Vacancy: Robots Wanted!

Robots - wantedYou have never seen a vacancy ad with such a title and there is good reason for that – it is because no one would dare declare that they are looking to employ robots instead of human beings. But if you take a second look within governments, parastatals, churches, educational institutions, companies, committees (in short everywhere) what you see is that Presidents, CEOs, leaders, managers, supervisors are more comfortable with employees or members who do what they are told . . . someone who you can bet would always agree with the majority.

In essence a robot! In our nation, in our organizations and in groups, dissent is avoided, discouraged or even outlawed. Having a national or organisational culture where a dissenting voice is comfortable and welcomed is a pearl to be desired but a gem to be earnestly sought.

On the morning of January 28, 1986, the United States government through its agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched a space shuttle, The Challenger into space. At exactly 73 seconds into its flight it broke apart leading to the deaths of all its crew members. The spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of central Florida at 11:38 am EST. Disintegration of the entire vehicle began after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff.

The O-ring failure caused a breach in the SRB joint it sealed, allowing pressurized hot gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB attachment hardware and external fuel tank. This led to the separation of the right-hand SRB’s aft attachment and the structural failure of the external tank.

Aerodynamic forces promptly broke up the orbiter. The crew compartment and many other vehicle fragments were eventually recovered from the ocean floor after a lengthy search and recovery operation. Although the exact timing of the death of the crew is unknown, several crew members are known to have survived the initial breakup of the spacecraft.

However, the shuttle had no escape system and the astronauts did not survive the impact of the crew compartment with the ocean surface.

The disaster resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the shuttle program and the formation of the Rogers Commission, a special commission appointed by United States President Ronald Reagan to investigate the accident. The Rogers Commission found NASA’s organizational culture and decision-making processes had been a key contributing factor to the accident.

NASA managers had known that the contractor Morton Thiokol’s design of the SRBs contained a potentially catastrophic flaw in the O-rings since 1977, but failed to address it properly. They also disregarded warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching posed by the low temperatures of that morning and had failed to adequately report these technical concerns to their superiors.

This disaster, like some others, could have been avoided had they had an organisational culture that encouraged and welcomed dissent. Roger M. Boisjoly, (a mechanical engineer, fluid dynamicist and an aerodynamicist who worked for Morton Thiokol, the manufacturer of the solid rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle program) actually raised objections to the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Boisjoly wrote a memo in July 1985 to his superiors concerning the faulty design of the solid rocket boosters that, if left unaddressed, could lead to a catastrophic event during launch of the Space Shuttle. Such a catastrophic event did occur less than a year later leading to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster (source: Wikipedia).

I would refrain from mentioning local examples as this article isn’t intended as a critique but for introspection and learning. Between 14th -16th of April 1961, less than three months after John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency of the United States, a CIA-trained force of Cuban exiles, with support and encouragement from the US government, made an unsuccessful attack on the Cuban government in an attempt at overthrowing Fidel Castro.

The Cuban armed forces, trained and equipped by Eastern Bloc nations, defeated the invading combatants within three days. This is what is now commonly referred to as the Bay of Pigs Invasion (source: Wikipedia).

In the case of the Bay of Pigs invasion, for instance, the Kennedy administration planned and carried out its strategy without ever talking to anyone who was skeptical of the prospects of success. The people who planned the operation were the same ones who were asked to judge whether it would be successful or not. The few people who voiced caution were quickly silenced.

(source: The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki).

Silencing dissent is as severe as discouraging dissent. What is organisational dissent and in what ways is it being discouraged? Organizational dissent is the “expression of disagreement or contradictory opinions about organizational practices and policies” (Kassing, 1998).

Since dissent involves disagreement it can lead to conflict, which if not resolved, can lead to violence and struggle. As a result, many organizations send the message – verbally or nonverbally – that dissent is discouraged. However, recent studies have shown that dissent serves as an important monitoring force within organizations.

Dissent can be a warning sign of employee dissatisfaction or organizational decline. Redding (1985) found that receptiveness to dissent allows for corrective feedback to monitor unethical and immoral behavior, impractical and ineffectual organizational practices and policies, poor and unfavorable decision making, and insensitivity to employees’ workplace needs and desires. Furthermore, Eilerman (Jan. 2006) argues that the hidden costs of silencing dissent include: wasted and lost time, reduced decision quality, emotional and relationship costs, and decreased job motivation.

Perlow (2003) found that employee resentment can lead to a decrease in productivity and creativity which can result in the organization losing money, time, and resources (source: Wikipedia).

Groups and organizations discourage dissent in conscious and unconscious ways. The absence of feedback systems is one way (by this I don’t mean a suggestion box). Not regularly asking team members their opinions is another.

In other cases executive management is only interested in what other senior staffs have to say – an attempt isn’t made to mine the views of customer-facing staff. People’s views are continually repressed the more we posture that their views are sub-standard or irrelevant. Shutting people down is one of the fastest ways to get yourself a robot.

Then there is the ‘I know it all’ or the ‘expert’ syndrome. There are those who have quite a lot of knowledge and experience from doing something or from working at a place. But knowing a lot doesn’t make anyone know it all – we all need a healthy dose of humility, lest we lose the opportunity to learn even a little from another person.

But there is a more subtle but yet more pervasive method that is used to stifle dissent. It is what some have come to refer to as ‘leadership worship’. It is the idea that the leader’s view is the best or that a leader always knows more about any issue or that aura around a leader that says ‘I have all the answers and can’t be wrong’.

For these reasons, a lot of robots now work in our organisations and chances are that there is one on your team as we speak. These are people who have checked out their spirits and souls at home on their way to work or on their way to that committee meeting.

They are just going through the motions; following the rules, making the numbers and giving the opinions they know people would accommodate. The performance of some of these ‘robots’ has dipped significantly, but there are also those of them that are still ‘performing’ and even getting promoted.

They don’t want to be labeled as outsiders so they keep their actual gut views to themselves and so there is seeming peace and consensus and everyone is happy.

Consensus improves efficiency as it helps make a group move faster and reach her goals faster. But an over-arching quest for the efficiency that could be gained by consensus is lost in many more devastating, albeit slow ways. The pursuit of consensus has sometimes generated a corporate disease known as groupthink.

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints. Antecedent factors such as group cohesiveness, structural faults, and situational context play into the likelihood of whether or not groupthink will impact the decision-making process.

The primary socially negative cost of groupthink is the loss of individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking. While this often causes groupthink to be portrayed in a negative light, because it can suppress independent thought, groupthink under certain contexts can also help expedite decisions and improve efficiency (source: Wikipedia).

In essence it means that the more homogenous a group is the less intelligent it is likely to become – over time.

The Benefits Of Diversity In A Team

In The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki explains that when decision makers are too much alike – in worldview and mindset – they easily fall prey to groupthink. Homogeneous groups become cohesive more easily than diverse groups, and as they become more cohesive they also become more dependent on the group, more insulated from outside opinions, and therefore more convinced that the group’s judgment on important issues must be right.

These kinds of groups, Irving Janis suggested, share an illusion of invulnerability, a willingness to rationalize away possible counterarguments to the group’s position, and a conviction that dissent is not useful. This was seen in the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Have you seen this play out in the Federal Executive Council? Have you seen it in the council supervising your profession? Or in the leadership of the company where you work?

Building a culture of dissent certainly is one of the most important tasks in the in-trays of senior leaders and human resource practitioners today, as there is a lot to be lost if this task is handled lightly but much more to be gained if it is expeditiously developed. So let dissent in! Some of the benefits are:

  • Creativity and Innovation Wins 

Creativity and innovation thrives within a culture of dissent, as people are allowed to be different. It also ensures that outside innovation is accommodated. Most times real innovation goes against accepted norms and behavior. So when you stifle dissent, you encourage conformity and dissuade innovation. Like thoughts lead to like products and services. When dissent reigns, innovation is always the winner.


  • High Suggestions Quotient (SQ)

A culture of dissent allows divergent views in – thereby making it possible to get a more diverse set of alternatives. Because we live in the knowledge and information age it means that we are limited by the quality and quantity of ideas available to us. Period! If you recall, during brainstorming sessions it is usually said that ‘no idea is a bad idea’. Remember?

This statement is usually made to make people comfortable enough to say what’s on their mind. Imagine what would happen if that comment isn’t made? People would begin to screen ideas in their minds themselves. They would attempt to sift the idea in their mind through the eyes of the majority – trying to determine if the people would appreciate the idea or not. In this process organizations have lost some of the best ideas.

This is one of the benefits of having an organisational culture where dissent is expected, allowed, and welcomed. Business leaders and Human resources managers should regularly measure their organisation’s Suggestions Quotient (SQ).

  • Shorter and Successful Ideas to Market (ITM)

A culture of dissent creates a climate that helps to shorten/reduce the time it takes to get an idea to market. It is one thing to have a revolutionary idea, while it is another thing to be the first to get that idea to the marketplace. Even though it seems like those brothers had the idea of a Facebook, the world eventually recognises Mark Zuckerberg as the owner, because he brought the idea successfully to the market.

When employees know that their views, even though divergent, would be welcomed; they are energized to make good ideas happen since they know that their views about what is being done would be accommodated.

  • Culture of Candor Grows

Where ‘the contrary opinion’ is welcomed, there also a culture of candor grows. This is one where there is more frank talk, sincerity of expression and openness. Candor is “an interpersonal process that promotes the authentic expression of different points of view in search of actionable wisdom” – James Bolton. According to Jack Welch, there are three main ways that candor leads to winning:

First and foremost, candor gets more people in the conversation, and when you get more people in the conversation, to state the obvious, you get idea-rich, meaning, many more ideas get surfaced, discussed, pulled apart, and improved. Instead of everyone shutting down, everyone opens up and learns. Any organization – or unit or team – that brings more people and their MINDS into the conversation has got an immediate advantage.

Second, candor generates speed. When ideas are in everyone’s face, they can be debated rapidly, expanded and enhanced, and acted upon. That approach – surface, debate, improve, decide — isn’t just an advantage, it’s a necessity in a global marketplace. You can be sure that any upstart five-person enterprise down the street or in Shanghai or in Bangalore can move faster than you to begin with. Candor is one way to keep up.

Third, candor cuts costs – lots – although you’ll never be able to put a precise number on it. Just think of how it eliminates meaningless meetings and B.S. reports that confirm what everyone already knows. Think of how candor replaces fancy Power Point slides and mind-numbing presentations and boring off-site conclaves with real conversations, whether they’re about company strategy, a new product introduction, or someone’s performance”.

Inject life into your organizations by turning your ‘robots’ loose. How? Encourage, welcome and celebrate dissent. I include here a potpourri of ideas on what could be done. Build systems, policies and practices that give room for ‘the contrary opinion’. Give audience to every personality type. Train your managers to schedule regular one-on-one meetings with their teammates to ask three questions.

How are you doing? How am I doing? What should we be doing? Doing this outside of the appraisal cycle potentially ensures that a non-threatening environment is created where genuine feedback can be shared. Create a well-managed suggestions scheme. Have own hall meetings and use the outcomes. Employ people who are different from you and thereby build a diverse team. Allow into meeting discussions ‘debate time’.

This is a time where anyone can question an idea and the idea proponent is required to defend the idea. It’s also the time to demand that an idea be thrown out because of the supremacy of your own idea. Senior executives should also request for information from deep within the organisation. Human resource managers should create special meetings where the most junior in the organization gets to speak directly to executive management.

Hire people who are confident in themselves into your team. Add people who always have an opinion unto your team. Develop listening as one of your organisation’s core competence. Use the Suggestion Quotient as one the metrics for measuring managerial effectiveness.

In meetings, the leader should reserve his opinion, so that he can hear what others really have to say as a lot of people tend to re-fit their views to fit into the leaders own.  There is the cliché that if you pay peanuts all you would have working for you are monkeys. If you and I don’t encourage dissent, all we would have working for us are human-sized robots.