Organize Dissent

I've been meaning to highlight this story from The Daily Drucker a few days ago:

Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. is reported to have said at a meeting of one of the GM top committees, "Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here." Everyone around the table nodded assent. "Then," continued Mr. Sloan, "I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about."

Or, as Peter Drucker put it The effective decision-maker organizes dissent.

Mr. Sloan's approach is a little bit much, in my opinion, but the point of the story holds true. Dissent should be encouraged. But there is a catch. Dissent is like any other form of criticism, it has to be balanced, productive, and constructive. Whining is not productive dissent. Questioning assumptions is. Belittling someone for their idea is not productive dissent. Providing constructive criticism is.

What I have found very interesting during my relatively short time in the working world, is that most people don't like dissent and don't deal with it well. It becomes a game – some sort of metaphor for a larger power struggle – instead of an authentic cross examination of the facts and the decision process. As you move up the chain towards the top of a company, there seems to be less and less dissent, until you get to the very top of a really great company (or on occasion, a great division of a company). There, you will often find a leader that not only tolerates, but encourages dissent.

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The irony of management is that the higher you climb on the ladder, the more important it is that you listen to the people below you. Many of the most successful business people I know are people that really want, they even crave sometimes, dissent. They may push back, but it isn't a power thing, it's about really putting their ideas to the test. They really want to know if their ideas are good or bad, what the flaws are, and what things they haven't thought of.

Encourage dissent. It's good for you, your company, and your employees. But watch how you go about it. Separate the messenger from the message, and focus on debating the facts and the thought process. And, as with all Businesspundit posts, feel free to post dissenting opinions in the comments section.