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The Value of Dissent

Many years ago, I was interviewed by the CEO of a mid-sized Retail firm for a role in his company. During our conversation, I learnt that the one thing he really disliked in any member of his team, and with a vengeance at that, was dissent of any kind within his organisation.

While I broadly understood its meaning to be dis-agreement, I gathered then that he must have meant that he disliked non-compliance with his directives. I replied that since the buck stopped at him as the “appointed owner” of the company resources, I understood his concern and the fact that his decision would be final. However, the emotion with which he said it led me to realise that there had to be more to it in terms of his own experience and so I decided to make an effort to study it on my own. During my career, I went on to experience dissent in various forms and also had the opportunity to study its impact on various stakeholders in organisations I worked with.

One such organisation, was a large institutional catering firm whose senior management team I was fortunate to be a part of. This organisation having gone through many changes in its life cycle, had reached a great level of maturity in its decision making process. I noticed quite soon that most of its leaders used the word “vetted” very often. I was delighted to discover that they not just spoke of it but also practised its philosophy... all the time. They actually had their business ideas & propositions vetted by the rest of this dynamic leadership think tank. Most importantly, they did this while still retaining their “ownership” & responsibility for that decision.

Unlike the relatively passive devil’s advocate stance of gently suggesting other perspectives, dissent in these meetings was rather deep and true. That is to say, the very involved & passionate participating intrapreneurs animatedly fought over decisions with the greater good of the organisation always taking precedence over individual biases. Further, decisions were always brought fairly and transparently to their logical conclusions.

The result was magically productive for both the individuals as well as the organisation... even when the “other side” won. The individuals went away exposed to alternate thinking that could be equally if not more productive to their respective businesses than their own thinking. Thus each individual leader grew as a decision maker.

The organisation benefited by having their macro decisions undergoing a thorough due diligence. This increased the likelihood of success, in the outcome of each decision. If after such an exercise, a certain plan failed, everyone knew which controllable or uncontrollable factors the failure might be attributed to.

Another organisation, a very young one I dealt with, had yet to learn the value of dissent in their decision making process. Here the founder of the organisation being so used to very hands-on work himself, found it hard to let go of even micro decisions. His capable team realised that he preferred pre-making decisions himself and recognised the futility of acting upon his invitation for suggestions. They played along accordingly.

Any view contrary to that of this leader was seen as disloyalty. The philosophy was, “if you want to do it your way, then you’d best do it in your own business, not here”. In other words, “I do the thinking around here; you are only here to execute”.

Should this have been the diktat for an assembly line worker of a manufacturing company, it would probably have benefited the company. In a people related business however, where individual empowerment can actually enhance the customer experience in each moment of truth, the result was devastating.

No one really cared about the business and instead went through each day mechanically performing their prescribed duties. Creative talent either left the organisation or merely survived by suppressing all logical independent reasoning. His team could never tell him the truth... only what he wanted to hear. Effectively decisions were being made by one individual only; by one who was unwilling or unable to leverage the talent he had hired, to take his company anywhere close to its full potential. The future of this company, thus rested on the innovation of one individual who was thus himself both the strongest as well as the weakest link in its success. Independent critical thinking had no place in the company.

It is sad that dissenters are often perceived as anti-establishment, because in my view true dissenters are in fact just the opposite. True dissent is not about holding on to a certain point of view or arguing unnecessarily, but about expressing an alternate view that will possibly benefit the organisation better than the currently popular held belief or method.

True dissent considers not just the organisation, but the society within which it exists and therefore must be seen in its right perspective. Let’s take the example of a restaurant flouting basic norms of hygiene and safety in their kitchen including unclean food handling practices, dangerously placed gas cylinders etc. The illegality of such an operation is another subject matter altogether. My focus here is to get the organisation to make the right choices for all its stakeholders including patrons, staff etc.

It is unfortunately quite likely, that based on the high prevalence of such malpractices in all industries, a dissenter drawing attention to them will be ridiculed and labelled as naive and non-compliant by their company or even their entire industry. The reality however, is that the dissenter would have created an awareness of the greater good that is the organisation’s responsibility to society at large. Regardless of whether such true dissent would have been acted upon or not, one fact is indisputable. The fact that highlighting possible negative repercussions (due to such malpractices) on the company itself is a clear indication of how pro-organisation such dissent really is. The dissenter doesn’t need to be a SEBI (Securities and Exchange Board of India) approved independent director, just a person with the capability of exercising independent thought. The right environment would thus be one where true dissent is welcomed.

Playing the devil’s advocate is a polite form of alternate thinking, better suited to a cordial discussion between acquaintances. True dissent is the uninhibited expression of alternate thinking better suited to serious business associates. Imagine you are making multiple decisions you intend going live with in your business. Imagine the outcome of poor choices just because you preferred a polite discussion rather than a well thought through mature critical discussion. The former represents charades to avoid being ostracised from the group or company while the latter represents a harsh but productive reality check. Which one will you opt for; in which situation?

A leader need not act upon all or even any dissent that he encounters. He can easily pull out his seniority card or accountability card at any point in the decision making process. It would thus be prudent for him to not just listen with an open mind, but moreover actively encourage true dissent in his organisation.

In a democratic nation such as ours, while opposition parties often cry foul baselessly, an honest opposition (dissent) is in-fact absolutely necessary. Even the best intended and most capable political leaders subjected to the perspectives (dissent) of social activists will take a better balanced and informed decision rather than on their own on the subject of say... development versus environment.

If dissent is a sword, let us stop viewing it as something that harms us and instead train with it daily as a samurai would. In good hands, it could be used to cut through a forest of uncertainties and lead to an alternate path less trodden but wonderfully beneficial to the traveller and possibly beautiful as well.

 


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