Born Standing Up and Talking Back

In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business
Charlan Nemeth

A Fortune 500 CEO who repeatedly voiced his desire to entertain a wide range of thinking once publicly clarified that position for me. Skepticism, he averred, is good. It shows your mind is working.  Just don’t make a habit of it.

I’m pretty sure Charlan Nemeth would find at least half that proposition preposterous.

At least that’s what I think after reading this book. Dr. Nemeth is the researcher who, among other things, demonstrated that the most productive way to brainstorm in a group  is to allow dispute and criticism.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Nemeth is a social psychologist who teaches and conducts her research at UC Berkeley, home of one of the finest social sciences department in the country. Work like Nemeth’s goes a long way toward explaining why. This short book (just over 200 pages) does a great job of summarizing decades of research in condensed form.

As an academic discipline, social psychology seems to generate resistance in a way that other social sciences don’t. No one, though, ought to object. Most, if not all, of the literature deals with group or interpersonal dynamics. And  we’ve all been in a group and interacted with others, right?

Ten men make a minyan and twelve men make a jury. At least this time, men literally applies to both.

I suspect it’s the experiments that rankle.

I mean, a replicable finding is  one thing. A replicable finding that cuts too close to home and includes oneself, well that’ s a bit less welcome. Derive that finding from an experiment that is methodologically sound and includes a control group and a single manipulation, well, now you’re looking for a fight. Because you manipulated people and, well, they’re just not like that.

Except that they probably are.

Dr. Nemeth’s particular interest is in the group dynamics of decision-making. It’s an area she was drawn to when she started working on the  decisions made by juries. If you think about it, a jury already resembles an experimental protocol. Just consider the alternative arguments, a prescribed number of participants and a binary outcome.

In her own words, Nemeth ” …realized that I was less interested in who “won” than in the quality of the decisions reached by juries.” (p. 13) The skeptical have a lot to pick at with just that sentence.  After all, what exactly is the quality of a jury decision and how is it measured?

In Twelve Angry Men the lone dissenter plays the critical role.

But she’s on to something and her research bears it out. Over the course of the book she references many of the experiments and protocols used to derive her findings. While these could be deadly dull she avoids that trap (you can track down the papers from the notes if you care to) rendering them energetically as what they are: detective stories about human behavior.

It’s best to let the professor speak for herself about the dynamics of groups. If you don’t read the book at least remember these two key sentences:

“Group processes, by and large,  conspire to suppress the very diversity of viewpoints that we seek.  … By their nature groups move in the direction of consensus.”

“What all groups have in common is that they either start with relative homogeneity of opinion or they manage to create it.” .

(both p. 146)

It’s enough to send me scurrying to my room to bone up on my Pascal.

Those findings also fly in the face of a lot of widely-held contemporary beliefs. They certainly don’t suggest there’s any inherent wisdom present in a crowd. And they also undermine a lot of business literature and education. In one telling vignette, a professor at HBS , after attending a presentation of this material, tells Nemeth she’s changing all her executive education materials immediately.

Push dissent, let alone skepticism, too far and don’t be surprised if this is the response.

To which I respond, great, and what about the legions you’ve sent forth over the past decades believing the opposite? The same holds for rock star business writers. Jim Collins may have evolved his stance on decision-making, but there are still 3 million or so copies of “Good to Great” floating around promoting consensus.

Nemeth makes both those observations without asking my near-rhetorical question. Even I think it’s almost unfair to include Collins for criticism; his popularity seems inversely proportional to any extant notion of applying scholarship or rigor. Yet I have also been told endlessly, from that CEO we met in the first sentence to notable faculty to recent graduates of the nation’s top engineering schools, that nothing good can happen without consensus across large organizations.

Balderdash. That’s how we get rules like every idea in a brainstorming session is equally good. When that premise was subjected to experimental proof by Nemeth and her colleagues it fell apart. The groups generating the largest quantity of useful, insightful ideas were always the ones that built dissent into the ground rules. Try selling that in Lake Wobegone (or the HR department).

Nemeth isn’t blind to this. She states, repeatedly, that dissent makes people uncomfortable–or worse, drives dislike which strikes me as the form discomfiture takes in a group.

That’s understandable. Criticism often feels personal, even to dissenters. It also carries a price: dissenters who find themselves in situations where consensus is a primary value can find themselves cut out, cut off and, quite possibly, discharged. It’s a lonely place.

A better decision should be the goal we seek.

Nemeth also questions the efficacy of the current cure-all for improving decision-making: a Benettonlike commitment to diversity. As she puts it, “Many people…want a mechanism that will clone the stimulating effects of dissent, but without the conflict or dislike between team members that dissent engenders.” (p. 180)

She demonstrates the flaw in this thinking using the Cabinets of the last two Presidents. Each a well-constructed mosaic of the US population, their internal cohesion is what matters. Or, as Nemeth says, diversity of group affiliation is not the same as diversity of opinion, and it’s the latter that matters if the goal is making better decisions.

I only have one criticism of this book and it’s the non-experimental/non-academic examples scattered throughout. Using the familiar to introduce new concepts is a time-honored teaching strategy. It’s just that her examples–the especially apt 12 Angry Men front and center–are all from the 20th century.  Younger readers just might not relate to Sidney Lumet and OJ Simpson.

You can see why a book with a title like this one’s appeals to me. To use the more polite Wall Street term, I am naturally a contrarian. I learn by challenging–myself, my colleagues, my teachers, the smartest person in the room. But that’s not everybody’s style and it’s not always welcome.

So you need not join this crusade. But you may want to read this book and consider anew how you think about dissent and dissenters.




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