Offering and Receiving Challenge

This is an annex to my advice on speaking truth to power - persuasively.

The dreadful process failings that led to the mistakes of the Iraq War have led to much soul searching in Whitehall. One result has been an MoD document - The Good Operation which contains the following concise and excellent advice.

Chilcot tells us that it's important to avoid 'groupthink' as we develop policy, and the best antidote to that is reasonable challenge. An environment in which challenge is expected and accepted is important. People should be receptive to reasonable challenge and assume that it is provided with the best of intentions, while those offering challenge should know how to do so effectively. Challenge isn't about proving someone right or wrong; rather it's about highlighting and exploring alternative options. These cultures and behaviours reflect a healthy organisation.

When offering challenge, you should:

  • Make challenge with courtesy and politeness.
  • Be prepared to explain the logic and reasoning behind your alternative view and provide evidence. Keep your challenge concise and relevant to the issue at hand.
  • Think about the interpersonal dynamics. Keep it professional - it's the issue you're challenging, not the person. Be respectful to the approach form which you are differing.
  • Choose your moment and your medium. A one to one discussion or a smaller team meeting may be more appropriate than a big meeting at which positions are being taken and decisions are expected; a gently proving conversation or email is better than a confrontational one.
  • Raise issues in a timely manner. Don't leave your challenge too late in the process, when changing course could be too difficult.
  • Accept if the eventual decision remains unchanged - a decision has to be taken once all reasonable challenge has been considered. Only in cases where regularity or propriety have not been observed should you need to turn to the Department's whistle-blowing process."

When receiving challenge, you should:

  • Not take it personally - the challenge isn't about you, it's about the issue at hand.
  • Make it known that you welcome reasonable challenge, and create space in the way you run your business to receive it. Recognise that challenge might result in change.
  • Seek real diversity of thought, not just shades of mainstream thinking.
  • Give staff the opportunity to fully articulate different views and give them credit for doing so and remember that the person challenging shouldn't be expected to have a solution there and then.
  • Demonstrate that you are giving serious thought to the challenge being offered - do not dismiss it out of hand and make sure people aren't just telling you what you want to hear.
  • Respond respectfully - never belittle someone's view, and never (even after the event) sideline those offering it.
  • If you do not accept the challenge, explain your reasoning, include supporting evidence when necessary.
  • Encourage the use of evidence from beyond the immediate organisation, think tanks, academia and other sources.
  • Support both junior colleagues and peers to raise a challenge with more senior colleagues.'

Crew Resource Management

The above MoD advice is consistent with the best Crew Resource Management practices of airlines and larger shipping companies, who came to realise that a high proportion of accidents could have been avoided if old-style autocratic Captains had listened more carefully to their crew, and/or their crew had been more willing to point out possible errors. There are occasional signs that the NHS, too, is learning similar lessons, although the prosecution for manslaughter and striking-off of Dr Bawa-Garba will have set back the acceptance of CRM in hard-pressed hospitals.


Martin Stanley

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