Megan McArdle on the tendency of companies, especially large ones, to choose not to hear dissenting opinions — or worse, to silence them:
Why did they try to shoot the messenger instead of listening to the message? One answer is that’s what organizations do—especially dysfunctional organizations. As a young IT consultant, I sat through more than one meeting where we, or someone, tried to stop a client from doing something obviously crazy. Usually, the result was that the client did something crazy, and that someone went looking for another job.
Doctor No, that grating in-house critic, can be your most valuable employee—if you can make yourself listen. That’s surprisingly hard to do. Organizations exist for the purpose of doing stuff. That’s what their staff is hired to do. The guy who says maybe we shouldn’t do that stuff—or the stuff we’re doing isn’t working—is not very popular. There’s a large body of literature on dissenters, and it mostly tells you what you already know if you’ve ever been to a project meeting: Nobody likes a Negative Nancy.
Which is too bad. I’ve argued before that every company should be forced to have such an employee — and ideally one who is very high-ranking.
McArdle goes on:
You don’t want to let the perennial Voice of Doom kill every project. But if you listen carefully to the Voice of Doom, you’ll find he’s giving you something extremely useful: a list of almost everything that can possibly go wrong with your plan. Think of the VOD as your defensive coordinator, identifying all the holes you need to plug, and backup plans you need to have in place, before you launch. Instead of ostracizing your Doctor Nos and asking them to kindly shut up, why not give them a designated role on the team, telling you what’s likely to go wrong, and then pointing out when it is?
Exactly. There is no downside to hearing the negative view. But there is potential upside. And there is plenty of downside in not hearing it.