Friday, January 31, 2020

Why we need dissent

There is much talk about 'intolerance'. It is said that we must tolerate dissent. We need to go further. We need to actively welcome dissent. And we must express dissent ourselves.

Many will agree. And yet, go to any meeting- in the corporate world, in government or anywhere else- and what do you see? People sitting through the meeting in silence, often looking for cues from the person in the chair. I have often got the feeling I am in the midst of audio-vocally challenged people.

Writing in FT, economics commentator Tim Harford says dissent is valuable because it often brings information that others overlook or provides a different perspective, which improves the solution to a problem vastly.
Harford gives a telling example:

A few days after Christmas in 1978, United Airlines Flight 173 ran into trouble on its descent into Portland, Oregon. The landing gear should have descended smoothly and an indicator light blinked on to indicate all was secure. Instead, there was a loud bang and no light. While the crew tried to figure out whether the landing gear was in position or not, the plane circled and circled. The engineer mentioned that fuel was running low, but didn’t manage to muster enough forcefulness to convey the urgency to the captain, who was focused on the landing gear. Finally, when the first officer said “we’re going to lose an engine, buddy”, the captain asked, “why?” The plane crashed shortly afterwards. Ten people died. The lesson: sometimes we can’t bring ourselves to speak up, even when lives are at stake.
But the value of dissent is seldom recognised. Leaders and groups want people who mouth the same views and agree on everything.

The challenge for any organisation to not just to tolerate dissenters but to encourage them. How do we do this? Perhaps we should begin at school- by teaching people not to conform. How about not telling children: Put a finger to your lips?