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The Dissenting Voice

Are you doing enough to harness the value of dissent?

In an article published in 1952 in Fortune magazine, William H Whyte Jr coined the term "groupthink". The concept was subsequently developed and researched by Irving Janis into a more robust theory (see Victims of Groupthink, 1972 and others). Groupthink is characterized by an over-estimation of the power and morality of a group; closed mindedness, and pressures for uniformity. In the business world, this manifests itself as a tendency for leaders to recruit in their own image, and to reinforce ideas that are held as group values. This can build a strong identity or corporate culture, but can also stifle change and innovation.

After the Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco, President John F. Kennedy sought to avoid groupthink during the Cuban Missile Crisis using what was termed "vigilant appraisal.". Outside experts were invited to share their viewpoints. He also encouraged group members to discuss possible solutions with trusted members of their departments, and divided the group up into various sub-groups, to reduce group cohesion. Kennedy himself was deliberately absent from the meetings, so as to avoid dominating the discussion.

It is hard for some to be the lone dissenting voice. It takes courage and confidence. Yes, I can hear you saying "If they don't have the gumption to speak up they don't belong on my team!". This may be true at the top levels, but lower down where expert knowledge is the major part of their job, other personality types are more present. Are you missing out on intellectual potential?

In "First Break All the Rules" Buckingham and Coffman tell us that one of the key questions for gauging the health of an organization (in terms of employee satisfaction) is "Do my opinions seem to count?" If you create an atmosphere where constructive dissent or challenge is welcomed you will not only improve employee morale and the quality of outcomes, but most likely will surface some valuable ideas that would otherwise have gone undiscovered.

What can you do? - As a leader, actively cultivate dissenting voices. For important decisions where there may be overpowering consensus, appoint a "devil's advocate" from within the team to take a contrary view and pitch it to the group. Teach your leaders to cultivate productive dissent.

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