In 1943, General Motors (GM) brought in Peter Drucker to conduct a two-year social-scientific examination of what was then the world’s largest corporation. Drucker conducted many interviews with GM’s corporate leaders, divisional managers, department chiefs, and line workers. He analyzed decision-making and production processes. The resultant landmark study, Concept of the Corporation (1946,) laid the foundations of scientific management as a formal discipline.
One anecdote that Drucker liked to share from his GM research involved how his client, GM supremo Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., generally encouraged disagreements:
During a meeting in which GM’s top management team was considering a weighty decision, Sloan closed the meeting by asking, “Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here?”
Sloan then waited as each member of the assembled committee nodded in agreement.
Sloan continued, “Then, I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what this decision is about.”
Concrete Disagreement Stimulates Thought
Strong leaders encourage their team members to challenge them and question consensus. Leaders so counter the tendency toward synthetic harmony that emanates from group thinking and the risk of unchallenged leadership.
A team member with a difference of opinion or contrary position that’s well rooted in rationale is not to be reprimanded. He may have judgments worth listening to or recommendations worth heeding. Every team needs at least one to keep the team from falling into complacency. A team’s culture shouldn’t shun discouragement and conflict.. Look out, though, for team members who merely pay lip service to allow for the counterargument.
There are three reasons why dissent is needed. It first safeguards the decision maker against becoming the prisoner of the organization. Everybody is special pleader, trying—often in perfectly good faith—to obtain the decision he favors. Second, disagreement alone can provide alternatives to decision. And decision without an alternative is desperate gamblers’ throw, no matter how carefully thought through it might be. Above all, disagreement is needed to stimulate the imagination.
The Best Leaders Encourage Disagreements
Dissent and disagreement are critical to combat confirmation bias—the human tendency to readily seek and accept ostensible facts that match our existing worldview rather than objectively considering alternative viewpoints and unintended consequences.
What’s worse, leaders tend to surround themselves with like-minded individuals—people they trust and people who think alike. Drucker later wrote in his wide-ranging treatise on Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices (1974,)
Sloan always emphasized the need to test opinions against facts and the need to make absolutely sure that one did not start out with the conclusion and then look for the facts that would support it. But he knew that the right decision demands adequate disagreement.
An effective decision-maker organizes dissent. This protects him against being taken in by the plausible but false or incomplete. It gives him the alternatives so that he can choose and make a decision, but also ensures that he is not lost in the fog when his decision proves deficient or wrong in execution. And it forces the imagination—his own and that of his associates. Dissent converts the plausible into the right and the right into the good decision.
Idea for Impact: The more you encourage healthy debate within your team, the better off you’ll be
The first rule in decision-making should be that you don’t make any decision unless you’ve sought out and contemplated the counterevidence. Consider the other side of any idea as carefully as your own.