Minority Dissent: Why Intelligent People Fail To Solve Problems

At the end of November 2018 my blog posts dried up.

I’ve not published one for over seven weeks – the longest gap for a couple of years. The problem wasn’t that I had nothing to write, rather I was afraid of the reaction to what I’d say.

I have five draft posts I’ve struggled to finish because of a fear of being misinterpreted – or a fear they might upset someone.

It’s hard to believe it was only five years ago when we had huge hopes for social media – that a genuine counter-culture was disrupting our established organisations. We finally had a decentralized communication platform for knowledge sharing and idea exchange.

With hindsight that was overly optimistic.

The two seismic events of 2016 – Brexit and the election of Donald Trump – were partly a reaction to that misplaced optimism. Plenty of people felt shut out and left behind from the party. The fallout has caused mayhem ever since.

  • Fake news – a term no-one really used until a couple of years ago is now seen as one of the biggest threats to democracy.
  • We seem to be getting a bit nastier to each other online –  where the lack of eye contact allows us to be particularly rude to people in ways we’d never consider in real life.
  • We’ve arguably got a bit too sensitive , with hurt feelings meaning you can be reported to the Police for upsetting someone.

Analysis of social media use shows that we tend to engage most with information that aligns to our existing beliefs and perceptions on the world.  With people spending up to two hours a day on social media that’s a significant amount of time spent in a bubble.

If you are mostly friends with people on social media who share your views,  naturally you are more likely to hear confirmation of your views than dissent.  You share your views on Brexit for example, and everyone agrees with you. This reinforces your world view rather than making you question it. When you do hear dissent it seems like an anomaly. You’re clearly on the side of the angels!

Last year I made a deliberate effort to spend more time engaging with people and content that offered completely opposing views to my own. I only drew the line at anything that was truly hateful.

I think I understand other people’s views and experiences better as a result, and I definitely acknowledge that I was more comfortable living in a bubble. It’s unsettling when you’re not so sure you are right.

Why Intelligent People Fail To Solve Problems

In 1972 a psychologist named Irving Janis published an essay explaining how a group of very clever people working together to solve a problem can sometimes arrive at the worst possible answer.

He paid particular attention to foreign policy, the US involvement in Vietnam and JFK’s disastrous intervention into Cuba.

The paper inspired the phrase ‘group-think’ – the psychological drive for consensus at any cost that suppresses disagreement and prevents the consideration of alternatives.

As facilitators and designers at Bromford Lab, we see this all the time. Well-intentioned people can make irrational decisions when they are spurred on by the urge to conform. This can simply be because we value harmony above rational thinking.

Minority Dissent and Innovation 

It may go against a happy-clappy harmonious view of the workplace, but discord has to be allowed to take its proper place if we are to solve the problems that matter.

Agreeableness is not always the best personality trait for innovation. Agreeable people like to work in places where everyone gets along, rather than places that are competitive, or where people are openly challenged. They prefer the status quo to rocking the boat with new or controversial ideas.

Ultimately we do need to create safe team climates, but ones in which dissenting opinions are used effectively to create radical change.

  • We need to regularly seek out views that are different to our own – and create conditions where people are comfortable expressing dissenter views.
  • We need to debate more and be a lot less sure we are right. There are very few absolutes in the world today.
  • Every organisation needs a truly safe space where beliefs can be challenged and assumptions put to the test.
  • Remember that dissenting for the sake of dissenting is not useful or clever. Don’t be a dick.
  • However, authentic and sincere dissent stimulates thought and improves the quality of ideas.

Diversity is important,  but we need to embrace a diversity of perspectives too.  It’s easy to say that but not so easy to do.

It means challenging yourself on where you spend your time, and who with. Listening to voices you’d probably prefer not to hear.

Standing Out and Keeping Attention in the Digital Age

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24hrs before Donald Trump – who communicates almost exclusively via Twitter and YouTube – became President Elect I was in conversation with Grant Leboff at the first Comms Hero event in Cardiff.

“He’ll win” said Grant. “He’s changed the narrative. He had the balls to take a position and make an emotional connection with people.”

I’m not sure if we are in a Post-Truth era, but we are certainly moving Post-Comms.

The idea of a communications team as keepers of organisational truth and protectors of brand seems very quaint these days.

The communication revolution is:

Everyone has a channel that they can exploit -and it’s coming down to who’s the best listener and who’s the best at keeping attention.

At Comms Hero I was lucky enough to speak alongside people like Grant, Helen Reynolds, Nick Atkin and Tim Scott – all of whom are great, but very different, communicators. The following is a mixture of my thoughts and their wisdom.

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Let’s be honest – how many of us would follow our own organisational media channels if we weren’t paid to do it?

In the social age it’s all about build audience/retain attention – and that’s increasingly difficult in a crowded social space.

In this perma-connected society where we ALL have attention deficit disorder how can organisations hope to stand out?

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Most comms fail as organisations don’t dare to fail. They don’t have the balls to take a position, and if you have no position you won’t keep attention.

As Grant said – the currency of media is storytelling. During the EU referendum we all said we wanted the facts, but we lied. Our behaviour shows  the narrative and story is more interesting to us.

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Nick Atkin is CEO of an organisation who have taken a position and told a story. Under his leadership Halton Housing has become one of the most recognisable brands in their sector – despite the fact they are relatively small. They’ve used digital media to leverage more attention than organisations with 20 times their resources.

There’s a similarity between Nick and Donald Trump in that both have refused to conform to pre-conceptions of how a CEO or President should communicate. The similarity ends there, but nonetheless they both offer compelling examples of what leadership in a digital age can look like.

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So given these opportunities to redefine comms – why are organisations failing to take advantage?

As  said – there is a lot of risk averse advice on social media being pushed out to HR people. No one wants to be the next test case. Tim advised that we can soon expect to see employers looking for social media skills in the same way they currently look for Microsoft Office skills. I agree – but we are currently a long way from this.

Arguably there has been too much resource and power invested in traditional communications teams and too little democratisation.

Digital comms within organisations is still largely seen as the preserve of the few. Indeed, prefixing everything we do with digital is no longer helpful. Almost every aspect of our lives has an online component, whether we like it or not.  Worklife and communication styles have yet to evolve to reflect this openess and transparency.

After this years round of Comms Hero events I came away cautiously positive that change is finally happening. With its superheroes, in your face marketing and hyper-enthusiasm Comms Hero as a brand excites many and leaves some stone cold. However the guys practice what they preach – they’ve dared to fail and taken a position against traditional comms.

My takeaway:

The only thing not expanding today is our time.  Every time we put something out we need to ask “what’s the story?”

And it better be a good one.

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Disclosure and Credits: I have no commercial relationship with Comms Hero. Asif has bought me a couple of drinks, a few free tickets and a couple of T-Shirts – that’s about it!

Thanks to the fantastic Fran O’Hara for the wonderful sketches

The deck of my final Comms Hero Slot is available here

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