Embrace dissent. Improve your decision making!

Yanis Varuofakis is a highly controversial, former finance minister of the Syriza government, and famously showed up riding a motorbike and picking a fight with the EU and the German finance minister. He is an economist by training, having studied game theory and Marxist economic theory. I always found the policy of Syriza and the behaviour of Varoufakis reckless and irresponsible. My Greek wife and passion for Greece obviously had a hand in forming my view.

Nevertheless, I never paid attention to any of the details until I decided to read his book and understand his underlying thinking, motivation and arguments. I had to overcome my aversion and predisposition towards Varuofakis. It was a mentally straining and difficult exercise. It was, however, extremely insightful, and I developed a lot more respect for his intellect as well as his person. I still do not agree with his policies and I still find them reckless and irresponsible.

Why is it so hard to overcome our inherent biases? Think about your decision-making. Individually, we have a multitude of mental and emotional traps to navigate if we want to really listen to others and parse out commentary and views in order to arrive at right decisions. As our organisations and companies grow, problems and decisions of ever-increasing importance are hurtling at us at ever-increasing velocity.

Mostly, these traps are linked to our own behavior. Let’s start with the externalities first. When seeking information, we all recognize a range of different stereotypes: the talkative one, who speaks so much that, in the end, maybe he or she doesn’t even know what they are saying; the expert, who seeks refuge in analysis, data, numbers or technology hyperbole, but has a hard time expressing a distillation relevant to the problem; the quiet one, who believes he or she should only speak when asked, or is, by nature, introvert and does not understand what all this talking is good for because the solution is obvious; the political one, who tries to balance out what others have expressed and tries to guess what the leader would like to hear. You get the drift, there is a long list of types that you have encountered.

Now, to the internal side of all this. Mental stereotyping, that we all succumb to, is treacherous. Think about it, we “bucket” a person even before the person has expressed any views or insights. Are we even able to be present and listen if we have bucketed the person already? Even more problematic is the “dissenting voice.” I put that term in quotation marks as WE may have a view on a decision while somebody else has an opposing view, in our minds we put that view into the dissenting bucket as we don’t really like it on an emotional level. We like to be right! Although we at times have a nagging suspicion that the “dissenting voice” is on to something.

As investors subject to our biases, we are in the most precarious territory just prior to making an investment decision. Typically, for any investment we end up making, we have met and reviewed 50–100 companies in a segment, so, once we engage in a deeper discussion with a company, we invariably build up more and more of a bias FOR making the investment. Here’s the thing, when interviewing for background and referencing, interviewees are mostly averse to being negative or giving negative feedback on individuals. As we go through our reference calls and interviews regarding entrepreneurs or the industry segment, we are pouring virtual cement into our confirmation bias. Thus, once we encounter the “dissenting” voice, whether about a market or an individual, we need to amplify the “dissent”, investigate it, dissect it, and really get to the bottom of what is behind it. I have made the mistake of not doing that, and quickly lost $6M on an investment we had to write off.

So how do you work your confirmation bias? How do you moderate the impulse? How do you learn from the “dissenting” voice? Here are a few tips that you might like to use:

  • Be present. Be focused.
    Our time-poor, busy days are not great for being present, and we tend to have even less patience with dissenting views. Try to stop your inner voice from arguing while the person is talking. Just be there and take it in before responding.
  • Ask questions to further clarify the person’s position. Even though you really disagree, you can always learn something more if you pay attention.
  • Ask yourself what frame of reference the person may have for their view. Is it objectively a rational position, or is it possibly motivated by another agenda or emotions, such as fear, insecurity, anger or envy?

If you think this all sounds too difficult, then Google the name Deeya Khan, a documentary filmmaker of Afghan/Pakistani origin, who was born in Norway and moved to the UK. She not only faced dissent, she has faced vicious, life threatening hatred throughout her career. She recently created a prize-winning documentary about neo-Nazis and white supremacist leaders. She wanted to know. She wanted to learn.

In our business we don’t need to risk our lives like Deeya did, but we can find our courage from her mission.

Embrace dissent. Learn from it.




Partner at NGP Capital. Raised in Europe. Sharing my learnings through Notes to CEOs, the bi-weekly letters I send to the CEOs and leaders in my portfolio.

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Bo Ilsoe

Bo Ilsoe

Partner at NGP Capital. Raised in Europe. Sharing my learnings through Notes to CEOs, the bi-weekly letters I send to the CEOs and leaders in my portfolio.

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