Dare to Disagree

Okay, I admit it. I have a weakness for TED Talks (and a few others). When I have quiet time alone I’ll often “waste” it there rather than on TV or whatever. I find the ideas people put forward there are always interesting, even if I don’t really agree with them totally, or perhaps even understand them. But every now and again, I’ll hear a Ted Talk and it will just absolutely resonate with who I am.

“Dare to Disagree” by Margaret Heffernan is one of those talks. If you live in a corporate environment, you owe it to yourself to give it a listen and think about who you are. In it she builds off a stated fact that 85% of executives in a corporate environment have issues they are afraid to bring up. She explores the act of doing so, and how that act can have profound effects.

I do this. I speak up. At least I think I do. Up to a point, anyway, and up to a point further than most of my peers. I pay for this approach, though. I’ve sometimes found myself on the receiving end of feedback that says I can be too … argumentative … at times, or that I hold to positions too strongly. But then the dam eventually breaks and things work well and that feedback turns into raves about how well my team is doing and what a great developer of people I can be. This is a cycle so ingrained now that I’m coming to see the initial feedback of being a bit argumentative in leadership circles as an initial measure of future success. I am a change agent, I guess. And change agents deal with friction. That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

I think it’s an element of self-confidence, of knowing that things will be okay even if you hold a line that’s a bit unpopular. George Orwell once said that during times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act–and there is something to that. Sometimes pointing out a truth does create conflict, and most organizations find conflict a bit of a problem. The problem, however, is not the conflict itself but instead whether that conflict is resolved or not…

I digress. Sorry about that.

Unlike Orwell’s quote, though, I don’t really think of the act as revolutionary … at least not in context of the arena of corporate politics. They are, instead, more processes of liberation. I think of them as Jerry Maguire moments. Tom Cruise’s character was right, after all. It’s just that once he threw away his standard operating principles he had to find another way of doing business, and that took time and sacrifice. It took a willingness to look at himself differently. And that’s the problem. To fix the problems that those 85% of executives are afraid to bring up generally requires we look at ourselves differently and change the way we make decisions. This is not something that executives like to do, really. It can be humbling, and executives rarely get where they are by being humble. They get where they are by being smart, working hard, learning to trust their own opinion, and getting enough other people to think like them that they can make things they care about happen. But being a bit more humble and looking at problems from a very different lens is exactly what needs to happen.

This is why the part of Margaret Heffernan’s talk I disagree with is her assessment of corrective action. She suggests that kids be taught to make such arguments in school. I think that’s fine, but it misses the primary cause of the problem, and that is that people making such decisions are driven toward the simple, short term answer–generally because they don’t really believe the long term answer is achievable or because they don’t actually believe the best long term answer is right (or perhaps because they don’t know what the best long-term answer is and don’t feel comfortable admitting that … why is “I don’t know” so danged hard to say?). The place this needs to start is in the corporate businesses that breed the environment. It needs to start with young mangers–those people who are going to lead the world for the next 30 years. And it needs to start with thinking about how to translate principles into actions that the working public will see as aligned with those principles. Those are the answers that most companies need (he says, beating his chest).

That dichotomy of action and principle is the chief symptom of the problem, of course. If you ask people whether a leader or a company is doing what they say they will do, and you get a wishy-washy answer, then the problem is almost certainly that in the eyes of the average employee, management’s actions do not add up to their stated principles. Humans are great at sensing the disjointed essence of this conflict, even if we sometimes have trouble putting it into words–but if you ask us we can almost always point out specific cases of hypocrisy. And make no mistake, hypocrisy is the term we are looking for to describe the root of the problem. It’s not intentional hypocrisy. But it’s real. If people sense a divergence between principle and action, then they will assess it as hypocrisy (or just flat-out incompetence). And, since leadership is earned based on the eye of the follower, this image is truth whether the deceitful essence the word “hypocrisy” carries is real or not.

The interesting thing to me is that most executives will not admit that hypocrisy is the root of the problem. They don’t seem to see it. Or, perhaps the real problem is that they do see it, but they just can’t bring themselves to expend the effort it takes to make the changes necessary. Either way, the problem, and the solution, does not begin in schools. It begins with us–with people who are in the corporate offices where it has taken root.


And so you ask: are there topics I’m afraid to bring up, even in this enlightened stage of change agentry I report myself to be in? Why, yes, I respond. Yes there are. [grin]

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  1. Interesting post, Ron — I’m going to have to make time to listen to Margaret’s talk.

    Also interesting is the fact that at work, we value truth over concurrence, and we have a phrase for when someone does that speaking out — we call it “Putting the moose on the table,” as in, there’s a moose in the room but nobody is willing to talk about it . . . until someone DOES talk about it by “putting it on the table.”

    Still, I find that I often speak out more often than others — we talk about “modeling the values” at work, and I like to think that I model the “truth-seeking dissent” value.

    Good stuff to ponder, though — and a good read (your blog post, that is).

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