Ev­ery leader needs a chal­lenger in chief

NOREENA HERTZ

Finweek English Edition - - MANAGEMENT -

Peo­ple are drawn to those who echo what­ever it is they al­ready be­lieve. When pre­sented with data that con­firms their be­liefs, many peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence a dopamine rush like eat­ing choco­late or fall­ing in love. On Face­book peo­ple un­friend those with po­lit­i­cal views dif­fer­ent from their own, and on Twit­ter they fol­low peo­ple just like them­selves.

Yet a vast body of re­search now points to the im­por­tance of con­tem­plat­ing di­verse, dis­sent­ing views, and not just for the pur­pose of mak­ing peo­ple more well-rounded in­di­vid­u­als, but also for turn­ing them into smarter de­ci­sion-mak­ers.

Dis­sent, it turns out, has sig­nif­i­cant value.

When group mem­bers are en­cour­aged to ex­press di­ver­gent opin­ions, they not only share more in­for­ma­tion but also con­sider it more sys­tem­at­i­cally and in a more bal­anced, less bi­ased way. When peo­ple en­gage with those who have dif­fer­ent opin­ions and views from their own, they be­come much more ca­pa­ble of ques­tion­ing crit­i­cal as­sump­tions and iden­ti­fy­ing creative al­ter­na­tives. Stud­ies com­par­ing the prob­lem-solv­ing abil­i­ties of groups where dis­sent­ing views are voiced, and those where they are not, find that dis­sent tends to be a bet­ter pre­con­di­tion for reach­ing the right so­lu­tion than con­sen­sus.

Yet how many lead­ers ac­tively seek out and en­cour­age views alien to, and at odds with, their own? All too few. US Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son, who was in of­fice from 22 Novem­ber 1963 to 20 Jan­uary 1969, no­to­ri­ously dis­cour­aged dis­sent, and many his­to­ri­ans now be­lieve that this played a sig­nif­i­cant role in his de­ci­sion to es­ca­late US mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions in Viet­nam. Ex­ces­sive group­think is now recog­nised to have un­der­pinned Pres­i­dent Kennedy’s dis­as­trous au­tho­ri­sa­tion of a CIA-backed land­ing at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. For­mer em­ploy­ees of the now-de­funct Lehman Broth­ers have talked about how voic­ing dis­sent there was con­sid­ered a ca­reer breaker. Yale economics pro­fes­sor Robert Shiller ex­plained that when it came to warn­ing about the bub­bles he be­lieved were de­vel­op­ing in the stock and hous­ing mar­kets just be­fore the fi­nan­cial cri­sis he did so only “qui­etly” be­cause “de­vi­at­ing too far from con­sen­sus leaves one feel­ing po­ten­tially os­tracised from the group with the risk that one may be ter­mi­nated”.

Is this the think­ing that the ‘clubby’ en­vi­ron­ment in your board­room is in­ad­ver­tently en­gen­der­ing? Or are you ac­tively sig­nalling t hat you want to hear op­pos­ing views? We need to have the con­fi­dence to al­low our ideas and po­si­tions to be chal­lenged.

Eric Sch­midt, the ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of Google, has talked about how in meet­ings he ac­tively seeks out peo­ple with dis­sent­ing opin­ions. Abra­ham Lin­coln’s renowned “team of ri­vals” was com­prised of peo­ple whose in­tel­lect he re­spected and who were con­fi­dent enough to take is­sue with him when they dis­agreed with his point of view. Stu­art Ro­den, co-fund man­ager of Lansdowne Part­ners’ f lag­ship fund, one of the world’s largest hedge funds, tells me he sees one of his pri­mary roles as be­ing the per­son who chal­lenges his staff to con­sider how they could be wrong and then to as­sess how this might af­fect their de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

Who in your or­gan­i­sa­tion serves as your chal­lenger in chief? Who ques­tions you as you de­bate op­tions for the choices you have to make? Who en­cour­ages you to con­sider ideas that you never imag­ined and that con­tra­dict or re­fute your po­si­tion? Who chal­lenges you?

Peo­ple are not the robotic, emo­tion­less de­ci­sion-mak­ers of economics text­books,

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