One day last fall, I texted my mom, “soooo…. I’m either getting fired or getting promoted.”
I had just gotten out of a meeting where I had the least amount of positional power of anyone in the room, and I had basically told everyone, including my boss’s boss, that the plan we were making didn’t hold true to our values. We weren’t trusting the people we served, and the plan would be flawed without that value at its center. I was calmly furious, my hands were shaking, and I questioned the wisdom of the experts at the table who had been working longer than I’d been alive. The result? My boss and coworkers raved about it, our program staff felt like the values of our work were supported, and we changed our plan.
In the book and movie World War Z, there’s this theory of the 10th Person. In the zombie apocalypse, the only country prepared is Israel. Why? They had heard reports of zombie-like infections and instead of brushing it aside, one person took it seriously. If nine people unanimously agreed, they had a designated person - the 10th person - to assume the opposite and prepare accordingly. The concept is grounded in historical fact, but the whole idea is that every group needs someone who intentionally thinks of the unlikely scenario or who brings up the unpopular point of view - someone who isn’t afraid to be the lone person speaking out about an issue.
During my time on the YNPN Twin Cities board, we intentionally recruited new board members with this mindset, even to the point of listing it as a priority skill in our candidate assessment. We could count on a few different people to push against the popular opinion of the board or to bring up a counterargument that hadn’t been considered. It’s an important role for any group, and ultimately the dissenters strengthened our decision-making process. Along with recruiting for this skill, we worked to create an environment where anyone could fill that role, where anyone would be comfortable speaking against the popular opinion or being the only person voting no on an issue. It’s not easy to create a culture like this (trust me), but it’s vital to the success of the 10th Person.
I do want to note: I’m purposefully not using the term “devil’s advocate.” I’ve encountered people who want to play devil’s advocate when really they’re argumentative or just an internet troll personified. I’ve had too many conversations where someone ends up dehumanizing another person or group of people “just to play devil’s advocate.” This 2017 Slate article by Maya Rupert goes deep on why this is problematic and what pain devil’s advocates can cause marginalized people, specifically people of color, by demanding they defend their humanity. Rupert writes, “Most often, the devil’s advocate is really saying there is something at the core of the argument that they are (perhaps ashamedly) compelled by, and so they employ a rhetorical trick allowing themselves to argue a position without ever having to hold it.” I want to distinguish between this type of devil’s advocate and someone being the lone dissenter against group consensus.
Now that I’ve been in my career longer, I’m more willing to be the 10th Person or point out the viewpoint everyone’s forgotten. I speak up more strongly when I feel like a position we’re taking or the strategy we’re moving forward is out of alignment with our values. It’s hard to be the only person saying, “But why have the last four new board members been white men?” or “I don’t think our values are being embodied in this plan.” My friends joke that I should start a business of going along to tough meetings where they just need me to say no to someone.
I’ve had some great mentors who have instilled in me this need to question, to speak up when no one else does, and to not settle for the status quo. It helps that I’m good at what I do and I have solid reputational capital that I can extend for my questioning and dissenting. My race helps too; it’s easier to go out on a limb when you’ve got systemic white privilege at your back. I know not everyone can speak up without consequences, intentional or subconscious. And fellow white people? Use your privilege to speak up on issues of equity when people of color face blowback for the same question.
It’s not intuitive to cultivate this skill set of questioning and dissenting, especially in passive agressive Minnesota. And yes - this is a skill set. Here’s a few tips for how to make it easier to raise the counterargument and speak up when no one else is:
- Practice with small or less important issues to make it easier for bigger, important issues. Do you really want Thai when everyone else wants pizza? Say it. Are you down for a movie instead of going to the museum? Tell them. Do you think this new program is a colossal strategic mistake? Speak up.
- Don’t be an asshole about it. Similar to my issue with devil’s advocates, be respectful. You can disagree without being rude or negating another person’s life experiences.
- Make it ok for others to disagree. If you’re in a position to influence your org or team culture, be open to ideas and disagreement and doing things differently. All of this contributes to an environment where a single person can openly vote no without it being a group crisis.
- Channel your inner RBG, dissent boldly, and dress the part. Living legend and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is gracious in her summation of the majority opinion arguments, and yet clinically dissects their logical and constitutional misreadings. In her dissent for Shelby County v. Holder, the case that struck down critical parts of the Voting Rights Act, RBG writes, “The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the [Voting Rights Act] has proven effective ... Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet." On the sartorial side, RBG wears a special dissent collar every time she reads a dissenting opinion from the bench. I have some bright red lipstick for whenever I need some extra willpower to dissent.
In her book Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown writes, “If leaders really want people to show up, speak out, take chances, and innovate, we have to create cultures where people feel safe - where their belonging is not threatened by speaking out and they are supported when they make the decision to brave the wilderness, stand alone, and speak truth to bullshit.” Every organization I know thinks they’re innovators (an idea that I generally disagree with), but not every organization creates space and permission for people to dissent and speak in the face of unanimity. And if you’re not there yet, take baby steps. Practice disagreeing. Be gracious in your dissent. Be the only one to vote no.