In my last post, I discussed the value of measuring a job candidate’s capacity for expressing dissent. I can only speak for myself, but I want more from an employee than I would want from a trained circus animal. The jobs I have are more difficult for me to do alone, and a large part of that difficulty is understanding the full problem or all of its potential solutions. To keep a project moving, I may make decisions to assign tasks that make sense at the time but may not be the best solutions especially in relative sense of the resources I have available. For experienced positions, I want an employee who can receive a task assignment and observe a better alternative and then inform me of that alternative. I describe this process as a form of dissent.
As described above and discussed in the previous post, the expression of dissent may frequently follow a pattern of being assigned a task, expressing a counter proposal, and then being told to do the assignment any way. This dissent may still be constructive where the counter proposal was a good one and the manager learns from it, even though it had no immediate impact on the current assignment.
A stronger form of dissent is to refuse to the assignment. If the counter proposal is superior, then it deserves consideration for immediate implementation. Refusing to do an assigned task has real risks such as being fired or reassigned. Sometimes, the reasoning for the superiority of the alternative proposal merits taking such a risky stand. It would be nice to know if the person has the strength to take such a risk when he sees a superior alternative.
I once worked in an environment that fostered this kind of dissent. I recall hating it at the time because there were always very heated arguments. These arguments sometimes were very loud and lasted for hours. In addition, the arguments crossed multiple levels of management: there were even arguments between people at the very extremes of the org chart. I recall my conflicting emotions. To my natural disposition, it seemed unnatural to have such heated arguments, and for them to go one for so long, and for them to occur without respect to the authority of management hierarchy. At the same time, I was very intrigued to see the spectacle through and observe the consequence of what appeared to be a better solution than the original idea. Perhaps the lower level employee did not win his entire argument, but he certainly changed the mind of the higher level manager.
That environment would not have happened without first raising a dissenting opinion. This alone is very difficult to do even if after expressing the opinion we know we’ll be asked to do the task anyway. But the above environment required more than just raising and expressing a dissenting opinion, it required additional steps of refusing to follow orders and skipping multiple levels of management. After receiving a task from the immediate manager, the employee recognizes a dissent about the task assigned to his manager: the dissent was an argument with his manager’s manager.
This scenario is clearly a firing offense in most organizations. The entire point of a hierarchy is to delegate management to lower level managers. If everyone can approach the president of the company, then there is no need for intermediate managers. Similarly, most organizations do not have much tolerance for any insubordination. People need to do the tasks assigned in order to meet the larger objectives. Continued employment is contingent on obedience to the assigned manager.
In my last post, I described the goal of continual process improvement. The first step to improving a service is to observe something is wrong with the current implementation of the service. While it is possible for back-office engineers and developers to observe areas for improvement, the best source for such improvement opportunities comes from the employees who have the task of delivering the service. They have the direct experience with the service to observe what is not working well. This front-line observation comes from the emotional or unconscious level of intelligence that simply is inaccessible to back-office engineers or developers. To truly improve a service, we need feedback from the people whose job it is to deliver a service precisely as directed. We need their dissent.
At the top of this post, I contrasted the value of a human employee with a trained circus animal. In many modern jobs, it does seem we do expect from employees exactly what we expect from circus animals. They should stay quite in their pen until it is their time to perform, and when it is their time to perform, they need perform exactly as directed and with their highest quality of effort. In the circus, there is a show and there is only so much time for a certain act, and that act needs to be perfect. Dissent from the animal in the form of refusing to obey a command is met with more emphatic commands perhaps punctuated with cracks of a whip. A circus replaces any animal that fails to perform.
As I write this, I’m reminded of this story of a tiger that mauled a magician during a live performance. This story is of that same magician mourning the later death of this same tiger despite the fact that the tiger very aggressively expressed its dissent for performing. In my circus analogy, often we would never hear about the animal again after such a tragic performance: the animal would have been sold or even killed. Instead, we hear that the tiger die naturally and with the loving attention of the same magician it had earlier mauled and nearly killed. It is not clear what actually motivated the initial mauling, but it is interesting that the event did not destroy the magician’s respect for this individual tiger.
In my last post, I tried to give a more relevant example in the case of the shepherd’s sheep dogs refusing an initial command to stop and rest. I suggested there may be times when the shepherd would expect this disobedience when the dog observes something unseen by the shepherd that made the immediate obedience a poor choice. I suggested that the dog may be wisely trying to steer the sheep away from a hazard the shepherd doesn’t see. In that scenario, the shepherd may appreciate even repeated refusals to cooperate. The shepherd would investigate until he also saw the hazard and thus the wisdom of his dog.
This is more analogous to what I saw in that earlier job experience. The low level staff confronted the highest level manager over an issue and risked being fired by arguing his case relentlessly but eventually getting at least an accommodating revision to the task. At the time, all of the upper managers had solid reputations for firing people immediately. It required a lot of courage to start and maintain such an argument with that risk, and yet I observed this kind of argument far more frequently at this job than at later jobs where risks of being fired were far less likely.
Today we often describe that type of work environment as a toxic work environment with toxic managers who are too quick to fire, and disrespectful employees who are too eager to skip levels of managers to express their case. In my most recent experience, the organization expressed a policy for zero tolerance for such behaviors.
I think it is unfortunate that we label as toxic an assertive disagreement that leads to long and heated arguments. I realize there is a widespread hit on productivity when everyone else becomes aware of the argument. In my example, even though the argument occurred in a closed room, everyone heard it because there was very little sound proofing. In fact, I’m not sure any sound proofing would stop the sound of pounding on walls. However, I noticed that in this particular environment there did not seem to be reduction in productivity. People were accustomed to arguments and they just went on doing their jobs as they normally would.
The reason why similar behavior is considered so toxic today is that it is so rare. Today, a raised voice even briefly would halt work for most people who hear it. We have zero tolerance for assertive argumentation because we have zero experience with coping with it. In contrast, when such arguments are common, we learn to ignore it if it does not directly involve us.
I suspect such arguments can be beneficial to the point where it should be encouraged. I think the reason there were so many arguments in that earlier job was because there were already so many arguments going on. We learned to assert our disagreements and stick to our points no matter who we were arguing with. Usually, arguments eventually ended with some kind of productive resolution, but only after the full weight of the argument was heard: objectively, emotionally, and unconsciously.
The benefit comes in the opportunity for continued process improvement. To improve some process we first need to know something is wrong with the current process. Someone needs to raise the objection that something could be done better or it could be replaced with something better. That individual needs to make this objection clear to people in a position to make that change. Part of this message is the urgency: the objection or proposed alternative should receive a high priority. This takes an assertive expression of dissent.
In my recent posts, I focused on the challenges of measuring the unconscious mind, the mind that through conditioned training knows how to get things done. Unlike the conscious or emotional mind, the unconscious mind is largely inaccessible to dialog. We talk to the unconscious mind through activities, not through words. For many tasks, we rely extensively on the capabilities of the unconscious mind to work out the minute details of making a project a success. We often don’t pay conscious attention to the details of how the unconscious mind gets work done. Sometimes it will automatically do something that at least momentarily is contrary to the objectives of the task. I previously gave the example of the bicyclist reflexively momentarily disobeyed the order to ride in a straight line at constant speed in order to recover from an unexpected hazard. This is what the unconscious mind does, it solves problems that were not consciously foreseen. The reason why we need experience in addition to certified knowledge is because objective knowledge is incomplete: there are things we learn only by doing them.
In the context of continual process improvement, we would need to elevate these unconscious decisions into conscious ones so that we can incorporate them into objective learning. To do this, we need to learn the decisions are being made. For example in the bicyclist reflexive maneuvering, we would desire a more explicitly stated objection such as “I refuse to continue driving in a straight line at this speed”. The unconscious mind is better equipped to operate in real time so it immediately makes its own decision instead of waiting for a conscious decision.
In the bicycle example, the conscious quickly figures out that the unconscious mind disobeyed its command. Eventually the conscious mind decides it is grateful for the effective maneuver. In work examples, often we never consciously learn these deviations at all. Because we never learn these lessons objectively, we demand relevant experience in addition to education. We resign to the fact that there are things that can only be learned by doing the task.
In my last post, I described the opposite problem of perfect obedience where the unconscious mind tenaciously sticks to applying its skills to a problem that is probably outside of its ability to achieve at all and certainly is beyond its ability to achieve within the available budget of time and resources. At a conscious level, we describe this as a failing due to pride although I don’t think that is a fair assessment of what is happening at the unconscious level. The unconscious mind is simply following the command to apply its skills to solve a task and will stick to that task forever if necessary. It is similar to sending a dog to fetch a stick that lands outside of its reach: the dog will not give up trying to reach the stick. It will indefinitely continue trying as many different approaches it can imagine. Likewise, the unconscious mind given an impossible task will keep trying to solve it with its available skills. This is simply what the unconscious mind does. Once the unconscious mind is given a task, it imagines that its skills alone are the only way to accomplish the task. If the problem requires more effort, it is because the skills are not as good as they could be or that the problem more exertion of those skills than expected. The unconscious mind is not thinking of pride but instead is thinking that it alone is the only hope that the task will get ever done.
A very valuable trait for the unconscious mind is its ability to raise the objection that the task inherently is not appropriate for its skills. In the last post, I described the desirability of assessing the unconscious mind’s skills in performing some task with discipline to find ways to employ those skills to be relevant to current circumstances. In contrast, for the sake of continuous process improvement, I also want to know if the unconscious mind is mature enough to decline a certain task because it is not appropriate for its skills.
I recall an old story, probably from at least two decades ago and may have been an urban legend. The story was that a person skilled at using a graphic painting program was given the task to type a memo. This person used this graphic paint program’s text-painting tool to write the memo. The resulting memo looked fine, but there was a need for an editorial change. It took just as long to make the editorial changes as it took to write the original because the entire memo had to repainted. In the context of this discussion, the unconscious mind was given a task and it used it skills to successfully complete the task. The problem was that the person did not have the best category of skills for this particular type of task. This job was better suited for a word processing skill. I admire the person’s willingness to stretch his skills for a new task, while at the same I would have been disappointed in not being alerted to the fact that the skills were not appropriate.
I return again to the analogy that equates the unconscious mind to a trained dog. Compared to an untrained dog, a trained dog has skills it can perform a task. Also, dogs have an inherent eagerness to accept new opportunities to use their skills and then to stick to it until the task is complete. I used the example of the pet dog trained to play fetch but given a task to fetch something that lands outside of its reach. This exhibits two highly valued traits of having the skill to fetch and the discipline to keep at the task despite frustration. There is a third valuable trait is exhibited by the better trained sheep dog that understands the needs for the welfare of the sheep and will refuse following a shepherds command in order to avoid a hazard the shepherd can not see. I’m interested in evaluating the similar level of sophistication in the unconscious mind where it can formulate and express a dissent to a commanded action because the scenario is not best addressed with the exercise of his particular skills.