Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Leadership and the positive value of dissent

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on August 24, 2011

I have recently been posting on membership on boards of directors, (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2) and one of the basic parameters I have been focusing on there is board effectiveness. I discuss this there in terms of a basic board taxonomy that I have outlined in an earlier posting. And I begin this posting by making note of the fact that one of the hallmarks of board ineffectiveness is lack of candor, and of reasoned disagreement and discussion.

I have written a number of times about change management (see for example, Business Strategy and Operations, postings 100 and 102) and of businesses in need of it. And once again, a defining characteristic of a business that is getting into trouble is a breakdown of communications – and a failure in having a capacity for valid feedback that includes dissent.

Ultimately, a functional goal of any manager, and certainly as they lead a team, is to bring everyone together and working coordinately towards shared goals. This means resolving disagreements and making final determinative decisions, but that requires their having a range of options and perspectives to select from if good decisions are to be made, and consistently over time. Unexamined assumptions and single-option decision processes lead to bad results and certainly when they become the norm.

Dissent is a loaded word for many, as this word often carries a presumption of resistance and of refusal to accept decisions made by others. Here, I focus on dissent as reasoned discussion and argument in support of alternatives, and in both the way that business challenges would be addressed and resolved, and in how they would be defined and prioritized in the first place.

• Leaders need feedback and insight from the people they work with who carry out the essential hands-on work that would go into fulfilling task requirements, if they are to have all of the information they need in making effective leadership decisions.

This can include information and reasoned opinion that is in disagreement with information and insight that other team members would offer – team members can disagree with each other. Sometimes this can mean listening to information and insight that would disagree with a team leader’s own initial understanding and assumptions too – team members can and should be able to express disagreement and the reasoning behind their points to their boss too. And a good leader considers all of this input in seeking out a best path forward in decisions made and acted upon, while treating all information sources with respect – whether agreed with or not.

• This opens the decision making process to more options, as noted above.
• But at least as importantly, this facilitates buy-in from team members and increases their level of active support and participation, as people are more likely to actively go along with and support decisions made and even if they disagree with them, if they know they were at least listened to and their views considered.
• And this same basic approach applies with equal value to working with both internal and external stakeholders to a task and its intended results, and to customers and end users. This applies across the full 360 degrees of involvement and engagement.

Effective businesses cultivate open discussion and even dissent – and even where they are organized and run in a more top-down and authoritarian manner when decisions are made. There, decisions may essentially always flow downwards along the table of organization but that should not mean that leaders of those systems are deaf and blind.

Operationally, a leader’s role in this process and regardless of the openness of the decision process, is to keep discussion and dissent positive and within bounds. That means working with the people involved to make sure that their disagreements are expressed with a focus on the facts of the issues under discussion and not on the people proposing them – this should never become a matter of persons or personalities, but should rather be one of ideas and approaches, and their objective merits.

And after a final determinative decision is made, the team leader takes responsibility for developing buy-in on it so the team can move forward to deal with their next issues and responsibilities.

You can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations.

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