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WTS TED Talk Event "Dare to Disagree"

Author: Margo Dawes, Volpe National Transportation Systems Center

On June 28, 2017, 22 attendees gathered at the WSP USA office in Boston for a TED Talk viewing and discussion, facilitated by Margaret O’Meara, Vice President and Northeast Client Services Leader at WSP USA. The WTS-Boston Mentoring Committee organized the event and chose the TED Talk— “Dare to Disagree”—by Margaret Heffernan, an entrepreneur, author, and thought leader in the field of business management.

Photo1: Margaret O'Meara facilitated a roundtable discussion following a viewing of Margaret Heffernan's TED Talk, "Dare to Disagree."

In her talk, Heffernan told the story of Alice Stewart, who in the 1950s discovered a link between childhood cancer and mothers who had been X-rayed during pregnancy, a finding that flew in the face of conventional wisdom and challenged doctors’ views of themselves as doers of good. Despite widespread excitement at her published findings and talk of the Nobel Prize, it was 25 years before the practice of X-raying pregnant women was abandoned in the United Kingdom and the United States. Heffernan attributed this lag not to a lack of data, but to a lack of willingness to acknowledge or act on said data, saying “openness alone can’t drive change.” The key, she said, to Stewart’s conviction that she was right over the course of those 25 years, was in her unique model of thinking: she found a partner in the statistician George Kneale, who was “everything that Alice wasn’t,” and whose self-proclaimed job was to “prove Dr. Stewart wrong.” Seeking disconfirmation, creating conflict around Stewart’s theories, Kneale served as a collaborator who wasn’t an echo chamber, and the pair thrived in their constructive conflict.

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Photo 2: WTS members shared their impressions and discussed their takeaways from the TED Talk.

Heffernan then argued that this model—seeking individuals and perspectives from different backgrounds that challenge existing views—is vital in a world where organizations capable of affecting countless lives don’t, or can’t, think properly out of fear of conflict. When 85% of American and European executives surveyed report being afraid to provoke conflict by raising issues or concerns at work, people who do raise concerns perceive themselves as whistle-blowers, when really they are often passionately devoted to the mission of their organization and have voiced questions or doubts shared by many. Daring to speak out, as an employee at a medical device company did in Heffernan’s closing anecdote, identifies one not as a crank, but as a leader. Daring to disagree can reveal information that we are willfully blind to, and since “the biggest catastrophes that we’ve witnessed rarely come from information that is secret or hidden,” Heffernan argues that we must develop the skills and moral courage to use and respond to open information, to embrace the possibility of conflict rather than shrinking away from it.

Following the talk, Margaret O’Meara led the group in a roundtable discussion on the topic of conflict and what it means to professional women, observing that people often create their own internal resistance rather than seeing the possibility of criticism as an opportunity to further their passions. In the discussion that followed, attendees spoke about pattern recognition, the nuances of conflict (e.g., interpersonal vs. project or organizational conflict), and approaches to conflict ranging from empathy to playing devil’s advocate. Some noted that accepting or embracing conflict is not without consequence, that isolation can result from voicing disagreement. But one theme the group returned to over and over was how the discussion demonstrated the vital need for diverse groups of thinkers and decision makers. When differing perspectives are invited and encouraged, it becomes easier to make a habit of voicing potentially unpopular observations with the goal of strengthening one’s organization. We concluded by taking turns sharing our takeaways: practice discomfort, treat confidence like a muscle that can be strengthened with use, dig into the subtext, identify conflicts from the outset, welcome those who poke holes, and, above all, embrace and live by your passions without fear.

 

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Photo 3: WTS members at the conclusion of the TED talk event on June 28

Acknowledgments: Mentoring Committee Co-Chairs Allison Sweeney, MBTA, and Teryne Alexander, Massport; Susan Nichols, VHB; and Facilitator Margaret O’Meara, WSP USA

 

 

 

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