When I started my career in the mid 80s with Bain & Company, in those days known as ‘the KGB of management consultancies’, a favourite mantra was “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”. I’ve often reflected since then how dangerous it can be to promote a culture of relentless positivism at the expense of openness. How many times have we all witnessed slow motion corporate train crashes – accidents that could have been avoided if only people had the courage to speak out without fear of being branded a ‘negative thinker’.
At the recent, excellent ‘PurpleBeach‘ launch event, I was fascinated to hear Margaret Heffernan, author of Willful Blindness talk about how we deal with situations at work where everyone can see the problem, but no one does anything about it. This was the ‘postcard’ that I wrote from the beach:
Margaret Heffernan tells a story about Dr Alice Stewart, an Oxford based epidemiologist who in the 1950s, conducted research into the causes of childhood cancer. Dr Stewart had asked herself why, contrary to most trends, the disease was more prevalent amongst children of affluent families. By extensive statistical analysis, she found that by a factor of 3:1, the children’s mothers were more likely to have had an X-ray during pregnancy. Yet although Dr Stewart published her findings immediately, it took 25 years for the practice to be banned in the UK.
The problem was not that Dr Stewart was a woman, nor that she was a ‘difficult person’. Indeed, a research project at the Harvard School of health found similar results but still took 26 years to change the practice in the US.
What enabled Dr Stewart to keep fighting for 25 years? In Margaret’s telling of the story, the answer lies in her collaboration with George Kneale, a somewhat ‘nerdy’ and nocturnal statistician. Kneale declared it his job to prove Dr Stewart wrong. If he could not, he declared, it would give Dr Stewart the confidence to keep on fighting. And the outcome was that he couldn’t prove her wrong and she did keep on fighting.
As Margaret explains, the story is a fantastic example of “thinking partners who work not as echo chambers but as challengers of orthodoxy.” Her question to the audience was simple: , “Do you have someone who challenges everything you do because they want you to do your best work?”
How does this translate into how people behave in the workplace? Milliken, Morrison & Hewlin in their seminal 2003 study into organisational science at NYU* asked execs if they had issues and concerns at work that they don’t voice. An incredible 85% said they did. “That’s a lot of silence,” says Margaret. Fear of retribution was a key factor. In a similar study in Europe, the silence was explained by a sense of futility that nothing will change as a result. How many times have we all heard a similar message from employees when they complete the annual survey?
Margaret shares an illustrative story of an executive in medical equipment company who worried that a device they were due to launch was not safe. When he finally raised his concerns, it turned out that everyone else had the same thought.
The challenge we all face, says Margaret, is to create noisier workplaces, where people are not afraid to raise issues because it could lead to conflict. Without conflict, there is no thought and without thought, no progress. She argues that executives need to be trained to initiate conflict in a way that does not frighten others and that organisations must celebrate the people who are prepared to do this.
In today’s volatile economic climate, the problem is even more acute. High levels of executive unemployment and high mortgages lead to “obedient workforces” and that spells trouble ahead for businesses.
Meanwhile, for individuals, who fear the personal consequences of speaking out, Margaret has some sage advice. Save up some “running away money” . You never know when you will need it!