stimulates thought that is more independent and divergent, i.e., creates more alternatives and considers facts on all sides of the issue.  Importantly, the decision making process is improved even when the dissenter is wrong because it increases the group’s chances of identifying correct solutions. (7-8,12,18,116,180) 

Dissent takes courage but can be contagious; a single dissenter can encourage others to speak up.  Anonymous dissent can help protect the dissenter from the group. (37,47) 

Dissent must be authentic, i.e., it must reflect the true beliefs of the dissenter.  To persuade others, the dissenter must remain consistent in his position.  He can only change because of new or changing information.  Only authentic, persistent dissent will force others to confront the possibility that they may be wrong.  At the end of the day, getting a deal may require the dissenter to compromise, but changing the minds of others requires consistency. (58,63-64,67,115,190)

Alternatives to dissent

Other, less antagonistic, approaches to improving decision making have been promoted.  Nemeth finds them lacking.

Training is the go to solution in many organizations but is not very effective in addressing biases or getting people to speak up to realities of power and hierarchies.   Dissent is superior to training because it prompts reconsidering positions and contemplating alternatives. (101,107)

Classical brainstorming incorporates several rules for generating ideas, including withholding criticism of ideas that have been put forth.  However, Nemeth found in her research that allowing (but not mandating) criticism led to more ideas being generated.   In her view, it’s the “combat between different positions that provides the benefits to decision making.” (131,136)

Demographic diversity is promoted as a way to get more input into decisions.  But demographics such as race or gender are not as helpful as diversity of skills, knowledge, and backgrounds (and a willingness to speak up), along with leaders who genuinely welcome different viewpoints. (173,175,200)

The devil’s advocate approach can be better than nothing, but it generally leads to considering the negatives of the original position, i.e., the group focuses on better defenses for that position rather than alternatives to it.  Group members believe the approach is fake or acting (even when the advocate really believes it) so it doesn’t promote alternative thinking or force participants to confront the possibility that they may be wrong.  The approach is contrived to stimulate divergent thinking but it actually creates an illusion that all sides have been considered while preserving group cohesion. (182-190,203-04)

Dissent is not free for the individual or the group

Dissenters are disliked, ridiculed, punished, or worse.  Dissent definitely increases conflict and sometimes lowers morale in the group.  It requires a culture where people feel safe in expressing dissent, and it’s even better if dissent is welcomed.  The culture should expect that everyone will be treated with respect. (197-98,209)

Our Perspective

We have long argued that leaders should get the most qualified people, regardless of rank or role, to participate in decision making and that alternative positions should be encouraged and considered.  Nemeth’s work strengthens and extends our belief in the value of different views.

If dissent is perceived as an honest effort to attain the truth of a situation, it should be encouraged by management and tolerated, if not embraced, by peers.  Dissent may dissuade the group from linear cause-effect, path of least resistance thinking.  We see a similar practice in Ray Dalio’s concepts of an idea meritocracy and radical open-mindedness, described in our April 17, 2018 review of his book Principles.  In Dalio’s firm, employees are expected to engage in lively debate, intellectual combat even, over key decisions.  His people have an obligation to speak up if they disagree.  Not everyone can do this; a third of Dalio’s new hires are gone within eighteen months.

On the other hand, if dissent is perceived as self-serving or tattling, then the group will reject it like a foreign virus.  Let’s face it: nobody likes a rat.

We agree with Nemeth’s observation that training is not likely to improve the quality of an organization’s decision making.  Training can give people skills or techniques for better decision making but training does not address the underlying values that steer group decision making dynamics. 

Much academic research of this sort is done using students as test subjects.***  They are readily available, willing to participate, and follow directions.  Some folks think the results don’t apply to older adults in formal organizations.  We disagree.  It’s easier to form stranger groups with students who don’t have to worry about power and personal relationships than people in work situations; underlying psychological mechanisms can be clearly and cleanly exposed.

Bottom line: This is a lucid book written for popular consumption, not an academic journal, and is worth a read. 

(Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience. — John Milton)

*  C. Nemeth, In Defense of Troublemakers (New York: Basic Books, 2018).

**  Kennedy learned from the Bay of Pigs fiasco.  He used a much more open and inclusive decision making process during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

***  For example, Daniel Kahneman’s research reported in Thinking, Fast and Slow, which we reviewed Dec. 18, 2013.

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