Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Margaret Heffernan: "Dare to Disagree"

Margaret Heffernan

Yesterday via LinkedIn, I was given a link to a TED lecture by Margaret Heffernan titled "Dare to Disagree," a presentation that I realized fits with my views on a culture of discussion and that needs to be deeply reflected upon by Koreans. Expressing disagreement is never easy, as Ms. Heffernan acknowledges:
[R]ecently, I worked with an executive named Joe, and Joe worked for a medical device company. And Joe was very worried about the device that he was working on. He thought that it was too complicated and he thought that its complexity created margins of error that could really hurt people. He was afraid of doing damage to the patients he was trying to help. But when he looked around his organization, nobody else seemed to be at all worried. So, he didn't really want to say anything. After all, maybe they knew something he didn't. Maybe he'd look stupid. But he kept worrying about it, and he worried about it so much that he got to the point where he thought the only thing he could do was leave a job he loved.
Think about that. Joe was almost more willing to quit his job than disagree with others. And that was in the West! Imagine the barriers in Korea, where hierarchy sets up multiple roadblocks! What did Joe do:
In the end, Joe and I found a way for him to raise his concerns. And what happened then is what almost always happens in this situation [in the West]. It turned out everybody had exactly the same questions and doubts. So now Joe had allies. They could think together. And yes, there was a lot of conflict and debate and argument, but that allowed everyone around the table to be creative, to solve the problem, and to change the device.
The royal road to truth is through conflict and debate, not through superficial harmony, as becomes clear by another of of Ms. Heffernan's anecdotes. A brilliant doctor in the 1950s named Alice Stewart linked childhood cancer to the practice of X-raying pregnant women, but the medical establishment was against her, so she had to be sure that she was right:
So, how did she know that she was right? Well, she had a fantastic model for thinking. She worked with a statistician named George Kneale, and George was pretty much everything that Alice wasn't. So, Alice was very outgoing and sociable, and George was a recluse. Alice was very warm, very empathetic with her patients. George frankly preferred numbers to people. But he said this fantastic thing about their working relationship. He said, "My job is to prove Dr. Stewart wrong." He actively sought disconfirmation. Different ways of looking at her models, at her statistics, different ways of crunching the data in order to disprove her. He saw his job as creating conflict around her theories. Because it was only by not being able to prove that she was wrong, that George could give Alice the confidence she needed to know that she was right.

It's a fantastic model of collaboration -- thinking partners who aren't echo chambers. I wonder how many of us have, or dare to have, such collaborators. Alice and George were very good at conflict. They saw it as thinking.
And that's what we -- Westerners, Easterners, Koreans -- need to master, the art of disagreement! We need to accept the likelihood of being wrong -- and called on it -- for the unlikelihood of being right!

The link given above is to a YouTube video, but some will be able to view the video directly on the TED site, where one can also read the transcript not only in English but also other languages, including Korean.

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At 8:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here, at the largest retailer in the world, very little is taken purely on one voice alone. We encourage everybody to have a say in what is being asked for or presented. One of our mantras is to ask "WHY?" five times. This cuases the requestor to think more critically of his request and provides deeper clarity to those who will actually create the product or system. Having said this, there is still the onus of if the big dog is pushing the idea, we have to find a way to make it happen. Our Indian counterparts find this practice hard to accept or apply, having grown up and mostly educated in similar conditions as the Koreans.

Disagreeing just to disagree is not productive, but disagreeing with purpose and fact based arguments leads to a better end result almost 100% of the time.


At 8:50 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I agree (or should I disagree?).

I would add only that disagreement should follow two rules:

1) Stick to the facts

2) Don't make it personal

There may be other rules (e.g., don't get emotional), but I'm not certain.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Control your emotions is definitely a rule to follow. It is OK to be fervent about a viewpoint, just keep the ferventness focused on the primary topic at hand without taking opposition personally. Not an easy task for most of us!


At 6:29 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Definitely not easy, but years and experience make it less difficult.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In this culture full of dogmas disagreement is a crime. And in order to be open to discussions one needs intellectual curiosity and prowess, open-mindedness, maturity, emotional disengagement, truth-seeking. And why to engage in a discussion with anyone if there's always a ready answer at hand - "culture difference" is one of them, and 우리 나라 is another. They save people from making any grueling intellectual effort. And how far can one go with such excuses? In a culture lacking principles quite far. No wonder we were disgusted by Koreans behavior and attitudes in nearly owned by them Cambodia. Cambodians complained a lot as well. 이리와 was for instance a typical order thrown into faces of our hotel staff by Korean male tourists. Even my wife was shocked by such utter rudeness.
Ad hoc rescue will do, too. If they won't work they'll resort to anger or ridiculing.
My son's afternoon teacher called my wife shortly before vacation complaining about his disagreements with her. His crime? That day he asked her why she started their class 15 minutes late without any explanation to the kids. On other days he questioned the need to do some of their exercises. "His attitude influences other kids", she said, and asked us to teach him to fully comply. I took his side and we pulled the kid out of that crammer. His former school teacher told him to eat kimchi, for Koreans eat kimchi. Again, I told her in person that if my son doesn't want kimchi, he won't eat kimchi. Case closed.


At 1:05 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, I recall your story of the kimchi. I've tried -- successfully, I think -- to persuade my wife that rice is not especially nutritious, not really essential to life.

Younger Koreans whom I encounter are becoming more 'Westernized' and better able to discuss rationally based on evidence, but I still encounter some who say that I don't understand Korean culture.

Don't give up hope . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I doubt they understand their own culture. They can't, as to understand it one needs to be armed with proper knowledge, and again, emotionally disengaged, which I believe is extremely difficult for Koreans as their self-worth is firmly attached to the culture and their acknowledged or imaginary achievements. No wonder they constantly talk this "we Koreans" nonsense and virulently defend their country as no others do (being so inconsiderate and rude toward each other at the same time). They are however unaware that it's not love to their motherland and its people, as they and many others erroneously claim, but egoistic need for approval and anxiety. Even the most devout Christians are not free from those self-imposed shackles, proving that 1 John 2, 15-17 or Mark 7, 1-9 are still empty words for them. Christian atheists. No wonder there's no room for discussion in such environment. There are some wise Korean psychiatrists who are totally unsurprised by the record high mental ailments and suicide rates.

Koreans might behave differently in public, but as the German Der Spiegel magazine (no, I don't read German, read the reprint in a Polish magazine) noticed a couple of years back, calling young Koreans cyber-terrorist, they spit venom all over the Internet as they can't healthily express their emotions and feelings in real life. Wearing their social masks at all times they can loose a bit only while intoxicated or anonymously hitting the keyboard. No, sir, these people with their noses in Kakaotalk and eyes glued to ubiquitous TV sets are totally inept at dealing with people, and real life and won't change for the better. Keep in mind that there are those for whom such situation and robot-like people is very convenient and beneficial - it's the powerful chebol tycoons. They obviously don't want any change. What for? You might not be very much interested in psychology, but if you followed the governmental plans for dealing with the growing mental problems in the society, you'd notice that it's all pretences, but the ignorant people will buy it.


At 5:54 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jacek, you don't feel strongly about this, do you?

I'd suggest we discuss this over a beer . . . except that you don't drink (a decision I respect).

My sense is that the internet is changing younger Koreans. I have experienced what you describe -- the Koreans who expect agreement that Korea is the best place on earth -- but many who have traveled have had their eyes opened. Yes, I do recall that you have a travel agency (I think).

I recognize the adjosshi/ajumma mindset (and let's not forget that they suffered and worked to make Korea a success), but change is coming.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I probably do. You're right. Sometimes it's better to talk things over over a glass of something than flood the Internet with a silly rant.
And no, I don't drink alcohol at all. But I like mint tea, though :) and moderate drinkers don't bother me whatsoever.


At 5:41 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Coffee also works . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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