Few things are more satisfying than finding someone who agrees with us. We recognize a kindred spirit, giving us the sense that this enlightened soul’s depth of insight and undaunted intellect make our friendship almost preordained. It reaffirms our faith in humanity. If only there were more like us, we could solve the world’s ills, couldn’t we?
Actually, no, we couldn’t.
Not the world’s ills, not even our own tiny bailiwick’s. We may, in fact, exacerbate the problems we are aiming to abate, creating more in the process. Being likeminded, we would make similar assumptions, frame the problem the same way, jump to similar conclusions. We’d overlook the same gaps in our understanding and reasoning that might be glaringly obvious to observers outside our happy, agreeable jamboree.
In sum, no good decision ever came from an echo-chamber meeting, where all participants repeat the opinions of the leader. What is socially agreeable can be intellectually dangerous. Likeminded, agreeable people are great for socializing, but reduce the quality of decision-making where skeptical, argumentative minds are the most useful, yet often the least appreciated.
Finding someone willing to dissent thoughtfully and yet retain their loyalty to the decision – even if they don’t agree with it – is extraordinarily rare for two reasons. First, as an executive moves up the food chain, the less likely his or her opinions will be challenged from below; second, the more difficult it becomes for an executive to listen to a dissenting opinion and give it the consideration it deserves.
Encouraging dissent before a decision should be a priority for executive — it is a chance to double check assumptions and review processes. It is the waterproofing of the decision, increasing the chances that it will float.
The problem is, however, that participants often feel disinclined to voice concerns. Even teams with diverse backgrounds fall for this. There is an irresistible inclination to curry favor – even when the executive openly asks for dissenting opinions. When the sword of power hangs over your head, one tends to humor the hand that holds it.
The second problem – listening well enough to understand a dissenter’s position — is even more difficult because an executive becomes accustomed to being told he is right. We are complimented on everything from our choice of chicken or fish during our biz class flight, to our jokes, regardless of whether they are funny, in the meeting. Executives live in a biz class bubble. And the isolation increases exponentially if said executive flies first class or via private jet.
Arrogance and ignorance are complementary. We become arrogant because we are certain of our ability and knowledge. We often fail to see they limitations of both because we have made many similar decisions before and were right. We are accustomed to doing things right. This limitation of knowledge, our inherent ignorance, gives us confidence that we wouldn’t have if we knew more.
So how do we stop to listen? We have to remember that nobody ever did us a favor by mindlessly agreeing with us. The executive can help the dissenter by asking questions that help structure and focus the argument, so as to better understand the arguments basic premises. There is a rule in logic argumentation that in examining an argument one should try to apply the structure that most improves the argument. The reason is that one gains little from weak arguments, but a great deal from strong ones.
Often understanding an argument simply requires that we join the dissenting opinion and argue as best we can against our own position. You might say to hell with that, it’s the dissenter’s job to make a good argument. Yes, it is, but it is the executive’s job to make good decisions and the only way to do that is to listen different viewpoints and think about them.
As long as the dissenting view is presented with thought and respect, as long as the dissenter understands that he may be overruled and asked to carry out a decision that he contested, it should be allowed. Let’s call it loyal insubordination and let’s encourage it.
Ultimately, there will be limitations on time and knowledge that we can’t overcome, so different perspectives are crucial to obtaining the best decision within those limitations. In the end, we can choose between being told we’re right, or aiming at actually being right.
(This originally appeared at Globis.jp, in a series on critical thinking.)