In a rather insightful blog post (“Fear of Freedom“) my good friend Euan Semple quotes: “Our old worlds of corporate stability are crumbling – the job for life, status and authority from a fixed place in the hierarchy, individual certainty at the price of loss of soul. Many feel at sea and unsure of how to proceed. The old world is broken but we can’t see the shores of a new one yet” as perhaps one of the biggest challenges that corporate knowledge workers keep facing in today’s business world. Then, in another couple of short articles (“Feel the fear” and “Changing the world one word at a time“) he comes to confirm the power of the word in the Era of Social Computing as the key trait to overcome such fear and start becoming that agent of change, for the better, through openness and transparency. And, while reading through all three of those articles, which I can strongly recommend reading along, I just couldn’t help thinking about another key element in that equation that not only should we be inspiring employees to thrive in and excel on, but, over time, it’s going to become quite a quintessential key trait of how we share our knowledge and collaborate successfully: critical thinking.
The thing though is if you look into the corporate world at large, we have been immersed in a rather long and tedious path of not voicing out our opinions, our thoughts, ideas, concerns and whatever else inside the firewall, and probably outside just as much, in fear of losing our jobs, our prestige, our reputation with our colleagues and bosses, our quiet hard work over the course of the years, you name it. it actually takes us a whole lot of effort and energy to stand out, and when you do there is this tendency that rather the business itself, your boss, or even your own colleagues will remind you that if you become far too vocal they will succeed in quieting your down, eventually. So much so that, over time, what we have thought was, originally, good for us, that is, keep a low profile, it turns out to be rather the opposite, because there is a time where continuing that way we stagnate without looking out for another opportunity to continue to grow, both in our own personal career and as businesses. And I guess that if you look into how tough things are becoming in certain parts of the world with the financial turmoil we are starting to pay the toll for it. And sadly, big time.
But there may well be a way. In fact, there is a way. Back again to critical thinking and, specially, doing plenty of it in an open and constructive manner. That’s the reason why today I’d want to point you to one of those incredibly inspiring, and mind-boggling TED Talks that you may be watching this year. It’s a rather short one, but a brilliant one altogether, because I feel that it has got a major key learning that we need to start embracing, becoming more comfortable with it, and practicing it quite a bit to get the best results of what we excel at: daring to disagree.
Indeed, under “Dare to Disagree” Margaret Heffernan does a superb job at convincing everyone, and in a very smart and elegant manner, that “Openness alone cannot drive change“. How, instead, we need to inspire and provoke the creation of conflict around theories; basically, she encourages all knowledge workers out there to come forward and through that act of daring to disagree keep challenging the status quo of how things have been running in the corporate world over the last couple of decades. Never mind the assumptions already pre-established from the past, where that kind of constructive dissent, if anything, allows for a much purer, inspirational, trustworthy and resourceful collaboration environment where partners are not just part of their own echo chambers, but, instead, keep driving change through that same constructive dialogue.
She encourages us all to find people who are very different from ourselves. To actually seek out people with different backgrounds, disciplines, experiences and try, really hard, to find ways to engage with them. I guess that’s leaving your comfort zone at its best, specially, when you may not know much about those people. It will certainly require lots of patience and energy, but, here’s the kicker, It’s all a signal of love, as she states, because you care about that act of critical thinking and dissent with your work partners, because you are starting to realise that you are both after the same common goal: do your jobs better. Become smarter, in a way.
The interesting thing from her dissertation is that when we extrapolate that act of daring to disagree in organisations she comes to question “how do organizations think?”. Well, according to her, and for the most part, they don’t. And it is not because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t. People inside them are too afraid of conflict. Afraid to raise issues, constructive feedback, to be embroiled in arguments they couldn’t manage. It’s just like we all want to be seen as rather nice to our colleagues and become just perfect workmates.
The trouble is, just because of that, organisations can’t think together, therefore we can’t get the best out of them. And what Margaret tries to encourage us all to do is to develop the skills we need to apply plenty of that critical thinking. We need to think and then become very good at it. Goodness! Talking about rather controversial and polemic statements. Right there, that one would be as good as it gets, because I can imagine how time and time again you may have refrained yourself from saying something out loud in fear of what may be said about it, or acted upon, or just simply in fear of hurting other people’s feelings. Just think of it, when was the last time that you had a heated, but constructive, conversation inside your company about a particular topic? My last one was earlier on today and somehow I seem to have developed that habit of having, at least, 3 to 5 of those discussions on a weekly basis, internally, that is. And the best part is that it certainly does take time to adjust to that new raging dialogue, but, once you go through the first iterations, you actually get to acknowledge how powerful they are in allowing you not just to learn plenty of new things while on the job, but at the same time it gives you plenty of opportunities to fix what may be broken in the first place.
Margaret says, and I couldn’t agree more with her, that you need to find your allies and come together, gather around a table (Or a virtual space for that matter), be creative, and change things. She calls those folks whistle blowers, more than anything else, because they are passionately devoted to the organisation and the higher purpose it’s bound to. They do dare to speak most of the time, rather than keep silent and it’s rather fascinating how those very same folks turn out to be the strongest brand advocates of your own brand, just by giving them an opportunity to challenge that status quo of things and see how they could improve the overall business performance of a company. Goodness! Talking about raising a new generation of leaders…
A generation of leaders that’s more than ready, and well better prepared than anyone else in a corporate environment, to stand up to authority and engage in meaningful debate. She encourages that not only knowledge workers should be encouraged to have these skills, but she also mentions how they should be taught to young kids at school as well, as part of that essential curriculum of soft skills that are just as critical as anything else to engage at work, collaborate and share your knowledge with a purpose. Just brilliant! And I couldn’t have agreed more with her… Information should not be secret, nor hidden, but available freely out there; that’s why we need to dare to break that silence, or when we dare to see, that’s when we create enough conflict to enable ourselves, and people around us, do our best thinking in addressing and fixing whatever problems. Apaprently, we, human beings, have been made to dissent, to fight constraints through meaningful dialogue, and be critical thinkers about the day to day stuff that we embark on, knowing that we are always aiming at improving things, because that’s part of our nature as well.
Finally, Margaret comes to my favourite piece from her dissertation where she mentions how open information and open networks are wonderful and rather critical to the business; but, at the same time, we need to ensure that we have got a chance to build those critical thinking skills, talent, habits and the courage to use them in a wisely manner. Contrary to what most people think, and I had a big ah-ha moment myself, because I never thought of it in such way, openness is not the end, it’s the beginning. And critical thinking will be the major driver of our interactions and, in a work environment, it will be how we would get work done eventually.
It’d just be a matter of time for us to want to come to terms with the fact of whether we would want to shake off that fear of being rejected, or frowned upon, or told off by our bosses, our colleagues, or even ourselves, and start standing out a bit more, daring to disagree with an argument, if we feel we can drive that change for the better. It’s going to require a lot of effort, hard work, and energy, but if there is something very clear that I got from watching Margaret’s stunning presentation is the fact that it’s up to each and everyone of us to take a stand and decide for ourselves whether we would want to be open enough to allow dissent around us, to find those allies to encourage that discourse, to build further up on that constructive feedback and try to solve of all of those business problems that have been with us for far too long!
I’m all up for that… and you? Ready to take open, transparent critical thinking into the next level through our use of social technologies? Willing to dare to disagree and get away with it? If not, what can we do to shake off that fear to make it happen? I hope anonymity is not the answer. Because if it is, I guess that would be a worrying sign that you, or me, or whoever else, is working at the wrong place. And it would be a good time now to move on …
Once again, our choice to make.