Want to speak with one voice? Then be of one accord.

“… the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” – Jesus[1]

“The thought is father to the deed. – American proverb

We meteorologists frequently find ourselves urged to speak with one voice. As the opening quotes remind us, unanimity is easy and natural on topics where we all agree. When we’re all already thinking along the same lines, our uncoordinated, spontaneous voices may not be a true monotone, but they’re harmonious and the common message is clear and easily discerned. Recent LOTRW posts have explored this.

With some considerable (over)simplification, the urging both from within and external to our community to go a step further rises in two primary contexts… risk communication (how will the public know how to respond to a weather hazard if warnings are contradictory?) and dealing with the Congress about budget support for (and extending perhaps to regulation of) Earth observations, science, and services (how will Congress give us the attention we need and the funding we deserve if our requests are all over the map, even conflicting?). Today’s post has some application on both aspects of coherent messaging, but is more focused on this latter, policy voice.

Some see this challenge as bordering on the merely technical. The views of the individual professionals and numerous institutions from government, companies, and universities who make up our community are diverse and contradictory. We need a process that allows us to identify the views of the majority and communicate that to the outside world as representing the views of our entire group.

We can find wisdom from three perspectives: the U.S. Constitution; Stephen Covey’s 1989 management classic, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; and Perry M. Smith’s far more obscure management book from 1986, Taking Charge: a Practical Guide for Leaders (National Defense University Press), written primarily for the military.

The U.S. Constitution.

A little reflection quickly reveals that this challenge confronting the Earth/OSS community is not so different from that facing the Founding Fathers when they framed the Constitution: how to institute majority rule while at the same time respecting the rights of minorities? How large does the majority need to be? Two-thirds? Can it be as low as 51%? Or must it be as high as 90%? Remarkably, by means of much ongoing discussion, not just during the development of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but extending across the time since, they created a process for working matters out that has worked well for over two centuries.

It’s possible to look at the Constitution and focus solely on the numbers. A simple majority of the electoral college determines the winner of presidential elections. A two thirds majority in each house of Congress is needed to override a presidential veto of legislation. And so on. But such myopia misses the broader point. For example, the work of Congress has always been about identifying areas of agreement and/or developing consensus, through extensive hearing-out of divergent views and working through differences. Congress has functioned best during those periods where this has been the primary goal. It tends toward the dysfunctional when members succumb to the temptation to take shortcuts just because they see they can meet numerical criteria. (You can best judge for yourself which phase of the cycle we’re in now.) As a community, we’ll similarly function best when we seek accord in preference to taking advantage of some slight majority.

Stephen Covey.

Stephen Covey reaches much the same conclusion in his long-term best-selling book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.[2] The premise of his book was that throughout history, success literature had promoted virtues and values, whereas such books published by his late 20th-century contemporaries tending to substitute manipulative techniques and shortcuts. He states specifically that “to try to change outward attitudes and behaviors does very little good in in the long run if we fail to examine the basic paradigms from which these attitudes and behaviors flow.”

Mr. Covey’s Habit 4 deals with interdependence/working with others: Think win-win.

Some excerpts, from the multiple chapters he devotes to this and related subjects:

Win/Win is a frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions. Win/Win means that agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial, mutually satisfying. With a Win/Win solution, all parties feel good about the decision and feel committed to the action plan. Win/Win sees life as a cooperative, not a competitive arena.

In fact, Mr. Covey argues persuasively for a higher expression of this idea: Win/Win or No Deal. He says:

When you have No Deal as an option in your mind, you feel liberated because you have no need to manipulate people, to push your own agenda, to drive for what you want. You can be open. You can really try to understand the deeper issues underlying the positions.

With No Deal as an option, you can honestly say, “I only want to go for Win/Win. I want to win, and I want you to win. I wouldn’t want to get my way and have you not feel good about it, because downstream it would eventually surface and create a withdrawal. On the other hand, I I don’t think you would feel good if you got your way and I gave in…”

As a community, we should aspire to identify and/or develop a true accord, and then, out of that accord, speak with one voice. We should be reluctant to accept shortcuts towards speaking with one voice, based on some numerical advantage in numbers, or some procedural fine print in some rulebook, even our own.

But there is an additional step. To speak with one voice requires that we build accord. But to build accord, we must first build trust.

Perry Smith.

Mr. Smith had this to say in Taking Charge (remember this is in a military context):

Leaders may wish to establish a “no non-concurrence through silence” rule. Subordinates who do not concur with the decisions being made in meetings and discussions must understand that they have a responsibility to speak up. By remaining silent in these discussions, they do the leader a grave disservice. A major part of subordinates’ duties is to speak out on issues, particularly when they disagree with either the context or the thrust of the conversation in which a decision is being made. The leader must create a decision making environment in which subordinates feel free to express concerns, raise new options, and disagree with the leader and others. Leaders must work hard to avoid “group-think” in which there is too much compatibility and consensus on issues is arrived at too quickly. False consensus, excessive conformity, and group-think are not in the interest of any large organization.

It’s difficult enough for leaders to build trust of the degree described even among direct subordinates. Far harder, absent any corresponding degree of control, for the individuals or institutions (universities, agencies, companies) comprising a professional society or NGO or more informal community to make the effort needed to develop such trust. It is tempting instead to keep disagreements private, and use back-door means of communicating those differences to each other and to outsiders. Such work of consensus development, the type also espoused in the 2003 NAS/NRC Fair Weather report, is easier said than done.

To speak with one voice, we need to be of one accord.


How, then, might communities such as those in Earth observations, science, and services, identify areas of agreement or accord? And how might our community go another step, and build both trust and new areas of consensus? Your thoughts and ideas are not simply welcomed but needed. In their absence, some strawman ideas, to stimulate thought and discussion, will be forthcoming in future posts.

[1] (Luke 6:45, NIV)

[2] For youthful readers who may not be familiar with this book, it is to business publications what Harry Potter has been in the world of fiction.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Want to speak with one voice? Then be of one accord.

  1. Bill:-

    Most excellent, Dude! Nowhere is there more need for accord than in the climate change arena. A “consensus” – even if it exists – is meaningless if there is no fundamental accord among all parties about both the need for action and the direction those actions should take. I personally feel that there is too much uncertainty even (especially?) in the attribution of warming to CO2 for me to be in accord with carbon-limiting schemes that will gravely harm the poor and the lower middle classes.

  2. 🙂 Thanks (once again), John. In a future post I hope to emphasize the need to spend more time and thought on building accord vs. papering over differences.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *