In many companies and organizations, there is a position that most employees learn to avoid. It’s the position that stands out from the crowd and represents the minority voice on the team. Instead, folks learn to see which way the water is flowing and the music is playing, and they align their interests and concerns accordingly. It’s often couched in phrasing as "being a team player" and being a "proactive player instead of a negative burden" or similar.
Elon Musk, the well known chief executive of SpaceX which just recently solved how to create a space rocket that can land itself and be reused again, follows a different path with his employees. He actually wants people to tell him when they think he’s going down the wrong path. As Musk puts it, the lone dissenter or minority voice often points out issues and facts that if ignored can turn into costly problems later on. However, if a company team only follows the majority path, it can quickly turn into the fatal path of groupthink and "yes" men, ignoring major warning signs a big disaster is about to occur.
The Reward Dissenters Bring
Elon Musk and SpaceX are no strangers to risk. They operate in the high stakes game of off-Earth space transport and travel. A mistake in this environment has almost always meant total loss and millions of dollars wasted. So from Musk’s perspective, a dissenting voice provides multiple benefits. It forces the supported path to be defended better by showing why the concern raised is not an issue, a form of vetting before moving forward. Second, the minority opinion frequently brings up risks or concerns that may be glossed over otherwise because they are inconvenient to the supported path. Again, the biggest business mistakes often start with small, ignored issues, like a small leak in a levee.
The idea of rewarding the person who raises potential problems goes against the trend of American business. For decades business managers have been taught that the team is all-powerful and that many minds in synergy produce more than the individual alone. However, this also assumes a lot of mistakes are made along the way to develop that experience. In rocket-building, however, mistakes can’t be tolerated, so Musk believes in asking every question and giving a chance for dissent, an antithesis to traditional corporate culture.
Think This Doesn’t Apply to You? Think Again
Some might argue that the same situation of a rocket company doesn’t apply to a business creating software or coffee-makers. Businesses can afford to have mistakes and still make sales. However, in practice, this logic fails when the company gets sued and loses a major product warranty or personal injury case. Litigation has killed more than one small or medium business with a great product or service but no defense to a mistake that harms someone.
Musk doesn’t believe every dissenting opinion should be followed. In fact, he notes in his advice they can be incorrect. However, listening causes the path chosen to be analyzed just a bit further to identify weaknesses missed. And in Musk’s business, if it exists, avoiding that weakness can mean his multi-million dollar rocket landing again in one piece. What does it potentially mean for your company?