Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Obligation to Dissent

Guest post By Jeremy Eden and Terri Long: 

When corporate leaders make decisions about a new idea, something we call “executive exuberance” often plays a deceptive role.  Here is what happens: analyses start to show that deciding to go forward will produce good benefits at reasonable costs and risk.  Though the leader has some issues they want further analyzed, they begin to express some enthusiasm for the idea. Those reading the tea leaves see that the top of the house is leaning toward a yes.  Suddenly, everyone starts to see the data supporting the ideas with a bit more of a rosy glow while the data about the costs and risk begin to be minimized.  Sometimes this is just a case of politically pandering to the powerful.  But far more often, this phenomenon happens subconsciously.  When we want something to be true, the evidence that supports our desire shines brightly at us.  At the same time, we ignore or find justification why the evidence against us is irrelevant.  So as executives start to lean toward a “yes”, they and their teams put on rose-colored glasses and voila, initial skepticism turns into enthusiasm which turns into “executive exuberance”. That exuberance then drives the decision instead of cold, hard facts.  
Companies are full of smart people with strong opinions based on their knowledge and experience.  Some will gloat that “I knew that was a stupid decision” when a project fails but won’t say it before the decision is made when it really counts. Tapping into as much brainpower as possible before a decision is made is crucial to success.  The best antidote to “executive exuberance” is also the best way to tap more of your corporate brainpower.  Leaders must institutionalize the “obligation to dissent”: a duty to voice fact-based objections to a path that others are supporting. 

But declaring that you are obligating your employees to dissent will not make it happen!  Leaders have a special obligation all their own: to provide the kind of environment that encourages dissent. This presents a big challenge to many executives.   You may read that last sentence and think that executives merely have big egos and don’t want to be told that they are wrong.  In fact, most of us are simply wired to avoid conflict, not to open the door and invite it in.  So executives, not just their employees are working to avoid conflict.  Then throw in “executive exuberance”, the hierarchies and politics present in most corporations coupled with the poor job climate, and what you get is beyond mere conflict avoidance, it is “survival of the silent” mode. 
Executives, therefore, need to go overboard in inviting dissent.

For big decisions, a debate team environment is perfect.  Leaders should assign a team of people they respect to argue against the decision to approve the new idea.  Their goal as a team is to win the debate.  This turns a fear of dissenting into a fear of failing the assignment if they can’t find the best reasons for dissenting!  Even if the debate just confirms the wisdom of approving the idea, it will still be valuable in highlighting potential weaknesses that can potentially be addressed before implementation rather than discovered after implementation.
For the lesser, everyday decisions, executives need to foster a culture that embraces an obligation to dissent.  Get employees accustomed to a culture of dissent by starting with the interview.  Ask your potential candidates for examples of when they have voiced a dissenting opinion.  Make it clear that you value that quality in your employees.  If you use a mission statement or other document to discuss the principles you want your organization to have, make sure an obligation to dissent is prominent in that document.  At staff meetings, when you are discussing an idea, ask each member of the team – even the most junior -- to imagine the most likely reason that an idea will fail.  This question allows a safe form of dissenting as when asked in this way, it will seem silly to say that there is literally no reason or circumstance that could cause an idea to fail. 

Be especially on the lookout for those who sit quietly in a meeting and then come to you for a private meeting afterward to voice their disagreement with a decision.   Allowing employees to dissent in private exacerbates the culture of “survival of the silent”.  It also is extremely inefficient as you then need to get the right players together to discuss again a decision you thought was already made.
Most importantly, all your good intentions of asking for dissenting opinions will be lost if you ”shoot the messenger”  when someone does dissent.  Make sure that as a leader in your organization, you embrace conflict by reacting positively to the concerns presented by the dissenter.  This does not mean, of course, that the dissenter always “wins”.  The “obligation to dissent” is about sharing important facts, not just opinions - as best summed up in the mantra “everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts” (thank you Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan!).  Ensuring that everyone is using the same, correct, set of facts, whether they are weighing in with a yay or nay will help you drive sound decisions.

Lastly, if you do get wind of a team member saying “I knew that was a stupid decision”, tell them that they had an obligation to dissent at the time.  The ultimate consequence for those who do not fulfill their obligation? They are off the team.  You need everyone to fulfill the “obligation to dissent” to reach the highest levels of success.

Jeremy Eden and Terri Long are the authors of Low-Hanging Fruit: 77 Eye-Opening Ways to Improve Productivity and Profits and co-CEOs of Harvest Earnings, an advisory services firm that helps companies to engage their employees in growing earnings and improving the customer experience. They have helped companies like PNC Financial, H.J. Heinz, and Manpower to reduce costs and increase revenues by millions of dollars. Jeremy has decades of consulting and performance improvement experience in business including at McKinsey & Co. Terri was in the corporate banking world for eighteen years before joining Jeremy over a decade ago. They are based in Chicago.

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