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By Steve Kelman

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The challenge for bosses: Learning from dissent


Managers do not always take disagreement well, research finds. (Stock image)

A lab experiment conducted by Ethan Burris, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business, and published in a recent issue of the Academy of Management Journal indicates that leaders often react negatively to suggestions that their favored course of action might have problems. In the experiment, teams of four students were asked to solve a business problem involving a supply-chain decision. All the team members were given a set of facts that suggested a certain approach was best. One member of the team was given additional facts that, if explored properly, would clearly show that a different approach would work better. That member was also instructed to make his or her views known during the group discussion.

The discussion was recorded and coded for the number of statements that supported and the number that challenged the apparently (but not in reality) better course of action. The teams’ leaders gave performance ratings to each member after the discussion and an evaluation of how valuable the member’s comments were. What did the experimenters find? The more challenging statements a team member made, the lower his or her performance rating tended to be and the less likely the leader was to find that person’s comments valuable. The more often a team member made statements supportive of the initial majority position, the higher the performance rating and the more his or her comments were seen as valuable.

In another feature of the experiment, half of those given the extra information were identified to other team members in a way that suggested they had special expertise. The comments of expert members were more likely to be seen as valuable, but expertise did not mitigate the negative impact of making a larger number of challenging statements compared to the non-expert challengers.

An experiment in the 1950s among Navy bombing crew members suggests that groups pay even less attention to challenges from less powerful members. In the experiment, a group was less likely to accept the (correct) view of a lower-ranked person than that same view expressed by a higher-ranked one. When the pilot knew the correct answer, 94 percent of the group accepted it, compared to 80 percent when it was the navigator and only 63 percent when it was the gunner.

Although many subordinates are unlikely to find these results surprising, they are troubling. Challenges to leaders or to a group consensus by a member of the group are, of course, not always on the mark. Whistle-blowers or habitual dissenters might be motivated by animus or negativism, and some people might have habitually poor judgment. I don’t want to glorify contrarianism nor do I want to encourage paranoia about the boss, which is all too common these days. But in these experiments, a member of the group did have valuable information that would have helped the group make a better decision, yet the person’s intervention was not fully appreciated.

The results have implications for the everyday functioning of workgroups and for decision-making on important issues of national or even international importance by senior teams in government. A fair amount of academic research, mostly related to foreign policy decision-making, suggests there is a relationship between the quality of a decision-making process — particularly the openness to a variety of ideas — and the quality of the decisions.

These experiments suggest that the odds might, unfortunately, be stacked against the success of these processes, and leaders need to work hard to counteract the way most of us seem to react to being challenged.

Posted on Jun 17, 2013 at 11:55 AM

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Reader comments

Mon, Jul 1, 2013 Washington DC

These experiments show why the "Yes" men out there get all the perks; unfortunately, the "emperors" really don't want to hear that they are "not wearing any new clothes." In today's world, the child, that spoke the truth about the emperor being naked, and the child's family would have been executed or banished. The best boss I ever worked for was an Army Lieutenant Colonel, who asked for and respected input from even the lowest ranking member of our team. Our team was very small, but stronger, and very productive because of how he valued all of us. Unfortunately, in my 42 years as an employee, supervisor, manager, etc., I've only had the pleasure of working for three people like that, two in the military and one in the civilian world.

Tue, Jun 18, 2013

There can be no dissent. Bosses can never be wrong. If the Boss's plan doesn't work, it must be the fault of some worthless grunt.

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