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The Absence of Dissent

Have you ever censored your views during a management meeting? Have you offered a polite nod of approval as your boss or a respected colleague put forth a proposal, while privately harboring serious doubts? Have you immediately begun to devise ways to alter or reverse the decision at a later date?

If you have answered “yes” to these questions, be comforted by the fact that you are not alone. Many groups and organizations shy away from vigorous conflict and debate. For starters, managers often feel uncomfortable expressing dissent in the presence of a powerful, popular, and highly successful chief executive. It becomes difficult to be candid when the boss’s presence dominates the room. We also find ourselves deferring to the technical experts in many instances rather than challenging the pronouncements of company or industry veterans. Certain deeply held assumptions about customers, markets, and competition can become so ingrained in people’s thought processes that an entire industry finds itself blindly accepting the prevailing conventional wisdom. Pressures for conformity also arise because cohesive, relatively homogenous groups of like-minded people have worked with one another for a long time.38 Finally, some leaders engage in conflict avoidance because they do not feel comfortable with confrontation in a public setting. Whatever the reasons—and they are bountiful—the absence of healthy debate and dissent frequently leads to faulty decisions. Let’s turn to a tragic example to see this dynamic in action.39

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