Margaret Heffernan: "Dare to Disagree"
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.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!
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.
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.