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Leveraging Diversity Through Dissension and Discord

The political environment has certainly ramped up the level of potential dissension and discord within workplaces around the country. And, while that dissension and discord can be disruptive and divisive, there are times when it’s just what’s required to leverage the value of diverse perspectives, backgrounds and experiences. It’s a lesson NASA’s widely known “group think” issue related to the space shuttle Challenger disaster should have taught us all. But we may not have needed that lesson.

The Origins of GroupThink

In 1972, psychologist Irving Janis coined the term Groupthink, to refer to the tendency of cohesive groups to agree with each other—to seek consensus and avoid disagreement. That may seem to be a good thing on the surface. However, in business settings, agreement for the sake of agreement can lead to missed opportunities, and even mistakes.

That’s what famously occurred during the Challenger disaster when scientists, concerned about the functioning of an O-ring seal on one of the rocket boosters failed to voice their concerns. As a New York Times piece reported in 2003, “Worries about the O-rings circulated within the agency for months begore the accident, but ‘NASA appeared to be requiring a contractor to prove that it was not safe to launch, rather than proving it was safe’.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/09/weekinreview/the-nation-nasa-s-curse-groupthink-is-30-years-old-and-still-going-strong.html) While not the only incidence of Groupthink in American history, it’s one of the most widely known and a cautionary tale for companies that seek too quickly to reach consensus.

The Value of Diverse Thought

In a 2016 article for Harvard Business Review, “Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter,” authors David Rock and Heidi Grant make a persuasive argument in favor of diverse teams, noting that they:

  • Focus more on facts
  • Process facts more carefully
  • Are more innovative

“Diverse teams are smarter,” says Shirley Engelmeier, founder and CEO of InclusionINC, a global consulting and learning organization that specializes in inclusion and diversity solutions. “When people are different they’re more willing to actually look at the facts more carefully, rather than just immediately going along with what others are thinking.”

That’s important, Engelmeier says, because in business “getting to quick agreement isn’t the point—when people have differing opinions is when innovation occurs.”

Beyond Discord and Dissension

While seeking discord and dissension may be taking the issue too far, Engelmeier says what companies should really seek is “disagreement and different perspectives.” And, importantly, they should really take the time to listen to those differing opinions. Many leaders fail to do that in their focus on outcomes and the constant pressures of business life. Quick decisions sometimes seem like the best decisions, but they rarely are.

Seeking, even encouraging different perspective and different ways at looking at issues is what can lead to the kind of breakthrough thinking that characterizes organizations like Amazon, Google and others are known for. It’s not about “getting everyone on board” – it’s about hearing what everyone has to say, especially those who are closest to the customer, says Engelmeier. “Ask me what I think because I’m closest to the job and then actually be willing to listen to what I say.” Even, and especially, if what they say differs from your point-of-view. That point in time when you’re presented with a diverging opinion or different perspective from your own, is a point in time when you may be poised on the precipice of an important new insight.

Encouraging New Perspectives

For leaders and managers seeking to build a culture that embraces divergent ideas, there are some relatively simple steps they can take:

  • Actively build diverse teams both within organizational functions and within ad hoc teams or committees. If you look around a meeting room table and everyone looks like you, that’s a bad sign.
  • But don’t just build diverse teams. Diversity without inclusion is meaningless, asserts Engelmeier. The work of her company is focused on helping organizations do something productive with the diversity they build. That starts with seeking, and listening, to diverse viewpoints.
  • Set the example. If leaders are known to immediately shoot down any new idea, or opinion, the flow of those new ideas and opinions will quickly stop. Conveying a willingness to both seek, and listen to diverse inputs will set the stage for others to do the same.
  • When agreement is too quickly achieved, ask explicitly for divergent views. This is often referred to as seeking a “devil’s advocate”—someone who will take an opposite, or different, perspective to help spur thoughtful conversation.
  • Celebrate the outcomes of divergent thinking—and, yes, even discord and dissension. Respectful disagreement can be positive and shouldn’t be avoided.

By thoughtfully building diverse teams, nurturing a culture that supports different perspectives and viewpoints, and setting an example by being a leader known to accept—even embrace—different views, you can go a long way toward driving innovation and breakthrough thinking in a competitive business environment that demands it.

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