Why you should encourage workplace criticism

by |
It goes without saying that a harmonious workplace is necessary to any successful company’s office culture. However, recent research points to the ways in which respectful disagreement can bolster productivity and innovation.
Berkeley psychologist Charles Nemeth has found that workplaces encouraging the presence of a “devil’s advocate” -- that is, someone who expresses a minority opinion -- yield more and better solutions than those that strive for consensus. In fact, workplaces that had a dissenter in their midst generated up to 48 per cent more solutions to a given problem than their supposedly in-sync counterparts.
Bridgewater: A shining example of healthy dissent
The investment banking firm, Bridgewater, partially attributes its enormous success to its embrace of a culture of productive dissent. And calling its success enormous may be an understatement. In 2010, the hedge fund generated greater profits than Google, eBay, Yahoo, and Amazon combined.
What’s more, in the company’s 41 years in business, it has made its clients more money than any other hedge fund in the industry’s history. Much of Bridgewater’s undeniable success is owed to its radical encouragement of healthy disagreement.
Take a recent occurrence at the company, for instance. A low-level employee sent a critical email to the company’s founder, Ray Dalio, flouting the conventions of a typical corporate hierarchy in a move that, at many companies, would be considered career suicide.
Instead of reacting defensively, Dalio used the exchange as an opportunity to reflect on his performance. Dalio asked others who attended the meeting to rank his behaviour on a scale from A to F, and forwarded the critical message to the whole company so that others could learn from the experience.
Encourage a culture of inclusivity
There are countless lessons to be learned from Bridgewater’s unorthodox workplace culture. Dalio’s response to the critical email reflects an inclusive environment that pervades the company, one that eschews hierarchy in favour of open communication.
For instance, instead of deferring to seniority or putting big decisions up to a majority vote, the company strives to instil a spirit of meritocracy -- one in which all views are considered, regardless of one’s rank.
Institutionalize workplace debates
With this in mind, Bridgewater also seeks to court disagreement and a certain degree of controversy. Principles – Dalio’s manifesto to investing and management – promises a culture of honesty, whereby each employee should feel free to air their opinion -- provided they can defend it.
Dalio periodically conducts a survey of his employees and selects the most opinionated to go head-to-head in a formal debate. His reasoning: the format allows a variety of grievances to be aired and solutions to be voiced, in turn guarding against the dangers of conformist groupthink.
Provide a framework for believability
This is not to say that everyone’s opinions hold the same weight. Dalio himself is sceptical of democratically-determined solutions because “not everybody has the same believability.” At Bridgewater, each employee is assigned a believability score based on their past judgment and reasoning. This system protects the company from implementing outlandish and irresponsible solutions just for the sake of dissent.
Promote self-awareness
Lastly, companies looking to dissuade excessive groupthink should encourage employees to exercise a degree of self-awareness and self-reflection. One of Dalio’s principles advises each employee to “write down your weaknesses and the weaknesses of others to help remember and acknowledge them.”
If everyone in the company -- from top to bottom -- brings an engaged and critical mind-set to the workplace, new and innovative solutions are sure to emerge as a result. And for your business, that could mean the difference between soaring profitability and crippling stagnation.

Ken Sterling is the Chief Marketing Officer at BigSpeak Speakers’ bureau – the leading keynote and business speakers bureau in the world.  He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California and an MBA from Babson College. Ken teaches Entrepreneurship, Marketing and Strategy at UC Santa Barbara. He is a serial entrepreneur, keynote speaker, business consultant and sales & marketing expert. For press interviews, contact marketing@bigspeak.com.
Recent stories:

Benefits disrupter hires senior Sun Life exec 

Social media ruling puts pressure on employers 

KPMG confirms recruitment overhaul 

HRM Online forum is the place for positive industry interaction and welcomes your professional and informed opinion.

Name (required)
Comment (required)
By submitting, I agree to the Terms & Conditions