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Going With the Herd a Recipe for Disaster?

by on February 17, 2014 6:45 AM

Several years ago, a story out of Turkey made the world news. As the shepherds of a rather large herd of sheep went to eat breakfast, one of the unattended animals either jumped or fell off a nearby cliff.

The other sheep began to follow their misguided leader. In the end, over 1,500 sheep took the plunge. The loss for the families and owners of the sheep was devastating and had a significant and ripple effect on the local economy.

The fact that only the first 450 sheep died as a result of their collective action was little consolation; the pile of bodies at the bottom broke the fall for many of the sheep who came after.

If only one of those sheep had stopped and said "Hey. Wait a minute. Are we sure this is a good idea?" the outcome might have been a little different.

Talking sheep aside, there are times when offering another opinion or disagreeing with the majority can be a good thing.

I was reminded of the importance of dissent when I sat down last week to watch the Bill O'Reilly interview with President Obama. Portions of the interview were telecast live right before the Super Bowl. I caught the full interview online.

As I watched what seemed to be an unpredictably cordial interaction between a polished politician and a member of the media who is usually rather aggressive, I was most surprised by the President's disdain for Fox News. At several points in the interview, President Obama made references to Fox News and what he seemed to believe to be unfair or unrelenting badgering about the IRS scandal, Benghazi or the Affordable Care Act.

Members of the press being unkind or critical of an elected official? I don't think President Obama is the first. Rather than taking offense at those who are critical, an effective leader not only embraces opposing opinions but actively seeks ideas and viewpoints from those who disagree.

Dissent in groups, organizations and in government – and in the media – should be viewed as a good thing. From a group dynamics standpoint, dissent and even conflict within a group or organization is healthy, expected and supports better outcomes.

History is full of examples of individuals or groups of people who didn't invite or permit dissenting opinions. In many of those instances, the results were as disastrous as 1,500 sheep stepping off a cliff.

Consider all that has happened at Penn State in the last couple of years. At many points along the way, someone stepping forward to say "I disagree" might have made a difference.

Some people call it consensus seeking. Groupthink. Mob mentality. Experts in the social sciences, in political science, in management and leadership have known it for centuries. A group that goes along without question is not healthy or productive. A leader that does not allow for the expression of differing opinions stifles creativity, innovation and morale.

I recently read the book "The Wisdom of Crowds; Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations" by James Surowiecki." It's a fascinating look at how, if designed correctly, groups that are diverse in thought and opinion can and do make better decisions than groups that are filled with like-minded thinkers. Surowiecki references study after study of groups made up of lay individuals who were able to make similar if not superior decisions to groups of experts in a given topic because of the ability to think creatively – and independently of the expected or established group opinion.

In my personal experience, leaders who don't like it when people offer opposing views are either not very sure of themselves or don't have confidence in their decisions.

Psychologist Bruce Tuckman called it storming in the Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing model of group development. In other words, to get to the good stuff, where we are at our best, we have to dust it up a bit. Dissent allows for the exchanging of ideas, greater communication and collaboration, making the most of the resources of the group (AKA group members) and maximizing our potential for success. A climate of silence and false unanimity often leads to low morale, negative interactions and bad decisions.

In studies that have looked at effective group decision making, having opposing views or a "Devil's Advocate" generally brings groups to better conclusions. One of the classic examples raised as flawed group decision making was the Bay of Pigs incident during the Kennedy administration.

It has been suggested that Kennedy's team knew what he wanted the decision to be (the overthrow of Fidel Castro) so they didn't offer dissenting opinions. Disaster. In the days and weeks immediately after, President Kennedy reportedly evaluated his decision making policies by removing himself as the directive leader, bringing in experts with differing opinions and making it clear that people had permission to disagree. He reportedly included people in the decision making process that he knew would not just nod their heads

Our dissenters can provide us with the antidote to faulty decision making. What haven't we considered? What are the unanswered questions? Does anyone have any different opinions?

For our politicians and elected officials on both sides of the aisle, the tough questions are another form of checks and balances.

Even if you disagree, the different lens through which Fox News or MSNBC or CNN report the news serve an important purpose. Ask those sheep.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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