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CHICAGO—Blame it on biology, physiology, conformity and organizational silence, but companies often ignore or disregard cues that, left unheeded, cause them to lose their competitive edge, flounder during tough economic times, and drain and disengage their workers.
That was among the messages from Margaret Heffernan, author of Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril (Walker & Co., 2011), during the final Masters Series session at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2013 Annual Conference & Exposition.
The Texas-born, Holland-raised, Cambridge-educated Heffernan also wrote The Naked Truth: A Working Woman's Manifesto on Business and What Really Matters(Jossey-Bass, 2004), How She Does It: Redefining Power and the Nature of Success for the 21st Century (Viking Adult, 2007)andWomenon Top: How Women Entrepreneurs Are Rewriting the Rules of Business Success (Penguin, 2008) and has been a speaker at TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talks.
Neurological and psychological factors come into play, suggested Heffernan, whowas CEO at InfoMation Corp., ZineZone Corp. and iCAST Corp. The brain maps our world, looking for the familiar whenever something new is presented, such as when strangers discover a shared connection. But although such commonality is comforting, by gravitating toward it “we hugely narrow the field of our understanding.”
“We slowly but surely eliminate all the dissenting voices, all the different voices, all the sources of conflict, all the sources of contradiction which might challenge our assumptions and understanding. This is the biological and physical reality of bias … [and it] hugely constricts the kind of people we know, the kind of information we get from our networks and the kinds of discussions we allow into our lives.”
There is value in “courageous conversations” and constructive disagreement that challenge your ideas while working toward a shared commitment to excellence, Heffernan noted. Creativity comes about, she explained, by testing an idea and forging differences into something stronger and better.
“To do your best work—the work that will stand up against all assaults—what you need to be collaborative, to work effectively, is to have a collaborator who will dare to disagree with you, who will bring different ways of thinking that challenge your ideas and …[share a] commitment to excellence.”
For organizations looking to use constructive disagreement, it’s important that they make sure that it’s seen as a productive activity, that the devil’s advocate is not simply a naysayer and that the same person is not always playing that role. This strategy also requires:
*A climate of safety—people have to feel they are allowed to voice disagreement about an idea.
*Training, if needed.
*Respect for personal time—allowing employees to have a life outside of work.
“You can’t have ideas if you don’t have a life that generates [ideas],” Heffernan observed. “Innovation happens when, instead of narrowing your perspective, you open up the panorama. You let people have a life, and you bring it in.”
Encourage Workers to Speak Out
Organizational silence is another factor that hinders businesses and can lead to disastrous results. It happens when employees believe they can’t raise an organizational concern or issue with their bosses. They fear being viewed as negative or threatening to those above them.
As a CEO herself, Heffernan finds this deeply disturbing.
“I know the information is out there, but I can’t get to it,” she said. “You have all this intelligence, but nobody’s talking about it.” That’s dangerous because, “to many CEOs’ consternation, most people will do what they’re told even if it’s the wrong stuff.”
Employees undergo a subtle shift in their identity—from private individuals to workers who conform to informal authority or obey formal authority—and “it kind of mentally disables them,” Heffernan said.
Employees Need Downtime
She urged business executives to allow their employees to bring their whole—and well-rested—selves to work. Unlike machines that are tended to so they work efficiently and at full capacity, the human engine—the brain—that is needed to run today’s knowledge economy, does not receive the same consideration.
“There are hard [physiological and neurological] limits to our cognitive capacity,” cautioned Heffernan, who’s seen multimillion-dollar deals closed by people who were so sleep-deprived they couldn’t remember to sign their name. “[Yet] we somehow expect that we’re not going to get tired. We work people very long hours and then … [expect them to] turn up fresh as daisies at meetings [the next day].”
Without sleep, people “burn out, they make mistakes, they fail to remember things, they get distracted, they ignore the obvious,” she said.
“People are much more than machines. It would be much more powerful to think of companies as living organisms and give them what they need to grow.
“It’s high time we start challenging the idea of companies as machines and we are merely the widgets that produce. If we give [employees] the tools to argue safely, to make mistakes safely, to have a life and to speak up when they do have those good ideas, we will liberate their capacity and everybody will achieve more.”
Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.
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