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  • Matt Turner

The danger of noisy agreement and the safety of quiet dissent

We have witnessed, and participated in, very many conversations lately about psychological safety. It is a topic that encompasses all aspects of highly functioning and highly dysfunctional teams, departments and organisations.

How do we ensure we hear all of the good ideas?

We have to make sure people feel comfortable telling us all the ideas including the bad ones.

How do we make certain that people will alert us to the risks we are blind to?

We have to make sure people are comfortable telling us about anything they feel is out of place even if it turns out to be ok.

How do we make it safe for everyone to express what they feel, without recrimination?

We make the sharing of those feelings as easy as possible, such that it becomes habitual.

Dissent is essential in a healthy, generative organisation. Dissenters like canaries in a coal mine are sentinel species and they must be cared for and encouraged.

If the canaries go quiet, the dissent stops and all around you is confirmation – you should start worrying.

If you do notice this you can’t simply switch it back on. You will need to find some way of reinstating the safety and it can be difficult. We are hardwired to act in certain ways.

In order to simplify complexity, remember useful things, and filter out what we feel is unimportant, make sense of things when there is either not enough information or too much, we naturally and instinctively employ hundreds of cognitive biases.

In his award-winning book – “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman describes how these innate mental models help us survive in short term, dangerous situations and also how they prevent us from thriving in the long run. We need both, he explains, but in the modern world it would be much better for us if we were able to let the slower, reasonable, type 2 thinking override the stronger, quicker, fight or flight, type 1 thinking.

In his recently released follow up book “Noise”, he, alongside Cass Sunstein & Olivier Sibony, delves deeper into the decision-making process and illustrates that noise is independent and different from bias, and therefore reducing the noise will improve accuracy just as much as reducing the impacts of bias. In order to describe how this might be achieved he coined the term “decision hygiene”.

The term hygiene, which Kahneman admits is off putting(!), was chosen deliberately… because there is no glamour in washing your hands. Unlike vaccination or medication which is specific to a disease, when you wash your hands, you have no idea what germs you are killing, and if successful – you will never know, and yet it is a very good thing to wash your hands. Similarly, this is what decision hygiene is supposed to be, procedures that you take without knowing what errors you are combating. In general, they are supposed to improve the quality of decisions.

We can create structures and processes which reduce noise in decision making (or variance in judgement) by redesigning the way that, particularly groups of, people arrive at decisions.

Kahneman was interviewed by Rory Sutherland at Nudgestock 2021 on this topic.

This conversation took in the notion that noise has more than 1 dimension and this was explored through a criminal justice lens…

You can have inconsistency of sentencing between judges but also each individual judge can elicit very different sentences for many “noisy” reasons, and these things can compound…

Kahneman explained that there is system noise that could be described as a lottery, which means which judge a defendant may encounter is down to chance, and then there is a further lottery as to what state of mind the judge, they do get, is in…because a judge could be in a good mood or a bad mood; it could be a hot, irritating day or a cool, calming day; the judge’s football team could have won or lost the day before; all of these are likely to play some role in determining the sentence.

So there are various sources of noise:

  • Differences between judges – some are more severe than others

  • Variability within the judge’s own state of mind as described above

  • Most importantly, the biggest and most surprising source of noise is differences in “tastes”, it turns out that judges have different tastes in criminals and different tastes in crimes, and so if you present different judges with different defendants and different crimes they will not order them in the same way. It’s not only that they are more or less severe, or that they are in a better or worse mood – they just see the world in different ways.

  • And these are compound and multiply with each other.

This can be seen when different judges find against defendants accused of the same crime, but are wholly inconsistent with the sentencing. Kahneman cites research during the 1970’s in the US that found almost identical first offences regarding cheque fraud where the sentencing varied from 30 days to 15 years.

So what does this have to do with the workplace and how we make decisions, I hear you say?

Well here was where they took the conversation, describing how decision hygiene can help obtain better decisions in business, or policy:

… whilst we absolutely think and believe they do, business meetings very rarely canvas individual opinion.

We think, “Let’s go round the table” equates to diversity and inclusion and will uncover the truth. We believe this will invite different but complementary or usefully critical input, but the meeting structures we employ seem to want to achieve unanimity at any cost…and within an hour if possible.

If you want to reduce this noise you will get people to write down their opinions independently of each other, so that you can observe if disagreement actually exists. As soon as they start talking they will start converging in some way, and the convergence is largely arbitrary because it depends on who speaks first or who speaks most loudly. By arbitrary we mean, if the wrong person is outside the room making coffee when the debate begins a completely unfit for purpose conclusion could be drawn. Discussions in committees are frequently a means to exacerbate noise whilst hiding it.

There are compounding effects in certain “decision architectures”, whereas we can design others that will cancel those out much more effectively… and here is one that we would like you to try.

Why 1-2-4-All?

  • Engage every individual in searching for answers

  • Avoid over-helping and the overcontrol-dependency vicious cycle

  • Create safe spaces for expression, diminish power differentials

  • Express “silent” conversations and expand diversity of inputs

  • Enrich quality of observations and insights before expression

  • Build naturally toward consensus or shared understanding

When in 1 – self reflection

  • Silent self-reflection by individuals on a shared challenge, framed as a question (e.g., What opportunities do YOU see for making progress on this challenge? How would you handle this situation? What ideas or actions do you recommend?), between 1-5 min.

  • Write a list or separately on post its

In 2s – build on ideas from self reflection

  • Generate ideas in pairs, building on ideas from self-reflection. 5 min.

  • Combine your individual list or post its

  • Between you select the top 1, 2 or 3 to carry forward to next 4s

In 4s – start to build on the best ideas

  • Share and develop ideas from your pair in foursomes (notice similarities and differences). 5 min.

All – build on ideas from self reflection

  • Ask, “What is one idea that stood out in your conversation?” – Each group shares one important idea with all (repeat cycle as needed). 5 min.

The 1-2-4-All construct allows people to have their say without it even being viewed as dissent, which in itself can be viewed as negative. Not everyone wants to be viewed as a dissenter, not everyone self-identifies as a maverick. Regardless of that, without good hygiene, once the truth is out the judgement will be made, and this could mean the person now uncomfortably pointed to as a firebrand could remain silent from this moment on.

Have a think about how this affects long-term goals, productivity and culture. Maybe it is worth the extra consideration to build good conversation frameworks, collaboration architecture and decision hygiene.

by Matt Turner, 11/10/22


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