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Management We should learn to embrace dissent — troublemakers shape the world we live in

We often frown on their methods and style or pick the troublemakers we like, as many Americans have been doing between U.S. President Donald Trump and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

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Philosopher Thomas Hobbes called him Puer Robustus, which translates literally as stout boy – a figure who rebels against order and authority. Dieter Thoma, a professor of philosophy at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, opens his new book Troublemakers: A Philosophy of Puer Robustus with this description: “The puer robustus strikes, scandalizes, rebels. He does not play along, he does not back down, he acts on his own initiative, he breaks the rules. He is feared, marginalized, and punished, but also admired and celebrated.”

Prof. Thoma is focused on the political sphere and how troublemakers shape the world we live in. They have fought for changes from the established order and we should thank those who succeeded. But we often frown on their methods and style or pick the troublemakers we like, as many Americans have been doing between U.S. President Donald Trump and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

We have troublemakers at work as well, but with more limited freedom in the workplace, they have less scope. The first reaction of management is to stop troublemakers, reduce their role or begin booting them out (a power Mr. Trump would probably cherish). Of the many qualities you have seen listed for candidates on job descriptions, I suspect you have never seen “troublemaker” or “rebel” or “maverick,” although, these days we drool over “innovators,” who share some of those qualities.

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“The troublemaker makes trouble. He is therefore not a welcome sight – unless he happens to trouble waters that are only sluggishly and deceptively peaceful. Then he is thanked for breaking with stagnant times,” Prof. Thoma writes.

That stirs up images of corporate raiders, who are fiercely opposed by the powers-that-be, but viewed as salvation by many investors frustrated by stagnant times and stock prices. Of course, that’s troublemaking from the top, or outside-top, as they buy up shares and control, not troublemaking from down in the ranks.

Charlan Jeanne Nemeth, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of In Defense of Troublemakers, notes the dangers when majority opinion carries us into a financial industry bubble. But the fear of being in the minority is powerful, whether investing or in the workplace. She says research shows people fear speaking up as they expect to be ignored or encounter repercussions.

“Sadly, nearly all of us punish dissent. We don’t like disagreement and we often inflict punishment on those who oppose our views when we are in the majority. Dissenters are rarely liked and hence daring to dissent takes courage,” she writes in Rotman Management Magazine. “But what is interesting is that this courage, when summoned, can actually increase the likelihood that others will also show courage when faced with consensus in another situation.” She points to the power of one man who changes a jury’s opinion in the film 12 Angry Men.

Innately we know our workplace needs dissent, but we have trouble when we see it, wanting to squash it or preferring the dissent was more tempered. That ensures it’s not there and so we sometimes institutionalize it, as some companies are trying with red teams and devil’s advocates who challenge decisions.

But her own research found role-playing fails because it does not involve the courage and conviction that accompanies authentic dissent. We know these individuals are role playing and thus discount their arguments. “It is only when you face a dissenter who truly believes their position, has the courage to say so, and does so persistently that you confront the possibility that you may be wrong. At the very least, you will start to investigate the complexity of the information and the issue; seek information and consider alternatives, much as you do when first forming an opinion; look at all sides and consider the cons as well as the pros. Put simply, you will be really thinking.”

In a nutshell, that’s why we need, should want and perhaps even crave troublemakers (without having to rebrand them as “innovators”). I stepped down from a charity board years ago because I felt I had become a troublemaker – a thorn in the side of colleagues, invariably the lone dissenter, although, I came onside after decisions. At the annual meeting, the chair went on at length about how I would be missed because I had kept the board on its toes, making decisions better. All I could think of was if he had said it before I resigned, I would have stayed. So, embrace your troublemakers or if that’s too extravagant, at least don’t scorn them.

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