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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Dissenting opinions really matter

Imagine being in a case conference and not feeling that the assembled group has considered all of the needed information. Imagine as well, that you are a junior in the room. What typically happens, is that the junior will keep quiet. They may try to explain their concerns to a trusted colleague later but their ideas are lost to the group.

The aviation industry has considered this problem as contributing to airline accidents. They have been working at creating an environment where all in the cockpit feel comfortable speaking up. The risks for a plane are a bit more obvious - if the error occurs it might crash killing many. But it is in the analysis of prior accidents that it has become clear that speaking up can save lives.

Professor Eileen Munro of the London School of Economics has pointed out in earlier writing that we should learn from other industries who have taken time to dissect how to prevent disaster. She believes that there are lessons to be learned. I agree.

For too long, however, we have relied upon the courage of a dissenting member of the group to speak up rather than encourage dissenting opinions. When that occurs, we tend to see group think - this is where the group coalesces around the opinion of the majority. In particular, the group tends to conform to the opinions of the more powerful members. This leads to errors in thinking and decision making because it assumes that the powerful member or the group has it right.

The group may, however, in seeking consensus, also filter out data that contradicts the group or power member opinions. Thus, they become selective in what data they consider rejecting data that strays from the group opinion. It leads to conformational thinking as opposed to critical thinking.

Serious case reviews and similar reviews of death and injury in child protection cases has identified this concern.

The minority opinion can often contain insights or perspectives that have not been given much consideration or analysis. These opinions can open up new perspectives or link previously unlinked data. They can also act as a way to ensure various options are considered.

It shouldn't take courage. Rather, it should be encouraged. The group leader should seek the conflicting opinions. The challenge is that it takes time - typically in short supply in high demand, high caseload environments. Yet failing to do so places people at risk.

For the minority opinion holder, there is also the use of language. Certain terms and words catch the group's attention more than others. Indicating that you have serious concerns, serious reservations, you are quite uncomfortable with the direction being taken, you think that the plan is unsafe,  are all terms that can garner the group's attention. How we say it matters as much as what we say.

By encouraging this approach, we can reduce harm to children and families.  In a previous blog I spoke about the B.C. Supreme  Court decision that held social workers liable for their decisions to place children in the care of an abusive father. The judge's decision illustrates that contradictory data did exist. This might be an example of how group think occurred and dissenting opinions were either squashed or not voiced. There are many other examples.

But it is up to managing leaders to create an environment where various points of view are welcomed. When a dissenting opinion occurs, how can it be seen as needed and explored? Management can act in a way that sees the opinion as needed or do the opposite. Thus, the quality of the supervisory environment serves to encourage or discourage the voicing of minority ideas. Otherwise, it can be very lonely to be the "other voice".

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