All of us have had that feeling in a team meeting when you want to raise an objection where your heart rate quickens, sweaty palms are shaking and there’s a slight tremble in your voice.
It’s human nature to surround ourselves with like-minded and similar people; to avoid conflict and difficult situations. But swimming against the tide can prove to be a very efficient approach when it comes to problem solving and deciding on the direction of a business.
Collaborating and engaging with someone from a different background and who has an alternative outlook on life in general, is conducive for quality thinking.
Author – and the former CEO of five companies – Margaret Heffernan is an adversary of avoiding conflict in the workplace, as covered in her book Willful Blindness.
In a Ted Talks appearance she exemplifies the work carried out by Dr Alice Stewart and George Kneale. She explains how the collaboration between the epidemiologist and the statistician resulted in the discovery that x-raying pregnant women led to an unprecedented number of childhood cancers.
Being a female in the working world during the 1950s made it very difficult for Stewart to be taken seriously, especially as the medical profession had fallen in love with the latest technological innovation.
As a consequence of her dormant research into the correlation, she decided to team up with Kneale – whose sole job was to try and disprove her theory.
By failing to find any proof to counter her hypothesis she was taken more seriously, and US and European medical authorities eventually ended the procedure of exposing expectant mums to dangerous levels of radiation. This happened more than a quarter of a century after Stewart’s findings were first published.
Sometimes opposites attract, and the extroverted Stewart worked very successfully with the reclusive Kneale. Each half of the partnership challenged the other and made them think and re-think, their respective conclusions.
This is a lot easier to do on a one-to-one basis, but what if it was applied to a full roster of staff working within an organisation?
It’s important to speak up when you have a bad feeling about a project or business decision. By challenging your colleagues you will make them reconsider their original proposal, and a second wave of thought can improve – or completely restructure – an idea. But it must be done constructively and for the right reasons.
Heffernan dares her audience to open their eyes and break the silence, and also argues that more challenging of authority should be taught in schools from a young age.