How the Internet is killing Challenge

This article focusses on challenge and alignment, explaining how both are under threat as we digest more information digitally. Colin Powell’s quote on loyalty, shown below, perfectly captures the relationship between challenge, alignment and loyalty.

When we are debating an issue, loyalty means giving me your honest opinion, whether you think I’ll like it or not. Disagreement, at this stage, stimulates me. But once a decision has been made, the debate ends. From that point on, loyalty means executing the decision as if it were your own’. 
Colin Powell

The relationship between the three is often poorly understood.

Challenge is the act of giving your honest opinion on an issue. Alignment is the act of supporting your leadership in the direction they’re going. Whether you agree with the direction is irrelevant. Some people find this difficult asking me, ‘how can you align behind something that you disagree with?’

Well, the alternative is that you don’t align, you don’t ‘sell the plan’ as if it were your own.

The trouble with this is that if you give even the slightest hint to your team that you don’t believe in the direction the wider organisation is taking – it gives your people the permission to disagree with the direction too.

This is one of the biggest reasons transformation efforts fail. Leaders that are not aligned behind the direction of transformation undermine it causing their teams to dismiss it.

Alignment is a vital element for leadership teams. If you cannot align and and agree on the direction, then how are you supposed to engage and inspire your teams to follow you in that direction?

I think that this is one of the biggest issues facing leadership teams and one that I suspect is only going to get worse.

I don’t think that anything is likely to change on the alignment issue. Aligned leadership teams that support each other to achieve a common goal will still outperform those that don’t align – where leaders don’t fully support the direction of travel.

The issue is further up the chain and relates to people’s acceptance of challenge from others.

Challenge is valuable.

It offers people the perspective of someone else’s view of the world. It’s a constant reminder that other people have different ways of seeing things – and that’s okay, in fact, it is a good thing to be encouraged.

But as more and more people communicate via social media – will the value of challenge survive?

The biggest waste of time is to try and change someone’s mind using social media. Have you ever read comments or discussion threads from people? It is basically two people throwing an argument at each other. They’re not really listening or paying too much attention to the other person’s view. The basic format is argument, counter-argument and so on.

After a while, they simply stop responding to each other when they realise it’s a  waste of time because they’re not going to change the mind of someone who holds a view that is so entrenched. People follow this pattern of behaviour over and over again. I know, because I have done it. And every time, I have found myself irritated by the time I wasted trying to win an argument I simply couldn’t. It becomes dissatisfying.

What is far more enjoyable is sharing a view you hold with people who hold the same view. That’s far more engaging. It reminds you that there are people out there ‘in your tribe’ who share the same opinions as you. The interaction, instead of frustrating, is pleasurable.

When the internet was born it created an opportunity to democratise information. This was universally agreed to be a good thing – and I still believe it is. We have the potential to move from the age of information to the age of wisdom, an age where we truly understand the people and the world around us.

But instead of moving closer to that, I think we’re moving away from it.

The things you ‘like, comment on, interact with and buy’ online are usually done through some sort of intermediary.

Want to buy something online, you’ll probably use Amazon. Want to message friend or a professional contact, Facebook and Linkedin are the intermediaries of choice.

What these intermediaries do is study your ‘buying patterns, political preferences, and anything else you like or search for’ so that they can efficiently target you with products that you might buy. The following subtitles are lifted straight off the Amazon app and display the results of these algorithms.

  • ‘frequently bought together’
  • ‘customers who bought this also bought’
  • ‘sponsored products relating to item’
  • ‘what did customers buy after viewing this item?’
  • ‘customers who viewed this also viewed’


All are designed to get you closer to the purchase or designed to get you to buy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing when shopping for something online. Actually it is very helpful.

The problem comes when the same algorithms are used to drive people with the same views together. The reason for this is that it doesn’t lead people to moderate their views through challenge – it leads them to become more extreme. When people furiously agree with each other they fuel a sense of self-righteousness.

This is extremely fulfilling as it reaffirms your view on the world. The problem is that it tends to move people’s views to become more extreme. We’ve seen this with the rise of the ‘alt-right’ in the US but also a significant shift to the ‘left’ for many in the UK. More and more people with the same views are interacting with each other, fuelling a belief that their view of the world is completely justified.

These algorithms create echo chambers of thinking where furious agreement is encouraged and dissenters are attacked as outsiders with an alternative motive.

This is a dangerous set of circumstances because it discourages the frank and honest sharing of views – it discourages challenge.

Look at the way Gina Miller was treated when she dared to point out that article 50 triggering Brexit could only be enacted if it had passed through the House of Commons. The way she was vilified online for simply pointing out that the government had to follow constitutional procedure was disgraceful. 

How many of us would have the guts to do something like that now? 

Challenge is valuable and we must do everything we can to protect and nurture it. People should not be attacked for challenging ideas, they should be celebrated for it.

‘Strong opinions, weakly held’ 
Bob Johansen, Palo Alto Institute for the Future

So how do you nurture and encourage challenge in your organisation?

There are a number of ways in which you can encourage such a culture. Wargaming is one. It’s a military technique designed to strengthen plans ensuring that they survive being executed in an ever-changing world. Conducting war-games is a healthy way of creating a culture of challenge in an organisation. I have worked with Chris Paton, the UK expert, and have seen first-hand the value that wargaming brings to an organisation.

On a day-to-day level, the act of giving and receiving feedback has to be encouraged at all levels of the organisation, not just leader to team-member but both ways and with across peer groups.

This can only be done if people react positively to feedback. If you react negatively to feedback, the only thing you’ll get next time is ‘it was fine’ which is utterly useless because it gives you nothing to work on.

As more and more people substitute communication by text (email, WhatsApp etc) it’s worth remembering that challenge, influence and the softening of views are nuanced subtle acts that are done through face to face conversation. Leaders have to remember that real conversations which create the opportunity for challenge and alignment happen face to face, not digitally.


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