Art Markman is a pretty smart dude; I’ve come across his writing/work/research a couple of times before. He seems to be a professor of psychology and marketing (you would think there are more academics that do those two fields, but there really aren’t) at UT-Austin. Here’s a new thing he wrote for Fast Company on, basically, almost encouraging dissent within your ranks. “The Power of Naysayers,” etc, etc. Here’s the essential point:
There is a real danger with working in a group made up of people who largely agree with each other. Research demonstrates that when you communicate with other people, you come to think more similarly to them, because in order to understand what they are saying, you have to think like they do. Even if you ultimately disagree with the conclusions they draw, you exit the conversation thinking more similarly to them than you did before.
This has terrifying implications for most white-collar organizations, because a ton of senior management teams tend to be like this. They spend all their time together meeting with each other and sure, people have pet projects that they defend and others they strike down — and there are politics so that CMO and CTO aren’t aligned or whatever, but by and large this is a common American top-managers style: spend a lot of time together, talk about issues, silo those issues from the rank-and-file. I wrote on Monday about how that’s bad.
This is an issue pretty close to my heart; I fervently believe that you should try and spend as much time as possible with people totally different from you. It opens up your worldview. Isn’t that a cliche about why people travel? To see and experience new things? You should look at your friends the same way. Your core friends are probably like you, yes, and that’s a good/fine thing. To use another cliche, we have a choice in picking our friends. We don’t with our family. So you’re probably going to end up choosing people like yourself, no? That’s only logical. But break out of that comfort zone once in a while. It’s important and relevant.
It’s harder at an organizational level. The whole thing Markman is talking about here also comes back to the idea of “silos” in business, which are everywhere. There are a lot of different psychological and organizational development reasons for silos, but at core/base/foundation level, they come from this concept: like-minded people (i.e. sales guys, marketers, tech guys) spend time together and share their information with each other, but that information is almost never broadly shared with other departments that might benefit from knowing (and/or be able to advance their own processes as a result). This shit happens every second in almost every org you’ll ever interact with, and it comes from the same things Markman is discussing in Fast Company.
That said, it makes perfect sense that senior leaders don’t want to bring in dissenting opinions; read this for a bit more understanding. Most of the time, if senior leaders want “a different voice,” they’ll hire a consultant — and if the consultant doesn’t deliver exactly what they wanted in the first place, they’ll throw the consultant under a bus, then back up the bus and make sure he/she is dead. That’s how they bring in “dissenting opinions.”
I would propose something here like “Have lunch with someone from another department!” day at work, but the problem is that orgs call those things “cross-functional” or “cross-platform,” and as soon as you start speaking like that, it sounds like from-on-high corporate bullshit, and the rank-and-file is frustrated and disengaged. Plus, the rank-and-file is closest to the customers, right? So they’re busy with shit, and they don’t want to be told it’s now mandatory to find someone different from themselves and go break bread. What the fuck is this, Pre-K? We got real work to do, baby!
Interpersonal relationships at work are often incredibly fraught — the base idea that managers are terrified of being seen as friendly to their employees is a cornerstone problem there — but a lot of it really does come from this idea that people almost never bring in other opinions, find people with different viewpoints, etc.
Personally, I feel like I often have dissenting viewpoints from management teams I’ve worked with … and I’m 34 years old and have never been a true manager in any company, despite being reasonably intelligent and generally nice. I mean, that has to say something, right?