Monday, October 01, 2007

Bursting the bubble: cultivating dissent in the workplace

Cultivating dissentAccording to a recent BusinessWeek poll, 90% of executives and middle managers believe that they perform in the top 10%. (This effect, known as positive illusion bias, is not confined to managers alone: it can be found among drivers confident that their reflexes are superior to those of others on the road, trial attorneys certain that they have the stronger case, and negotiators with an overinflated sense of their own prowess at the table.)

Given how widespread this phenomenon is, and how fallible then our judgment can be about the utility of our ideas and the strength of our abilities, many of us are undoubtedly in need of a little healthy perspective-taking when it comes to the decisions we make.

Just in time comes the latest edition of the Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge newsletter with an article on the importance of "Encouraging Dissent in Decision-Making".

Dissent asks the hard questions, anticipates problems, and prevents mistakes--mistakes which can otherwise prove costly:


Consider the costs to organizations, large and small, when dissent does not or cannot surface: Abjuring rigorous debate about its merits, a youthful president John F. Kennedy essentially rubber-stamped a 1961 plan to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, resulting in one of the biggest U.S. foreign policy fiascoes in decades. During a 1996 commercial expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest, several climbers, including two of the world's most experienced professionals, died in part because junior team members didn't speak up when their expert leaders ignored their own core operating principles surrounding safety. In 2003, NASA engineers were reluctant to challenge long-held beliefs that foam strikes incurred during the launch of the space shuttle Columbia posed no risk to its fuselage.
Consider that the next time someone disagrees with you.

(Thanks to Thoughts from a Management Lawyer for the poll results.)

(Photo credit: Javier Taboada.)