Standing Up in the Face of Dissent

By: Lynn Carnes

Recently, I’ve watched a couple of true-story movies that involved pivotal and historical moments where a key person had a chance to stand up in the face of dissent. In our corporate lives, we often deal with make-or-break decisions in the face of disagreement, conflict and even bullying. What I loved about both of these movies is how they brought us into the agony of making such a difficult decision in a crucial moment.

One moment ultimately led to the longest running news stories of 2010, involving oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. The other cleared Captain Wesley Sullenberger of pilot error in ditching US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in 2009.

In the Deepwater Horizon story, the pivotal moment happens when a Transocean employee has to make a go/no go decision to complete the oil well in the face of extreme pressure by a BP engineer. The Transocean guy wants to better understand some conflicting data; the BP guy thinks he understands the anomalies and wants to complete the well asap. (We all know how well that turned out.)

These guys had a history and many other smaller decisions had already been made. Corners had been cut.
With 20/20 hindsight, we can now see the cascade of poor decisions, happening well before theDeepwater Horizon oil spill. However, the final call could have changed the outcome.

In the pivotal scene, Senior Toolpusher Jason Anderson is facing contempt, almost ridicule fromBP engineer Donald Vidrine. It’s Anderson’s decision to make, but Vidrine clearly wants a “go” decision and he’s pulling out every bit of pressure he can muster. In the movie, the tension is thick while Anderson and Vidren face-off and it was intense, especially since we viewers know what’s about to happen.

While there was certainly some Hollywood drama baked into this scene, I’ve seen it happen more time than I can count in the halls of Corporate America.

Someone with authority takes a position and dares everyone else to disagree with him or her.

This doesn’t make them villains – exactly the opposite. It usually reveals their fear. However, all too often by those around them, including me, read it as confidence or a brick wall and we act accordingly.

Watching the scene where the character has to make the final go/no go decision of the movie made me wonder: Given the same set of facts, what decision would I have made?

Would I have had the courage and wherewithal to stand up to someone calling me stupid if I see the data the same way he sees it?

In the movie Sully, Captain Sullenberger is facing off with the NTSB over his decision to ditch US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. The NTSB had data to indicate that the plane could have made it back to LaGuardia or Teterboro Airport. Even though all lives were saved in the event, Sullenberger’s career would have ended in disgrace had the NTSB called his decision pilot error.

In a public hearing with hundreds of people in the room, and facing deep scrutiny by stone-faced NTSB investigators, Sullenberger stands by his decision. Rather than wilt in face of extreme pressure, he shows the NTSB a key data point that they had missed in their investigation: The simulator pilots were warned in advance of the emergency they would face and therefore immediately turned to the airport rather than taking a moment to assess the situation.

Sullenberger calmly points out the time-lag and insists that they run the simulation including a 35 second assessment period. Now the simulator pilots cannot make it back to the airport. Furthermore, the NTSB admits that in the best case, it took the simulator pilots over a dozen attempts before making a successful “dead-stick” landing at either airport. Sullenberger had only one chance in real life – and it saved 155 people.

Developing the ability to stand up in the face of dissent requires cultivating courage, clarity and confidence in what you know and awareness of the limits of your ability.

Pivotal decisions are made with much more than simple smarts. In my experience, they are made based on the cascade of emotions and physical sensations flooding our body at these moments of truth. More often than not, we take care of our feelings, unconsciously of course, rather than standing up in the face of dissent.

We see the hardened faces, we feel the potential for ridicule or being shunned and we might not even be completely sure of our own point of view.  So we go along and hope for the best, especially if we are working in a culture where results, authority and order are prized traits.

Rarely are the consequences life and death. Hard decisions will frequently have a time or money component, both of which were in play in the Deepwater disaster and US Airways forced landing.

In a fairly low risk scenario, I stood up to a banking decision many years ago. We had made a “go” decision on a large and complex loan. While I had not initiated the deal, it would be mine to close and oversee for its duration.
Unlike most of our local loans, this one was secured by real estate assets in another state. None of us had seen any of this real estate in person. We had pictures, we knew the borrowers well, we had appraisals and we had all of our analysis. What struck me as odd was that no one was talking about doing the final due diligence, which was to actually see what was securing the loan.

So as the most junior person in the room by far, I simply asked this question in final loan committee meeting: “Does it strike anyone else as odd that none of us have seen any of these assets in person? I’m not trying to get a boondoggle here or anything – just wondering how everyone feels about that.”

​It was kind of comical to see how everyone reacted. It was a “well, duh” moment, and the next thing I knew, I was on a plane to go visit our collateral.

Thinking back on it, I accidentally stepped into a strategy that I would later learn to cultivate. I asked a sincere question with no judgment or preconceived notions of what the answer should be.

It would be many years before I recognized and began to cultivate the ability to stand up in the face of dissent, discomfort and disagreement.

I’ve certainly come to learn that cultivating clarity in my “inner world” is required to build this particular skill. Practices like reflection, journaling and meditation strengthen my ability to gain access to my own wisdom.

If I am caught up in fearing the judgment of others, in wanting to be liked, in needing to fit in or be seen as a team player, I have very few resources at my disposal to gracefully disagree or point out anomalies in the group think that is all too common in this fast-moving world.

How do you gain clarity when someone in authority or whom you respect has a strong point of view? Where do you find the resolve to stand up when the river of opinion is flowing in a way you believe to be dangerous? In what ways are you cultivating clarity in your inner world?

As always, I would love to hear how you are answering these questions! And if you find this useful, please share! Chances are someone else will find it useful as well.

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