People with alternative viewpoints are valuable to a company even when they’re wrong.
Do you recognize the predicament I’m describing? You and your coworkers are seated in a meeting, passionately debating how to approach a major problem or obstacle. The designated note-taker is struggling to keep up with the rapid fire flow of ideas and proposals. Suddenly a coworker who usually keeps quiet in meetings speaks out. Imagine if one of the chairs in the boardroom suddenly began talking. The audience goes quiet and listens intently, anticipating something extraordinary.
The reason why this individual normally keeps to themselves becomes clear, though. Their suggestion seems like it was plucked out of the air and dropped into this conversation. It seems unrelated to the topic at hand and the other people’s comments. A brief, courteous pause is observed before the talk continues as if the silent person had never intervened.
Companies often struggle to find a place for employees who are “contrarians,” or who have perspectives that are beyond the norm. Most leaders see it as a gamble to give contrarians too much power or influence. Following the herd seems like a safe choice when we’re unsure of what to do. Smart leaders, on the other hand, understand that genius might come out as eccentric to those who haven’t experienced it. Being different from the others may indicate that one is destined for greatness. But, most leaders let their intrinsic conservatism guide them since there is no easy, dependable method to tell the genius from the crazy. Heretics are marginalized.
Mechanisms of decision-making
In a recent study that will result in an article in Organization Science, we utilized computer models to untangle how distinct organizational decision-making frameworks affect organizational performance and individual members’ learning. To that end, we hypothesized that one of the fringe advantages of group decision making would be members’ exposure to ideas they may not have considered otherwise. We call this phenomenon “learning-by-participating,” and it leads to long-term benefits for teams and organizations that use decision-making techniques that offer contrarians a voice. One such technique is the rotating dictatorship, in which members of the group are given the authority to make decisions at random.
More “democratic” approaches, such majority-rules or two-stage voting, that aggregate the wisdom of the crowd function well in the short-term. Yet they don’t help those who put too much stock in solutions that only look good on paper. These “false positives” therefore remain and reduce the overall efficiency of the team.
There is merit in dissenting opinions
We found that it is paradoxical to ignore the opinions of the contrarian, even if they are wrong, because of the favorable effect it has on the team’s long-term performance through the elimination of false positives. Hypothetical dissenters were divided into two camps: geniuses and anti-geniuses. Both groups were given a menu with five options and asked to select the best one.
Our model’s simulated businesses did best when they gave controversial minds a voice in policymaking, which only occurred under a system of alternating dictatorships.
Counter-intuitively, anti-genius contrarians’ erroneous views might conceal genuine insights. In our model, the primary mistake made by anti-geniuses, which was to assume the worst of the five possibilities was the best, was offset by subtler but nevertheless uncommon intuitions, such as the belief that the best option was truly better to most others. Over the course of hundreds of simulation iterations, we discovered that anti-geniuses were able to shed their most egregious false positives and contribute to general team knowledge under rotating dictatorship by speedily identifying highest-performing alternatives.
Obviously, the greater the number of geniuses in a team, the better it will perform. But, we know from experience that true geniuses, who have a wealth of brilliant ideas without any distractions, are few. A rotating dictatorship may be too extreme of a structure for your organization, but you could always hire a few more anti-geniuses. Although it may go against common sense, the homogeneity of traditional organizational decision making means that anti-geniuses can only make their impact if they band together.
So the next time a dissenter halts the meeting with an off-topic idea, it may be worthwhile to pause and ask them some follow-up questions. Go under the surface of their bewilderment to find the unusual insight that may be hiding there. And if it turns out that they could actually be onto something, you might want to set your skepticism aside and give their unusual suggestion a go. There is value in listening to dissenting opinions even if they turn out to be wrong; your team will learn something and the dissenter will feel less isolated.