“You don’t bring bad news” explained a former WeWork employee.Gabriel Sherman, “’You Don’t Bring Bad News to the Cult Leader’: Inside the Fall of WeWork,” Vanity Fair, November 21, 2019. As outsiders shared skepticism about WeWork’s business model and a series of red flags sprang up in the months prior to the organization’s implosion in 2019, disbelieving senior employees remained silent. They did not want to be the bearers of bad news to their CEO at the time. Although the organization has since moved on under new leadership, the WeWork story is emblematic of a broader trend: In this era of polarization and rancorous discourse in all realms of society, it is increasingly difficult to have open and productive disagreements at work.
A survey of 6,000 tech employees found that 17.5% of them do not speak up at all to their managers. Situations like this are particularly unfortunate because team and corporate performance are contingent upon a culture in which employees feel free to communicate their ideas and opinions as they work together and solve problems. While many organizations may not view their culture as one that actively suppresses disagreement, few foster a culture in which open and productive debate is a cornerstone. As a result, it becomes ever harder for senior leaders to get the full, unvarnished truth from employees, and they can end up making big decisions based on half-truths or incomplete data.
Why Encourage Debate?
Failure avoidance is only one reason why leaders should prioritize open disagreement. Healthy debate also amplifies innovation. In 1921, when William Knudsen, one of Ford Motor’s top engineers and a leading expert in flexible mass production, offered Henry Ford his sketches for producing customized Model Ts, the company’s autocratic founder simply walked away. Ford paid a costly price for not engaging in a debate with a subordinate; soon after, Knudsen joined General Motors and implemented his ideas as the head of Chevrolet, narrowing the Model T-to-Chevy sales ratio from 13:1 to 2:1 in just five years.Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, Random House, 2013.
Repressing alternative opinions also hurts employee engagement and retention. Just as Knudsen promptly left Ford, employees who do not feel comfortable speaking up at work are less likely to want to stay with their company. By repelling employees who think differently, organizations can inadvertently create a consensus-driven culture and fall prey to group think.