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.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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