Beyond Open: Cultures of Challenge

One of the people I follow on Google+ posted the TED Talk by Margaret Heffernan. Her desire for better training on how to challenge authority is laudable, but I think misses that corporate and other institutional cultures often squash and punish those who speak out. Her basic point is strong: seeking out those who will challenge your views and avoiding echo chambers is the best way to ensure your ideas are solid. Dr. Heffernan tells about a researcher who managed to stand up to established medical practice and change it. She tells of a colleague who managed to voice concern at his biotech company who was worried about a new product but afraid to challenge the status quo. When he did, he found that others shared his belief. He was a hero whistleblower of sorts. The later example is quite rare. Just think of Enron and the host of other debacles. I agree that it takes courage to challenge, but a corporate culture that does not punish free thinkers is important too. As the literature on scenario planning shows, sustaining a group that is permitted to think about and challenge company goals is quite difficult. And that is for a group designed to advance corporate profits. Finding room those who would, out of loyalty to a company, ask questions about plans is a deeper problem. The current focus on teamwork, loyalty, execution, speed, and results no matter what the consequences, means that lip service to openness, out of the box thinking, and pick any other management cliche you want, rule so much that it is no surprise that 85% of managers fear speaking up as Dr. Heffernan notes. So I praise the idea, but think in addition to training people to challenge, we need to build a culture of questioning.

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1 Response

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    Yes, she is too optimistic when she says that the whistleblower’s discovering that colleagues share his or her concerns “is what almost always happens” (@ around 9’30”). Another thing she omits to mention is ethics. Although her two examples arose in the medical field, and parties involved both had a concern for patients, this commonality wasn’t even remarked on, much less foregrounded in her talk. A listener could take away that the creative conflict she advocates also works when the issue is simply making money (or controlling people) more efficiently, without any regard for the impact on employees, community, or other segments of society. Perhaps many in her audience interpreted her talk as being about a problem-solving tool that can help to maximize profits or power.