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Why dissent is your best cure for groupthink (review)

troublemakerThis review first ran in the April 28 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business

By Charlan Nemeth

Basic Books


Come up with a great idea at work and you’re showered with awards and accolades.

But what do you get for killing a dumb idea that’s a fan favourite with colleagues or a pet project of the boss?

Don’t count on winning employee of the month honours. You’ll likely lose friends, make some enemies and get branded a malcontent. You’ll be reminded why it’s important to go along to get along and may even be told to make amends for hurt feelings and bruised egos.

Also expect fewer invitations to join project teams, committees and task forces which can definitely count as a big plus.

Or maybe none of that will happen because you work for a leader who values troublemakers like you and applauds your courage, conviction and candor. You say what the rest of us are thinking. You may be a pain but you’re the preventative cure for groupthink.

Groupthink is how otherwise smart people make stupid decisions. These teams have bought into the illusion of their invulnerability and unanimity. They practice self-censorship, discuss only the information they have in common and put the screws to dissenters.

Teams that are suffering from groupthink are often in error but never in doubt, says Charlan Nemeth, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley and author of In Defense of Troublemakers.

“The pressure to reach consensus and especially the suppression of dissent are precisely the ways to get convergent thinking – a narrowing of the range of information and options by viewing the issue from a single perspective instead of exploring multiple perspectives,” says Nemeth.

Dissent is the cure for groupthink. “Dissent, while often annoying, is precisely the challenge that we need to reassess our own views and make better choices. It helps us consider alternatives and generate creative solutions. Dissent is a liberator. Genuine dissent and debate not only make us think but make us think well. We become free to know what we know.”

Don’t confuse troublemakers with devil’s advocates. Troublemakers believe what they’re saying and their conviction has the power to privately change hearts and minds.

Devil’s advocates are playing a part free of authentic dissent. This can fool teams into believing they’ve had vigorous debate. And rather than provoking a team to make a smarter decision, research shows devil’s advocates can actually reinforce initial thinking and polarize the group’s position.

“For too many years, I have watched the pumped-up moral superiority by people who believe that they have considered all sides of an issue – and have no patience for any challenge to the position they have decided,” says Nemeth.

It’s up to leaders to defend troublemakers and actively solicit a diversity of perspectives. Hiring people who will look at issues from different points of view is key. “Diversity might provide a range of views, but to have value, those views need to be expressed – perhaps even welcomed in a debate between views. For this to happen, however, there must be a leader who actually welcomes differences in viewpoint.”

Going against majority opinion and saying aloud what others may be thinking can be career-limiting in organizations that value cohesion and harmony above all else. Yet troublemakers play an essential role in breaking the power of consensus and stimulating independent thinking.

To borrow a line from General George Patton, if everyone is thinking alike than somebody isn’t thinking.

“Confronted by dissent, we are less likely to rush to judgment, whether as individuals or in groups,” says Nemeth. “We are more likely to consider the pros and the cons of a position. Dissent, by and large, helps us make better decisions and come up with more creative solutions. Dissent makes us more open to learning, to growing and to changing.”

@jayrobb is a troublemaker who serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Five ways to tell better stories that win hearts, change minds & get results

storytellingThis review first ran in the April 14th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Unleash the Power of Storytelling: Win Hearts, Change Minds, Get Results

By Rob Biesenbach

Eastlawn Media


A father and son are on vacation.

They’re walking on the beach when they find hundreds of stranded starfish baking in the sun.

The boy picks up a starfish and puts it back in the ocean.

The dad tells his son there are too many starfish to save. “We’ll be here forever,” says the dad.

“Relax dad,” says the boy. “I’m just saving one starfish so CEOs and motivational speakers can repeat this story over and over again whenever they need to drive home the point about how one person can make a difference. Now let’s go have breakfast.”

We all know that telling stories is better than inflicting death by PowerPoint on an audience. We’re hardwired for storytelling.

But don’t be lazy and recycle whatever comes up when you Google search “stories to inspire an audience.”

Skip the often-told starfish story and instead follow Rob Biesenbach’s advice for telling more compelling tales.

“A story is a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of some challenge or obstacle,” says Biesenbach.

To tell a great story that sticks with your audience, ask yourself five questions:

Is the character in your story real and relatable? We don’t care about processes and programs, says Biesenbach. We care about people. “Your character is the heart of the story. Bring your stories down to the human level. If a problem exists it must surely affect actual people.” Tell us about someone like us who’s in a similar situation and facing the same kind of challenge. Share a personal story or introduce us to one of your customers, clients, patients or students.

Is there sufficient conflict? If there’s no conflict, there’s no drama driving the narrative of your story. “Conflict arises from the tension between the character’s goal and the challenge facing her.”

Are the stakes high enough? Go big with the challenge. “For a story to work, there has to be something important at stake – a serious problem that cries out for action.”

Is there clear cause and effect? Tightly link the chain of events in your story. “Causality is more meaningful to us than mere coincidence.”

And is there an emotional core at the heart of your story? “Emotion fuels stories,” says Biesenbach. “When your audience feels something, they are more likely to do something.”

Once you’ve checked off these boxes, structure your story in three parts.

In the beginning, introduce us to your character.

In the middle of your story, set out your character’s challenge.

At the end of your story, bring things to a resolution.

“Think of your story as a Hollywood blockbuster. In the end, the enemy is vanquished, the boy gets the girl, justice is served. There’s a reason these movies are so popular: they give audiences what they want – a satisfactory conclusion.

“Your story should not be in the style of indie or art house cinema, where the characters don’t really change and problems go unresolved. The indie film may be truer to everyday life, but it’s not particularly satisfying for general audiences.”

Biesenbach’s written a practical guide to help anyone become a better, more focused storyteller. The stronger your stories, the better your odds of winning hearts, changing minds and getting results.

“Our stories help define who we are and what we stand for. They set us apart in a noisy, competitive world. And they help ensure we’re remembered. Don’t be intimated. Storytelling isn’t reserved for artists and poets and folksy cowboys huddled around the campfire.”

@jayrobb tells stories as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.