Featured image of post Celebrate the Skeptics

Celebrate the Skeptics

Organizations that squash dissent are worse for it.

I read a recent post from Roy Rapoport titled, “Being Right Doesn’t Matter.” I’ll probably butcher it by summarizing it in one line, so I suggest you go read it first (it’s only a few paragraphs). Ultimately, he makes the point that “being right doesn’t matter if you can’t build consensus.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this. As I was reading his post, I was reminded of a recent story that I heard on EconTalk1 about a Hungarian physician and scientist, Ignaz Semmelweis. He noted that the doctors’ ward had triple the mortality rate as the midwives’ ward in his obstetric clinic. At the time, it was normal for doctors to carve up a cadaver in the morgue, wear the blood proudly on their apron (it was a badge to indicate just how hard they were working), and go straight to the labor and delivery rooms. Cleanliness was simply not a priority. Semmelweis noted that if he washed his hands in chlorinated lime solution the patient mortality rate dropped to 1%.

He accumulated some evidence to back up his claims and published, hoping to save tens of thousands of lives. However, his claims were not well received. The wider medical field rejected Semmelweis’s claims and his impact was not as significant as he had hoped. Semmelwies died at 47 of blood poisoning in an insane asylum just a few years prior to his ideas becoming more widely accepted.

Some of this reaction might be due to what Megan McArdle called the “Oedipus trap” (humans have a hard time reconciling the fact that their decisions may have caused a significant amount of harm, even if they were unintentional). It didn’t help that Semmelweis had a reputation of being a difficult guy to work with. He considered himself very smart and felt that his experimental studies should have been sufficient to convince others that he was right.

… Dr. Semmelwies also didn’t do himself any favors. […] He went out of his way to attack doctors who rejected his thesis, devoting a full sixty-four pages of one of his publications to attack a single obstetrician from Prague who questioned his results.2

This scenario is much more dramatic than anything we’d run into (we’re rarely contradicting the popular opinion of an entire profession) but if we agree that group think is bad, then we can agree that there are advantages for organizations to have a dissenting voice. It’s what Todd Kashdan delightfully calls “principled insubordination.”

With a single rebel airing alternate and unpopular views, a group reduces its confirmation bias and motivated reasoning and increases its creative output.3

In Kashdan’s “The Art of Insubordination,” he spends the first few chapters presenting all of the evidence that we need skeptics. This is especially true in any organization where the work involves both creativity and complexity. Creative and complex endeavors (which applies to most product-first organizations) benefit from people who are willing to speak up in situations where they may be contradicting popular opinion (“group think”). Skeptical viewpoints can encourage more thoughtful discussion.

However, the issue is that many organizations do not encourage skepticism. On the contrary, they often suppress it. If you’ve seen a leader respond defensively to a question asked in good faith, then you’ve seen this happen. Unhealthy peace is often prioritized over healthy conflict. Furthermore, it only takes is one poor reaction to a challenging question to effectively silence all future questions.

This leads to an environment where only the boldest or most adversarial team members will express skepticism. In short: if an environment is hostile to dissenting opinions, then the only dissenting opinions will be hostile.

Ergo, we need to build environments where contrary opinions are welcomed and rewarded so that we can benefit from sharper critical thinking from our teams.

What can you as a manager or leader do to encourage principled insubordination? Here are four specific things.

  1. First, be vulnerable. This take courage and is often uncomfortable. Brene Brown really does a great job of explaining this in Dare To Lead. Leadership must demonstrate that they can’t know all of the things and that they are open to changing course. If leadership is not open to criticism, they will receive none, and the organization will be worse for it.
  2. Coach. There’s a fine line between being a skeptic (challenging commonly accepted opinions, good) and a cynic (believing that others are not acting in good faith, bad). A cynical person might be recovering from a previous job where they were not able to ask (or, worse, punished for asking) critical questions, but with the right encouragement they might be converted into a skeptic. Other team members might just need a little help challenging opinions in a diplomatic, constructive way.
  3. Solicit. Solicitation of feedback is often required because many people are reluctant to provide honest feedback because they’ve learned that leaders don’t react well. Keeping your head down is a good strategy in many organizations, so you have to work to solicit dissenting opinions.
  4. Reward. Even solicitation may not be effective if some team members have had poor experiences raising objections in the past. Hence, rewarding those that speak up is critical as it signals to everyone else that disagreement is encouraged. Asking for clarification, seeking to understand, answering questions in good faith and, most importantly, changing course when merited: all of this indicates to the team that managers and leaders are open to constructive feedback.

This short list might make it sound easy, but as any leader would know, it is most certainly not. A rush of adrenaline is a fundamental human reaction to contradiction, propelling us toward a vigorous verbal defense. It’s hard to tamp that immediate reaction down and listen. Listening can take the form of asking clarifying questions, surfacing the underlying problem.

Once those voices have been heard and addressed in good faith, then the team can move on, even if it means that some parties have to disagree and commit. By being vulnerable, coaching, soliciting opinions, and rewarding dissent organizations can continue to benefit from critical thinking and avoid the trap of artificial consensus.

(You might be saying, “Alright, that’s all well and good, Brian, what if I’m not a manager? What if I am the skeptic?” Well, carry on, I say! If you’re looking for ways to be more effective, then I recommend checking out “The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively” by Todd Kashdan.)

Photo from Bing Image Creator.

  1. March 20, 2023 EconTalk episode with Megan McArdle ↩︎

  2. Quote from Kashdan, “The Art of Insubordination, page 64. ↩︎

  3. Quote from Kashdan, “The Art of Insubordination, page 53. ↩︎

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