Some guy named Cornelius Vanderbilt walked into the Moon Lake Lodge restaurant in 1853 and ordered French-fried potatoes. And the world has never been the same since.
The dish was a favorite for many. Prepared by Chef George Crum, patrons in the Saratoga Springs, New York restaurant were treated to potatoes cut thick and fat in a French style popularized in the states by Thomas Jefferson.
Cornelius wanted potatoes that were thinner. That were crunchy. He disagreed with every other customer up to that moment. He must have believed something better could be achieved. So he sent his plate back to the kitchen.
Chef Crum sliced the potatoes again, cooked a fresh batch, and Cornelius still wasn’t satisfied. There was a crunchy potato out there to be had and Cornelius would have it.
Out of annoyance, Chef Crum sliced the potatoes paper-thin and fried them until they were too crunchy to be forked. Now that guy out there would get his crunchy potatoes and he’d hate them.
Except the plan went terribly wrong. Cornelius was hooked. And he wouldn’t be the last. Soon other patrons started ordering them, too. And the potato chip was born.
Who was Cornelius Vanderbilt? He was just a guy with a different opinion.
Let’s fire up the grill
Disagreeing on the cut and cook of a potato isn’t the only time a dissenting opinion has changed history. Rosa Parks disagreed with the seating arrangements on a bus. And every seating chart since got rearranged. Galileo disagreed with the ruling class’ theories on the universe. And his theories are now the accepted science. Lucille Ball, despite reluctance from CBS executives, believed America would love a show about an All-American redhead married to a Cuban. And love it they did.
Yet, even people who adore the result of dissent may feel a need to silence it in their work place, their church group, or their ministry, all while finishing off a bag of potato chips during an “I Love Lucy” marathon.
If dissent can have such amazing results, then what’s so wrong with it?
Someone put out the grease fire
In 1952, William H. Whyte, Jr. first coined the phrase “groupthink” in Fortune magazine. He defined it as not being “mere instinctive conformity” but a “rationalized conformity – an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well.”
In other words, we believe everyone thinking exactly alike isn’t only easier, it’s what is right. When we all think the same, we have the best possible answer, the best possible solution, and perfect unity. But we also don’t have potato chips.
In most cases, groupthink means we’ve settled. We aren’t getting what is best, we’re getting what is easy and easily accepted. Groupthink doesn’t mean everyone agrees because it’s the right choice. It means everyone agrees because no one has the guts or freedom to do otherwise.
Time for the company picnic
A difference of opinion inside many boardrooms and staff meetings is often met with suspicion. Here’s a person trying to cause trouble. Here’s a person making waves. Here’s a person who should keep their lone wolf opinion to themselves.
Whether or not everyone is honestly in agreement isn’t even known. When you have an environment that discourages voices of dissent, you have an environment that encourages silence. Not solutions. Not innovation. Just quiet disagreement. Or, worse yet, there is no disagreement because there is not independent thought.
Instead of viewing dissent as a fresh idea, a viewpoint to be considered, ways to approach processes and problems from a never-before-tried direction, dissent is viewed as disturbing unity.
But what if we have that backward?
Dessert comes at the end of the meal
If dissent is upsetting unity, then unity arrived too early to the party. Dissent should be part of the process before decisions are made. Unity should be what happens after decisions are made.
Dissent is an invaluable part of the decision making process because it purifies and refines. It second-guesses all preconceived notions. It tests decisions before decisions are set in stone. It takes the decision for a test drive before a signature has been scribbled on a contract.
It tests the boundaries of the decision to make certain the boundaries can hold.
Maybe most importantly, dissent questions you. You want dissent. You need it, even.
Because…you might be wrong.