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I remember travelling to Boston one time to check out a market-survey agency. My boss liked to see consultants’ offices and about five minutes in, he whispered that we would never use them. “Too quiet,” he said. “It seems dead.” I thought that was an odd way to choose advisers, but a few years later I found myself being interviewed for a job in an eerily hushed office and my heart sank at the thought of working there.

I believe in clashes and passionate, reasoned arguments between colleagues. So did that boss (luckily). I recognize that at times I put ideas over people and relationships, testing friendships, and while I do worry about that tendency – so male – I also believe it ultimately gets the best results. I worry about friends who believe in nice above all and kowtowing to their boss; I feel what I owe my bosses above all is telling them when they are wrong.

So I was taken by the call for more pushback in organizations from Nigel Travis, who spent nine years as CEO of Dunkin’ Brands and now serves as its chairman. He says our goal should be a “challenge culture,” a gentle way of describing the approach. “The ability to create a culture of challenge in your organization – business, non-profit, governmental, academia – is essential to survival and sustainability in today’s chaotic world. Only through questioning, pushback, challenge, and debate will you be able to stay relevant, respond to customers' needs, and sustain yourself,” he writes in his recent book The Challenge Culture.

The challenges should be in all directions – up, down or sideways. He stresses that challenge is different from confrontation. It does not involve attack or intimidation. Keep it to issues, not personalities or groups. It’s not a gladiatorial arena. “Even when the process of challenge heats up or gets passionate, it doesn’t turn nasty,” he writes.

Mr. Travis delineates four possible cultures that are worth using to evaluate your workplace or other organizations where you might sit on a board or help out. One, taken from MIT professor Edgar Schein, is a “culture of tell.” People take it for granted that telling is better than asking. As we move up the hierarchy we attain the power to move into “telling” mode.

Researcher David Maxfield of VitalSmarts has written about “a culture of silence," which is similar but deeper. “Most people think they will speak up when something negative happens at work, but few actually do,” he noted in Harvard Business Review.

The third cultural model Mr. Travis presents is “a culture of confrontation.” In it, people assert themselves to gain personal power, push through their own agenda and put others down. They want to win for themselves. In a challenge culture, the fourth option, questioning is meant to stimulate conversation and debate, not to win for yourself but to nudge everyone to new understandings and better decisions.

Some people, of course, have trouble asserting themselves, so this will be difficult. Gender plays a role: Women have been socialized to smooth over differences. But if the purpose is to seek out different ideas, maybe some women are more skilled, doing it with fewer ripples.

In her newly published book, The Fearless Organization, Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson highlights the importance of psychological safety at work. Psychological safety is a climate in which people feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks by speaking up and sharing concerns, questions or ideas. “When people don’t speak up, the organization’s ability to innovate and grow is threatened,” she writes. Without it, mistakes occur; there are many examples in medicine or aviation where people have not been comfortable to speak up when they saw something going wrong.

But it must be accompanied by high standards; psychological safety cannot be about lowering performance standards. It’s also not about being nice. “Psychological safety is about candour, about making it possible for productive disagreement and free exchange of ideas,” she writes.

Alan Mulally, in transforming Ford Motor Co., worked hard to get his top team to challenge each other, breaking the notion that teamwork meant polite silence when others presented reports. It’s not an easy culture to achieve – in fact, it’s very tricky – but it’s worthwhile to make the effort.


  • Leaders are supposed to make tough, strategic decisions, seizing the future, as General Motors CEO Mary Barra did with her announcement that the company was betting on electric and autonomous vehicles. But many spectacular failures have occurred when companies are too far ahead of the curve. Huge questions surround electric cars – most notably distances they can travel, infrastructure for refuelling, and whether our power grids can handle them. Autonomous vehicles may prove to be next decade’s Segway – the highly touted self-balancing personal transporter that flopped – in this case because people want control over their vehicles. Daring bets don’t always pay off.
  • Train before you promote, not after, says Dacia Faison Roe of SY Partners. Develop an associate program that teaches leadership skills without the promise of a promotion, giving potential managers a chance to try out the role.
  • How much of your online interchange with customers and prospects – clunky messages and unneeded technological hoops those folks need to go through – are developed by techies, not marketing people? A marketing person should lead your IT team, insists entrepreneur Seth Godin.

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