Dare to Disagree through Critical Thinking

Gran Canaria - The Monk & Pozo de las Nieves in the SpringIn 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 DisagreeMargaret 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. Gran Canaria - Mount Teide seen from Roque Nublo 

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.

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  • Tony says:

    Good topic Luis and I cannot agree more that critical thinking is something everyone should learn and that we would all benefit from it in all parts of our lives. The first thing to realize is that most of us don’t know how to do it.

    Now, I am of a certain age and can tell you there was no class in critical thinking when I went to school. The same is true for my children and grandchildren. Yes, you can find courses in critical thinking but they are mostly at the post secondary education level and only available if you take particular education streams.

    If you had asked me about my critical thinking abilities when I was still working I would have said I had good skills. Since becoming interested in the topic and reading much about it in the last seven years I reached a point just a few months ago where I now believe I understand what critical thinking is. I am working now on learning and improving those skills. Much of it has to do with learning how to question your conclusions realistically. I don’t think it’s a hard topic and I now firmly believe that critical thinking should be taught as soon as a child enters school. Sooner if the parents have the skill. It should be included with reading, writing and math as a basic skill all people should have. The problem is that so few people have these skills that there is no one below university level who is comfortable teaching it. Actually in some places it is worse than that. The Republican party in Texas has suggested that their schools explicitly not teach critical thinking to children. Their reasoning is that the children shouldn’t challenge their parents.

    However, Margaret has good advice. In the beginning of her talk she describes two people using the scientific method to test hypothesis. It’s the best method mankind has come up with to search for truth. Embrace the method, learn about it, read up on logical fallacies and learn why we are prone to believe things without enough examination and it will be most beneficial all round.

    All this involves that other critical skill, listening.

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  • Euan says:

    Spotn on Luis. I think it is dishonest to claim that openness in itself improves things, though clearly it is a big step forward, and that dealing with difference and dissent is the real challenge. In fact there is a real risk that we revert back to our comfort zones and familiar structures when things get tough. It takes real balls to stay open when the shit starts flying!

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  • Trisha Liu says:

    Wonderful post and call to action Luis – thank you! A few months back, I was discussing with my husband something I had read along the lines of, “The problem of our age is not lack of information. We are now inundated with information. The problem is now, what do we *do* with the information?” I realize this comment could go on a side track about filter, filter failure etc. But I remember saying that a key solution to this problem is critical thinking. We have access to so much more information now, but how do we choose to consume, process, question, apply, act on it?

    And it made me wonder – how does one learn, or teach, critical thinking in the first place? I believe I employ some critical thinking in the sense that I can discern between relevant and irrelevant information (given the situational context). I believe I can spot a ‘right’ question vs a ‘not so useful’ question. But I struggle to explain *how* I do this. One of my favorite Einstein quotes is, “If you can’t explain it, you don’t understand it.” So, I find it a bit troubling that I cannot explain something that I think I can do.

    Also – thank you to Tony for his comments on teaching and learning these skills. I am inspired to do more research!

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  • Sarah Siegel says:

    Luis, your call to action reminds me of a course I took a couple of summers ago during my Masters @ Teachers College in NYC on Cultural Intelligence. Our professor had us divide ourselves by groups around identity during the final class and I joined the three other Jews who were in the course. He had all of our groups create flip-charts on: what we thought others thought of us (in our case, of Jews) and one thing we wish everyone understood about us (in our case, Jews). Unanimously, the four of us agreed that the one thing we wished that others understood about Jews/our culture is that we will stand up and say the thing that needs to be said (that few others are prepared or willing to say).

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  • I had to look it up to believe it, Tony: “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

    In Germany, critical thinking is one of the most important skills being taught at school, some reading material (sorry, in German): http://www.criticalthinking.org/files/german_concepts_tools.pdf

    I’ve helped explain critical thinking through a simple analogy. You can look at things from one angle, one direction only, but, as you begin looking at an object from different sides and perspectives, you being to realize the thing has many hidden aspects that you simply couldn’t see if you only looked at it from one direction (it stays 2-dimensional for you). There’s so much more to discover about its true nature.

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    • Tony says:

      Marvellous! Joachim you provided an excellent example of critical thinking. You did not take what I said as a given but went looking for evidence to verify my claim. We all need to do that all the time.

      We all, in this group at least, have some concept of critical thinking and that probably puts us above average. Unfortunately being above average in this area still leaves a long, long way to go.

      I find the topic exciting and expect to spend the rest of my life improving these skills. I regret that I did not start when I was 3 or 4 and realize that if I had I’d now still have more to learn. It’s a great journey.

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