Normalizing Dissent

One strange thing in the corporate world is how abnormal open dissent is. Almost never do I hear someone say "I disagree". Meetings, most meetings, are aimed at consensus. People won’t voice disagreement. People won’t clearly acknowledge that they do disagree and then drill down or double crux into why they hold the beliefs they do. Instead they’ll talk around the disagreement. They’ll both know they disagree but not how much or exactly where or why. It seems to be considered rude to go against the majority and hold up a meeting with disagreement. It’s rude to push too hard, to openly disagree instead of waffle around the topic.

It’s strange both how normal and inefficient this kind of epistemic culture is. It’s also strange how accustomed most people are to it. How few people generally are willing to openly go against a group of their peers. I think that being one of the few who is willing to disagree openly and honestly is valuable. Why?

  • You will likely bring up obvious problems that others didn’t.
  • Because you don’t have to engage in double think, you’ll be able to think more clearly.
  • You’ll contribute to creating a more open epistemic culture.

The first point is the most immediately impactful but it can be hard to understand if you don’t have experience of this kind of epistemic blindness. In short, most places ignore obvious truths, especially when those truths are not pleasant and hence no one wants to bring them up. A few examples to illustrate obvious problems I’ve brought up which no one else has in my less than 2 year career:

  • My firm has committed to getting b-corp certification, basically being an ethical company, yet still regularly works for gambling firms which build intentionally addictive products.
  • My previous employer employed a muslim girl on the grad scheme. Her managers kep trying to make her work with pork. She refused and eventually left. I only find out later and then talked to my manager but couldn’t do anything due to lack of evidence. No one else did shit, including her friends on the grad scheme who knew about it.
  • I spent 9 months with the graduate scheme taskforce. 6 of us designed, advertised and recruited for a graduate scheme. We hired 4 people. None were exceptional or particularly good from what I can tell. Dozens of meetings, hundreds of hours, thousands of pounds on career fairs. It was a failure yet no one else brought this up.
  • At my current employer, we bill clients on a time and materials basis. We were being told to lie on timesheets. To not put less than 4.5 hours per day even if we worked less. I spoke up about this. I was initially told it’s not lying as time we spend on other things like interviewing or [my company] meetings makes the firm better which indirectly helps our clients. I had to go to a whistleblowing charity and talk to our kinda head of compliance to get something done about it.

Groups like 80’000 hours write a great deal about maximizing impact. Most of their writing revolves around one-off choices rather than character. Which career to go into. What to study. The more I see of the working world the more I think that, for smart people who have followed the obvious advice, by far the largest way to make an impact is character. Choosing a fairly optimal career is good but once you’re in it’s unlikely you’ll be far smarter or better at the job than those around you. A competitive market means that you’ll probably end up roughly where your level of skill is normal. What you do have a shot at being better at is the things the market doesn’t optimize for. Having ethics is one of those things. Practicing good epistemic norms is another.

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