Sunday, March 30, 2008

Leading by Encouraging Disagreement?

If you're a leader in any capacity, you know how difficult it can be to get others to agree with your point of view. Much of our time is often spent figuring out how to influence and convince those we lead, especially when we're faced with crucial decisions. But, have you considered that you ought to spend more time encouraging disagreement or opposing viewpoints?

In this Harvard Business School article, Garry Emmons points out how important it is to facilitate dissenting viewpoints when engaging important decisions. He also notes how even experienced leaders often falter when they make no room for disagreement.

"Consider the costs to organizations, large and small, when dissent does not or cannot surface: Abjuring rigorous debate about its merits, a youthful president John F. Kennedy essentially rubber-stamped a 1961 plan to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, resulting in one of the biggest U.S. foreign policy fiascoes in decades. During a 1996 commercial expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest, several climbers, including two of the world's most experienced professionals, died in part because junior team members didn't speak up when their expert leaders ignored their own core operating principles surrounding safety."

The truth is that most of us do not want to "rock the boat". We prefer to "go with the flow" when a consensus opinion is established. I think it is part of our fallen nature to do so - we love the praise of men, preferring others to think well of us, rather than to express honest disagreement.

Yet, if you believe what Emmons is saying, it is the wise leader who makes room for constructive dissent and pursues alternative viewpoints. In some ways, it's unnatural to do so but it's essential to mature leadership and it's the gospel minded leader who is best able to cultivate this approach to decision making. Here are a couple of reasons why:

First, it takes true humility to pursue and make room for alternative opinions in your collaborative process. While it's true that decision making isn't best accomplished "by committee", a humble, gospel informed world-view helps us recognize our limitations. No matter how sure we may be, it is possible that we may be wrong and the Bible offers much encouragement to seek the advice of others... even when the advice does not line up with our own views.

Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety. (Proverbs 11:14)

Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.
(Proverbs 15:22)

Second, it also takes real courage to honestly pursue other opinions. Encouraging "dissent in decision making" means potentially exposing your errors. It means having a disregard for our own reputation while we seek for the best possible solution. Frankly, most of us do not naturally possess the kind of courage needed to put our own reputations on the line. Perhaps we fear rejection... or we may fear the loss of respect... for some of us, we fear facing our limitations.

The gospel can help us here. Our fears are mitigated by the gospel reminders that we're lovingly accepted by God - He is on our side for our good, regardless of our performance.

We can be bold in seeking help from others, making room for opposing views, confident that God will work all things for our good, even disagreements.

How good are you at encouraging others to disagree and giving them freedom to do so?

For a future post, perhaps I'll discuss the following:

What does the Bible have to say about constructive disagreement? Can Christians honestly disagree and how should we engage this process?
What about the biblical reproof against dissension in the church? How does that play into what we're saying here?

Of course, I'll probably be wrong but I'll have friends who won't be afraid to tell me...if I'm willing to ask.


Tony Rossell said...

Thanks for this post. I think that a real benefit of this blog is to present the pragmatic experience and ideas of the marketplace and hold them up to a Biblical mirror. Pragmatism does not equal truth, but we are foolish not to learn from it. Tony

mark said...

Echo tony. The trenches of the workplace dig deep into hearts of man and expose the root of one's heart.


We have a freedom, resulting from intimacy with sovereignty, that is a great resource for encouraging the expression of such disagreeing views/opinions/positions etc - do not fear man but God.

Yet managing that disagree toward a fixed goal while communicating sincerely the disagreeer's innate value is another task altogether.

I have found just today that I have gained the respect of my employer bcs even though disagreement is not encouraged, I voice my opinion of how "stupid" something is but imediately without hesitation or grumbling execute obedience apon a task or standard even in contradiction to my position.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Good post, helpful, and I so much agree with it.

If we can just get to the point in which we see ourselves as together in this great work, and be just as delighted in the good someone else contributes, as in any good we might contribute, knowing all is a gift from God, we'll be better off.

Thanks, ESI. And in my simple post today, I mention John Bunyan, so I know you'll be interested.

L.L. Barkat said...

Facing this in one of the organizations I work with right now. It is wise counsel, though definitely not comfortable to pursue. On the other hand, there would always be residual discomfort under the surface, which must be considered... for it could ultimately erode the foundation.

Every Square Inch said...

Tony, Thanks for your comment - I think you're right to note that just because something is pragmatic doesn't mean it's right. But as you said, we can learn much about how to apply biblical wisdom in a marketplace context

Mark, there's clearly a way to disagree but doing so redemptively and profitably...glad to hear how you were able to gain the respect of your employer even when "dissenting".

Every Square Inch said...

Ted, I think the point you make is a good one to help encourage open dialogue. If we really believe we need the opinion of others for the entire enterprise to be successful, we're more likely to receive constructive criticism

LL, I infer by your comment that the situation you find yourself in is not one that allows such open disagreement. I think the HBS article was directed at those leaders who control or influence the work place to make constructive dissent possible. There are workplaces where that is simply not encouraged - it makes it difficult to disagree, even constructively when that's the case.

Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

Very interesting ESI - I read when you first posted and have come back to read again -

It seems to me that it should be difficult to build a consensus opinion until you have heard and understood them all - and the responders know you understand because you can properly reflect them back to each individual.

Holding them to a Biblical Mirror Tony - yes, absolutely! And yet, this is so poorly esteemed, even in the church. It makes me very sad.

I like what Mark said - because it reminds me of how I taught my children about appeals - first they needed to clearly indicate that they were ready and willing to do exactly as asked (our definition of obedience was to do what you were asked quickly, completely and cheerfully)and only then were they allowed to request an appeal. And truthfully - such appeals were no infrequently granted because hey had additional information or thoughts on the subject. But, the times the appeal was not granted and they did just as Mark describes, doing what had been asked immediately and without grumbling was the behavior that won them many chances to be heard.

Every Square Inch said...


That sounds not only like good humble leadership but excellent parenting as well.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Yes, I agree.