Perhaps you’ll recognize the scene: yourself, colleagues, a meeting room. Matters of importance being discussed. Strong individual opinions shared in confidence prior to the meeting… oddly absent. Perhaps they’re yours – perhaps they’re someone elses. And yes, there’s something very wrong here.
Who’s to blame?
I believe we can all agree that circumstances where someone, regardless of reason, don’t feel comfortable sharing their opinions openly, are undesirable. Friction, dissent, discomfort and fear are some of the words which spring to mind, neither of which foster a healthy collaborative atmosphere. So why is it, then, that the scene described above is taking place in a thousand different meeting rooms across the globe at this very moment? The answer is deceivingly simple: human behaviour.
As social animals, humans continuously partake in complex group behaviour. The executive summary has likely more or less been imprinted on you during primary education: you’ve got your jocks, your alpha males (and females), the freaks, the bullies and the cheerleaders, along with whole host of other labels that apply surprisingly well within a modern workplace. I offer the following as an illustration: if the pretty girls in high school tell you that your sweater is hideous, you’ll find yourself in the back yard with an oil drum and a bit of kerosene faster than you can say ‘conform‘.
Essentially, the vast majority of us seek the approval of others, and so are willing to suppress our own opinions so as not to risk assuming the role of social pariah.
Then there’s the ‘boss syndrome’. If the one person in the room whom possesses official authority ignores or fails to treat an opinion seriously, it becomes that much harder to present one. Furthermore, strong leaders should always walk in fear of their own authority. If authority isn’t tempered through creating an atmosphere which invites dialogue and disagreement, a great many will seek the comfort of deference.
Furthermore, poor leaders are a dime a dozen, and past experiences can stick with someone to the extent that they may need quite a bit of encouragement before they dare lay their disagreements on the table.
And the rest is all about you
The last option is perhaps the least comfortable, but also the most sobering one as it’s entirely within your own grasp to execute. You may, in short, need to grow a pair. Standing up to a group or a superior, either of which have in the past disregarded your opinion without offering a serious factual response, can be a harrowing experience. It requires not only the aforementioned pair, but also a clear and well-founded opinion for which you can argue in depth and at length with a complete conviction that you’re right.
The big picture? Well, if you don’t dare to disagree, you’re a yes person (or lickspit, if you prefer the more derisive term). Or, if people don’t disagree with you, you’re surrounded by yes people (which either makes you a sucker or a tyrant).
Either position should make you rethink the status quo.