You can’t pick up a newspaper or turn on the television news without being bombarded by polarized points of view on a host of subjects: climate change, immigration, universal healthcare and fracking, to name just a few.
For the most part, everyone has an opinion on issues. The challenge is, if the opinions are diametrically different, are they ever reconcilable? If so, (i.e. we can arrive at a compromise solution all can support), how do we do that?
In his recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, “True Leaders Believe Dissent Is an Obligation,” writer Bill Taylor cites recent issues in the news regarding ethics problems at both Volkswagen and Wells Fargo. In both cases, senior managers in these organizations established an environment, or a climate, where inappropriate behavior and decisions were condoned. Two CEOs lost their jobs as a result.
I feel sure the issues in question were discussed during meetings, and people in those meetings did not question the appropriateness of those decisions. You know there had to be people in the meeting room who knew the decisions being made were wrong, and yet the organization continued forward.
Several years ago , while an employee at Anheuser-Busch (ABs), we held annual communications meetings. There was a presentation on the company’s performance and planned activities for the coming year. The floor was then opened for questions. Anyone could ask whatever question they wanted, but employees only ever ventured into “safe” or “informational” queries.
A few years later, when I was working in ABs international division, we were in China conducting a similar communications meeting. At the end of the formal presentation, the floor was again open for questions. The questions were fast, furious and far-reaching. One thing that came up was posed by an hourly worker, who asked about the ability to purchase shares of company stock.
That question led to a big project, in which the company made stock available to all international employees. It had been available domestically for many years. Why did two divisions of the same company, conducting the same annual meetings, have two very different sets of behavior?
In his HBR article, Taylor said, “very few people have the guts to dissent, very few people become fearless, because very few leaders emphasize and celebrate their obligation to do so.” He goes on to cite leadership expert and former MIT professor Edgar Schein. Schein, who has spent many years studying the qualities that great leaders have, says it takes a special kind of humility to welcome dissent. And leaders with that kind of humble approach, Schein goes on to say, are few and far between.
What happens to those people who have strong opinions when they show up for work at your company? Are they any less passionate when they are on the clock? I don’t think so.
Some environments and organizations give off a certain strong vibe - your opinion is not welcome here. So, naturally, some people may keep their opinions to themselves. Others might have a more passive-aggressive way of responding.
I recently read a book called “Indispensable” by Gautam Mukunda. Mukunda looked at a number of leaders and asked whether it was the leader or the situation – independent of the person – that made the difference.
He cited, as a negative example, Sunbeam’s CEO Al Dunlap. Dunlap entered the organization and achieved what appeared to be short-term positive results. It turned out he used questionable accounting practices, intimidated some mangers into getting what he wanted done and fired others who would not comply.
So, what is a leader’s obligation to encourage dissent? There are numerous studies that support the idea that teams and organizations produce far better results when different points of view or opinions are heard and incorporated into the final solution.
That might be easier said than done for some. So, how do you do that effectively?
Here are some tips:
Emma Dill - Dec 4, 2023
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