Rigorous Thinking


What’s the worst thing that can happen in a meeting? A fight? Maybe. (It depends on who wins, right? Just kidding.) How about getting fired in that meeting? Yes, that’s pretty bad…or maybe not. The next position might be incredible. What about getting nothing done? That’s frustrating. I hate those meetings. How about this: Could the worst thing that happens in a meeting be everyone agreeing on everything? Wait! Don’t we want agreement? Well, no.

Good leadership welcomes disagreement because from disagreement we learn. We grow. We think. We change. We become.

In a HBR Blog Network article called “Every Leader Needs a Challenger in Chief,” Noreena Hertz1 acknowledges that it feels good to recieve or find confirming evidence for your position. It feels good to be right, doesn’t it? It also feels good to be personally affirmed. What’s better than your idea being right? Being recognized as the person who was right!

However, having the right ideas and being recognized as the person who put those ideas forward won’t support your basic responsibility, as a leader, to guide your organization through change into the future. In fact, cultures of agreement, or cultures that discourage dissent, are notorious as examples of some rather epic failures in history.

According to Hertz, the Johnson presidential administration had a culture that discouraged dissent and this contributed to extending the Vietnam war. Similarly, the Kennedy administration’s low tolerance for disagreement contributed to the Bay of Pigs disaster. More recently, the culture at Lehman Brothers was described by insiders as one in which dissenters were actively marginalized, thus encouraging people to not question assumptions and risky decisions. We all know what that led to.

In contrast, Hertz described Eric Schmidt of Google and President Lincoln, as two people who actively sought dissenting opinions as a means to check assumptions, encourage critical thinking, be more creative, and produce better solutions.

How can you be sure you don’t get trapped by feel-good feedback and affirmation? How can you be sure to encourage and engage dissent and disagreement? What you need is a strategy to shine light on your leadership blind spots.

Another HBR Blog Network article, “Three Tips for Overcoming Your Blind Spots,” written by John Dame and Jeffery Gedmin2, explains this. Dame and Gedmin described two common problems of managers. First, managers often have “uncritical faith in authorities.” They accept the powers-that-be outright and don’t question their perspective or assumptions. I think this is less true of experienced leaders, but it nevertheless remains a problem.

Second, managers engage in “quick dismissal of seemingly irrelevant assertions.” That is, when they are problem solving and information is being paraded before their mind, some of the data and ideas may at first seem unrelated. The conclusion is too often, “Well, that’s got nothing to do with it.” This fault is true not just of managers, but often of leaders. In fact, I think leaders are more prone to this problem because they are often challenged to make quick decisions and are less likely to engage data that seems outside the scope of likely relevance.

So what can be done about this? How can leaders effectively have a “challenger in chief” at their side, figuratively or literally, and avoid succumbing to their blind spots?

Dame and Gedmin offered three suggestions. First, it is important to test your theories that explain problems and phenomena by gathering data, but not just data that confirms your hunch. Rigorous and critical thinking welcomes disconfirming data as well. The good and the bad need to be evaluated together.

Second, Dame and Gedmin advise keeping a diary of important events, meetings, and reflections to avoid selective memory. We’re all guilty of filtering our memory to include the historical data that supports our beliefs and makes us look good. The best way to prevent this is too keep track of what really happened.

Dame and Gedmin’s third strategy is to actively fight groupthink. Groupthink is the phenomenon that occurs when people, desiring to keep harmony in the group, avoid dissenting viewpoints and conflict, thus resulting in dysfunctional problem solving and decision making. In other words, groupthink occurs when members value harmony over effectiveness. To fight this, leaders need to put people on the team who are independent, critical thinkers, but who share the leader’s values and goals.

So, if one of the worst things that can happen in a meeting is complete agreement, then I will argue that one of the best things that can happen in a meeting is robust disagreement that challenges people to look at problems, and even themselves, from new perspectives.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Photo “Everything will be OK” by Transformer18. Available at Flickr.com.

1: Noreena Hertz, “Every Leader Needs a Challenger in Chief,” HBR Blog Network, September 11, 2013, http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/09/whos-your-challenger-in-chief/ (accessed September 30, 2014).
2: John Dame and Jeffrey Gedmin, “Three Tips For Overcoming Your Blind Spots,” HBR Blog Network, October 2, 2013, http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/10/three-tips-for-overcoming-your-blind-spots/ (accessed September 30, 2014).

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