Posted on 



On Comfort with Dissent, and Moving Fast


In my book I talk about the importance of psychological safety in supporting agile culture and the ability of teams to move fast. And one of the best ways that I've found of describing what this means is the combination of mutual trust and respect and comfort with dissent. Trust is essential since if trust breaks down everything in the organisation or team becomes very hierarchical, political, and decision-making slows down. Comfort with dissent is necessary because it's important for team members to feel that they can say what they really think, to have open conversations, and to arrive quicker at better solutions by having productive discourse and challenge.

That last point about comfort with dissent is often fudged, with businesses placing a real premium on people getting along to the extent that they don't always mitigate the politics that can result from unexpressed frustration. Ian Leslie's latest book (Conflicted: Why Arguments Are Tearing Us Apart and How They Can Bring Us Together) tackles this issue and uses a lovely case study of how de-politicising a company culture can lead to much better collaboration.

Southwest Airlines have become a hugely successful airline, 2019 representing their 46th consecutive year of profitability. Ian references a study by Jody Hoffer Gittell, a management professor from Brandeis University who spent eight years in the 1990s studying the working culture of airlines. Gittell found that there was often a culture of status-driven competition between the different staff involved in the various parts of the processes that an airline used. The pilots often looked down on the cabin crew, who in turn looked down on the gate staff, who looked down on the baggage handlers and so on.

She kept hearing about how the culture at Southwest airlines was seemingly different. Right from early in the airline's history they had focused on reducing the turnaround time (or the time it took for the plane to land, disembark passengers and baggage, clean the plane and board all the new passengers and luggage before taking off again) as a way of securing profitability. Early on they had to do this – they only had only three planes in the first few years. So turnaround time was critical for survival. But the culture of collaboration and healthy respect that they established right from the start helped them to achieve turnaround times that were the envy of other airlines long before those other airlines were able to emulate them.

Quick turnarounds needed all the staff from different roles to work together in unprecedented ways. This can inevitably lead to friction but the airline dealt with this by not only aligning everyone around this shared goal, but also by proactively encouraging staff to air their frustrations in conflict resolution sessions that they called 'Come to Jesus meetings'. This created the kind of culture of open conversations and healthy dissent that de-politicised the environment and enabled teams to truly move fast and collaborate well. So much so that other airlines started to copy what they did to try and gain the same benefits. Smart.

Photo by Owen Lystrup on Unsplash

Leave a Reply