Free speech: It is worth the price

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Free speechIn January of this year, a mob attacked a building at the University of California, Berkeley. Their purpose was to prevent someone with whom they disagreed from speaking. In April, another speaker invited to address an audience at the same university was similarly prevented from speaking due to threats of violence.

These incidences and many others like them have raised serious questions about the legitimacy of a right that once was taken for granted – free speech. Indeed, there are those who argue that free speech should not be a fundamental foundation of society. They instead view it as a dangerous activity that must be controlled or even eliminated. A student at the University of California, Berkeley, recently wrote an op-ed in the Daily Californian claiming that free speech is merely “a tactic used by the state.”

This phenomenon of limiting free expression reflects a much larger trend of people being able to wrap themselves in virtual social media cocoons where their circle of friends and acquaintances consists entirely of people who think just like them. It is not coincidence that they all think the same. If someone falls out of the accepted strict norms they are either not allowed entry or are quickly excluded. So much of the bullying in social media that takes place among adolescents and even children seems to grow into an adult need for exclusion of anything that they do not want to hear.

Indeed those with unpalatable views are deemed through the worst epithets to not only be dangerously wrong but also no longer even entitled to say what they think. It is no wonder that there is an emerging free expression chill. Not falling in with the herd results in ignominious exile.

The consequence of people not wanting to deal with anyone holding different perspectives is seeping into the general population. A study based on extensive interviews of ordinary Americans released in January by Democracy Fund Voice titled: Stranger in my own country, looked at the growing trend of self-selected isolation. Some of the results were sobering:

  • 60 per cent of Hillary Clinton voters said that all five of their closest friends also voted for Mrs. Clinton. The results were similar for Trump voters.
  • Almost half of all respondents (48 per cent) say they do not seek out information from people with whom they disagree.
  • Only one in three feel that those who work hard and do the right things will get ahead in America.

A society that is so intolerant of opposing views and feels victimized as a consequence is headed for difficult times. It is the robust exchange of differing views that allows for new ideas to emerge and progress to be achieved. Imagine what the world would be like if that were not the case. We would all still believe that the sun orbited a flat Earth where kings had the divine right to rule.

The reality is that people do not leave these attitudes at the desktop in their home. All organizations, be they commercial, charitable or governmental, are not immune from these social trends. Intolerance of hearing other views or fear to express different ideas will carry forward to all parts of someone’s life including the workplace.

Further compounding the workplace challenge is that by nature, organizations do require a degree of conformity, which only enhances the intimidation of articulating an opposing or unique view. Yet nothing will undermine an organization more than an inability to challenge the status quo or generate new concepts and innovations.

“Of course the business model of the taxi industry is unassailable. Anyone who would say otherwise should leave the room now!”

Yet behind those placid expressions around the conference table are different views and new ideas waiting to burst out. The challenge is for organizations to build in mechanisms that produce fresh or contrary ideas challenging the accepted orthodoxy without creating social tension and personal divisions.

“So what can I do about it?” you might ask. Send out the Red Team.

It might be helpful turning to military planning as a guide. To be successful, the military requires both discipline and flexibility. Generals may set the strategies but it is their people on the front line who make the life and death critical decisions. Unlike most other activities, the military do not only face happenstance that might ruin their plans but also an opponent who intends in the most brutal way to destroy the organization.

The famous military strategist Helmuth von Moltke once observed, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” In other words, when your plans confront reality, reality invariably wins.

Or as, Mike Tyson, one of the toughest heavyweight professional boxers ever, put it; “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.”

Call out the Red Team

Around the year 2003, the United States military began developing a planning technique called “Red Teaming”. A selected group of individuals would be appointed to provide alternate strategies and devise plans to counter existing strategies. The Red Team approach was intended to legitimize contrary thought and stress test current accepted views.

If long-held orthodoxies are still valid or management’s latest plans really have a chance to succeed, then they should be able to withstand vigorous scrutiny and challenge. In any exercise like this, the most difficult task is for those proposing the plan to sometimes acknowledge that the Red Team has uncovered false assumptions or critical flaws that cause the plan to be either revised or even abandoned. Still, it seems better to uncover the key vulnerabilities of what is being proposed at the conference table rather than on the battlefield as a smoking ruin.

After The Coca-Cola Company launched its disastrous new Coke reformulation, it later admitted that the plan was so secret that no one was ever asked how it might go wrong. Fortunately, Coca-Cola proved to be geniuses at retreat and recovered fully. Regrettably, a successful retreat is not a victory.

So perhaps as your organization considers an acquisition, a new product launch or fund raising campaign, it might be helpful forming a Red Team to challenge the concept. It could result in far better results or at least avoid a panicked retreat.

Additionally, Red Teaming might help to identify colleagues who have real critical thinking skills and imaginative solutions. Liberating all those people sitting around the table nodding agreeably but thinking, “this is nuts, it will never work” by providing them the opportunity to express themselves may be your greatest victory of all.

Three cheers for free speech!

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