Every leader needs a challenger in chief
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,