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The importance of courage to disagree

The subject of “change” is regularly addressed on this website. Change is so very important because we know that if we continue doing the same old thing we will get the same old result. Change is important if we want to improve, adjust to a new environment, take advantage of a new opportunity or simply do something different.

In a recent article in the Financial Times, Tim Harford told the story of United Airlines flight 173 in 1978. The flight was descending into Portland, Oregon when the flight crew became concerned that the landing gear was not in its correct position. Understandably this focused the mind of the captain. They circled for many minutes as they tried to figure out whether the landing gear was down. This technical problem crowded out all other thoughts. Eventually the first officer mentioned that they were running low on fuel but his observation seemed to go over the head of the captain. Shortly the engines died due to fuel starvation and the plane crashed killing 10 people. The lesson: the boss (the captain) was on a mission and his crew were too late in alerting him as to other dangers that proved more critical. Why is it that we can’t always bring ourselves to speak up, even when lives are at stake.

In business there are often occasions when certain facts are commonly known. This will take the company down a path that is consensual – everyone knows where they are going and why. What if someone becomes aware of certain facts which they believe could change the path of travel? It takes courage to mention these facts, especially when the body of opinion and that of the leaders are focused on a trajectory. Disagreement is hard and it can be painful to be a dissenter.

In an article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2009, Katherine Phillips, Katie Liljenquist, Margaret Neale reported on a study of groups of decision-makers. In a group of decision-makers where everyone knew each other, they quickly and confidently arrived at answers – even though their answers were wrong. Where a group of decision-makers were joined by a stranger, the presence of the stranger raised everyone's game to the point where they did much better at solving the problems.

Derek Sivers examined the subject of standing out and being different in a TED talk. He showed a group of people relaxing on a hillside. A lone man starts to gyrate and dance in front of the resting crowd. In a couple of minutes he is joined by someone. Within three or four minutes a good number of people are on their feet and cavorting. Joining in had now become less risky. In fact, so many people started dancing, the pressure was on to become part of the group rather than stay with the dwindling sunbathers.

The first dancer may or may not be a leader. He may simply be an exhibitionist. It is the plucky few that join the lone dancer that show courage and begin to change the dynamic of the crowd.

What does all this mean? It means that disagreement, dissent or doing something different is something we should look out for. In fact, we should welcome it because it is from this that we may be able to change the group dynamic. We don’t always appreciate it when views are dissenting and yet these may be vital in telling us that the plane is going to crash. We need courage to speak out and we need courage to listen to nonconforming opinion.

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