It is unlikely you are the only one who doesn’t have it ‘all figured out’
In the boardroom, away from the controlled environment of a psychology experiment, what we see is something called pluralistic ignorance. Several directors doubt the dominant or most confidently expressed view but since no one else is offering a different view, each concludes individually that they are the only one with a dissenting opinion. They keep their doubts to themselves and—by their silence—appear to support the majority view.
Yeo refers to the classroom where the teacher’s invitation ‘any questions’ is typically met by silence. In the boardroom the result will often be the same—and for the same reason. Both kids and directors think that to ask a question will make them look stupid. Their internal monologue says: ‘If no one else is asking anything, I must be the only one that doesn’t have it all figured out’. When one brave kid (or director) finally asks a question, the spell of pluralistic ignorance is broken. If just one person voices what others are thinking but not saying, what may initially be a minority view can quickly become the majority one.
If you are too quick to join a consensus you are missing the chance to add value
Consensus decision making is favoured by many boards. However, Yeo highlights the big difference in marginal value between a person just adding to a consensus versus the potential impact of someone who suggests an alternative view. An individual who just adds to the consensus view doesn’t make much impact, but a single dissenting voice can bring a whole argument down. For movie fans, a great demonstration of how this can play out is Sydney Lumet’s 1957 courtroom drama 12 Angry Men, where the character played by Henry Fonda turns a jury by speaking up and forcing his fellow jurors to reconsider the evidence.
A certain level of disagreement is healthy for both the board-CEO relationship and the organisation. Yet despite their importance, many tough conversations never actually happen. According to a recent McKinsey global survey of more than 1,100 directors, only 56% say boards and management teams constructively challenge each other in meetings. This had declined (by 4%) since 2015. (1)
If you are going to offer a different view, get on with it!
The impact of a single dissenting voice also decreases exponentially as the number of those holding the consensus view increases, according to Yeo. So, if you do not agree with an emerging consensus, you must make your view known sooner than later. It is in the earliest stages of the decision-making process that a dissenting voice has its greatest potential power and the greatest chance of changing the direction of the group’s thinking. The longer you wait, the less likely your view will be willingly and properly heard and have impact.
Beware of your inherent desire to be part of a group
Yeo also acknowledges the banality of evil ideas of political theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt. Arendt realised that evil and wickedness doesn’t manifest in the form of villains so much as develop in the minds of ordinary people who want nothing more than to be part of something. Even if they recognise the immorality of their deeds, their desire for group identity blinds them to their conscience. Arendt was referring to some of the horrors of the mid-20th century such as the Holocaust, but Yeo suggests this phenomenon can occur at a much smaller and more local scale.
As an example, he suggests we consider a man who wants to be recognised by his colleagues, but who works in a setting where his bosses regularly defraud and cheat. If he then steals from an unsuspecting client himself, how much of it is because he is inherently a thief, and how much of it is because he just wants to be accepted and respected by others he works with? In this way, wrongdoing, even evil, becomes fully normalised and assimilated.
As another way to protect against things going off the rails, Yeo says we need to be able to step back and frame things with our true sense of what is right and wrong. By finding the space to think for ourselves, we can develop a temporary immunity to the lures (pressures?) of the crowd and see things for what they really are.
Which brings us back again to the power of the dissenting voice and the obligation to speak up—and to do so sooner rather than later. In the boardroom, the chair has a crucial role in creating the environment that will encourage this. The story is often told about the legendary Chairman of General Motors, Alfred P Sloan who reportedly said in relation to a major investment proposal:
‘Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here.’ Everyone around the table nodded assent. ‘Then,’ continued Mr. Sloan, ‘I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting, to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain understanding of what the decision is all about. (2)
- Kevin B Kelly. ‘Long-Term Relationship.’ Directors and Boards, 19 February 2019
- Peter F. Drucker in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. 1993