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Why dissent can be a good thing

Explore the detrimental effects of stifling dissent in leadership and the long-term consequences for organisational morale and performance.

Leaders all to often underestimate the importance of dissent. Loyalty and singing from the same song sheet is highly valued. Success, it is believed , is based on everyone pulling in the same direction. Swallow your doubts for the greater good those with concerns are told. If you’re not with us you’re against us.

It is all too easy to label those who regularly express concerns or question the wisdom of some decisions as “awkward” or even disloyal. Such individuals can find themselves side-lined, out of the decision making loop no longer having the influence on the leadership that their experience and position would normally give them.

The chief executive called an extraordinary meeting of all the senior managers in the organisation (40 -plus people) .The message was clear your diaries for the morning. The meeting was to be held away from HQ another clue that something significant was about to be announced but not for general consumption. The Head of finance opened the meeting with a hard hitting presentation on the precarious financial position of the organisation. His message was that urgent and drastic action was required. This was summed up in the description of senior managers standing on a burning platform.  There was he said no more low hanging fruit al the remaining options were painful (unpopular with employees ).

Next up the Chief Executive opened  by repeating the burning platform metaphor adding there is no time and no point in debate the decisions have been made and you need to convey that to your staff. “ We have got a lot information to get across so there isn’t time for questions. Is that understood Blair”. Pleased as I was that the new chief executive knew my name I was surprised to be singled out. But the message to everyone had been effectively given no debate, no discussion just get on and do it.

This the clearest example I have ever experienced of closing down the debate. More than that the message taken away from this meeting was that the chief executive considered any dissent as personal disloyalty. The chief Executive had set the tone
Does this approach work ? Well a series of unpopular and painful measures were introduced. We stayed afloat. But within 18 months the chief executive had left leaving behind a demoralised, under performing organisation in which senior managers had lost the trust and respect of the workforce and HR were considered the hatchet merchants of a leadership that showed no compassion.
It could have been very different if only the chief executive had sort to open up the debate rather than close it down. The hard hitting message on the financial position would have been the same, many of the subsequent decisions would have been the same but revealing the thinking behind the proposals might have allowed for some legitimate concerns to have been raised and addressed. Some of the unintended consequences of the chief executives decision might have been identified and avoided.
Managers would have a different message for employees not the alienating “ shut up and get on with it”. Employees could have been given the opportunity of identifying some of the practical obstacles in the proposals allowing these to be addressed in advance rather than be given at a later date as the reasons for lack of progress. Employees may not have liked the CE proposals but at least they would understand why they were made and having been consulted on the implementation would feel more engaged in the process and therefore more likely to make it work.
But the big win of heeding the dissenting voices would be the benefits in the longer term of a level of trust between the leadership and the workforce.

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