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How to encourage disagreement in the workplace
Former astronaut and Johnson Space Center director Ellen Ochoa on making it easier for team members to speak up
“It's not about a right answer or a wrong answer. It's about ‘How are we considering risk?’”
Guy Raz interviews Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman to fly into space. Ellen shares about her journey into the male-dominated STEM world in the 1980s and how she helped lead NASA in the aftermath of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. Following the tragedy, an intensive investigation showed that poor communication contributed to the accident. When Ellen became the director of the Johnson Space Center, she worked to change NASA’s culture by encouraging people to speak up even in the face of disagreement.
You can catch the complete episode (1 hour) on NPR.
As the first Hispanic and the second female director of Johnson Space Center, Ellen Ochoa has been a trailblazer in promoting diversity and inclusion in STEM fields. It’s fascinating to hear about the resistance she encountered in her career. She highlights a few moments in her conversation with Guy Raz:
Ellen found her way into STEM through her enjoyment of, believe it or not, calculus. But when she first talked to an electrical engineering professor about pursuing the field in the late 1970s, she wasn’t exactly welcomed. “He said, ‘Well, you know, we had a woman come through this program once, but it's really difficult,’” she recalls. Fortunately, a physics professor gave Ellen a more encouraging take after learning she’d finished three semesters of calculus. “Calculus is the language of physics,” he told her. “And if you've already learned the language, then when you come and study, you’ll really just be able to concentrate on the concepts.”
To get into Stanford’s electrical engineering PhD program, Ellen had to compete with other grad students in a test that involved speaking individually with 10 professors. The professors would then score students based on their conversations while students ranked the professors in order of who they wanted to work with. The final scores determined who made it into the PhD program. During this process, a friend told Ellen he’d overheard one professor say he didn’t believe that women belonged in engineering. It was a helpful heads up so that Ellen wouldn’t rank that professor highly—or else her chances of making it into the program might’ve been lost.
On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry into Earth's atmosphere, killing all seven crew members on board. Beyond highlighting the importance of maintaining the shuttle’s heat shield for safe reentry, the incident revealed weaknesses in NASA’s culture. Specifically, poor collaboration and communication between different teams. People with dissenting opinions often didn’t feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with NASA’s leadership. To encourage people with different views to speak up, Ellen implemented several strategies that can be applied to any team:
Actively solicit people’s opinions. Be cognizant of who you haven’t heard from—then ask what they think.
Emphasize the consequences of not speaking up. For her team at NASA, Ellen made it clear that speaking up could mean the difference between life and death.
Create more opportunities for speaking up. Since not everyone is comfortable voicing their concerns publicly, Ellen encouraged people to talk to her privately, send an email, or even use anonymous notes.
Frame the issue as not having a right or wrong answer. Ellen did this by focusing discussions on risk—and whether her staff had information or thoughts to better understand the risk of doing something.
I listened to this conversation while on a flight to Taiwan two weeks ago, which was a wonderfully rejuvenating trip that unfortunately also meant zero time for sketch noting. But we’re back! So hello to new subscribers and thanks to those who’ve stuck around.
Anyway—I remember learning about groupthink in a social psych class in college. That’s when the desire to minimize conflict prevents critical thinking and decision-making in a group. People prefer to agree and nod along so as to keep the peace.
Knowing that this is a rather natural human instinct, it’s cool to hear about organizations that actually want to hear differences in opinion. I’d bet it’s more common than not for leaders to say they want to hear dissenting views—but not actually be open to hearing them.
The people-pleasing desire runs deep within me, and while I’ve grown more comfortable speaking up when I disagree about something, this would be infinitely harder without a receptive, inviting work culture. Hats off to those actively cultivating this, especially when disagreement can present as criticism.
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