Constant Critic or Creative Colleague?

woman with thumbs down

image via gordontarpley on Flickr

Whether in meetings or on committees or a colleague, I’m sure most people know a person who almost always criticizes every idea put forward. They ask questions like “why do we need this?” or “what if…?” This person can often be frustrating or looked at as someone who is opposed to change. They can also be your biggest ally in making meaningful change.

Berkeley professor Charlan Nemeth says that “dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints.” In a study, he divided people into groups who did brainstorming and groups who debated each other. The debaters came up with significantly more solutions. Through conflict and repeated examination their brains were activated in different ways, and they had to work harder. People who simply agree all the time aren’t going to come up with the best solutions.

Another example that David Weinberger gives in his book Too Big To Know (pg. 70), is that of JFK’s extremely bright and educated White House advisors. They all were Ivy League educated, but they were also all white, male, early middle aged and from the East Coast. This fairly homogeneous group were a big factor leading to the US getting into the Vietnam War. Weinberger goes on to say that diversity of opinions  is important or else we can easily move into a groupthink mentality.

For our own libraries are there ways that we can foster constructive criticism? Are there ways that we can bring a greater diversity of opinions into our discussion and our decision making? Maybe at some staff meetings we could invite student workers to participate or bring in faculty members to share their thoughts. One important  lesson though is that a colleague who regularly criticizes may not be a bad thing. They could be that creative spark that stimulates deeper examination.

How do you try to get more diversity and dissenting opinions into your discussions?

Andy Burkhardt


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