Healthy Organizations Need Dissent

 Healthy Organizations Need Dissent


 By Johny Garner

President Trump signed an executive order preventing citizens of seven countries from entering the United States on January 27, 2017. On Monday, January 30, acting attorney general Sally Yates sent a letter to her staff saying, “The Department of Justice will not present arguments in defense of the Executive Order.” Less than three hours later, the President relieved Yates of her duties and appointed Dana Boente to act as attorney general until his permanent replacement, Jeff Sessions, was approved by the Senate. In announcing the change, the press release stated, “Sally Yates has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order . . . Ms. Yates is an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.”

Trump’s actions through the election and since his inauguration indicate he has a very low tolerance for dissent. But as a business leader, he should know that welcoming dissent is crucial for good leadership.

In his book Groupthink, Irving Janis analyzed successful and unsuccessful 20th century presidential decisions such as the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Vietnam War escalation and the Cuban Missile Crisis. He found that presidents made better decisions when they allowed genuine dissent in their cabinet. Janis detailed Robert Kennedy’s intimidation of dissenters during deliberations about invading Cuba, and Johnson’s belittlement of dissenters as he escalated the Vietnam War in the mid 1960s. By contrast, President Kennedy put mechanisms in place to guarantee dissent as he weighed options during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In her book Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin notes how Abraham Lincoln chose cabinet members he knew would disagree with him because he felt it would lead to better decisions. In Lincoln’s case, much of the dissent was public, even to the point where his treasury secretary campaigned against him while serving in his cabinet. Only rarely did Lincoln dismiss an advisor for disagreeing.

Just like presidents, business leaders need to surround themselves with people who aren’t afraid to challenge decisions or pet projects. Are there employees who disagree to be disagreeable or who are only interested in advancing their own self-interest? Of course. But many dissenters express principled dissent designed to improve the organization or address ethical or legal dilemmas. Front-line employees, those who make the organization’s products or deliver its services, often have important information about those products and services that decision makers need in order to lead effectively.

A common response to the recommendation that businesses be open to dissent is to institute an open-door policy. It’s great when employees can come directly to a business leader with their ideas, feedback, suggestions and complaints. However, studies indicate that while open door policies are the most common way of soliciting dissent, they are also the most abused. Organizational leaders claim to be open to those who challenge the status quo, but those leaders are unable or unwilling to really harbor disagreement.

While informal channels like open door policies can be useful, more formal avenues also have important roles in getting the best ideas to the people who make decisions. Consider the “Dissent Channel” in the State Department. Any employee may disagree using the Dissent Channel. The employee cannot be punished for using this mechanism, and the memo must be read by top-level people.

Not every organization has the ability to do something like that. But that doesn’t mean business leaders can ignore their employees’ dissent. Healthy organizations foster climates where everyone can voice their ideas, whether those ideas are good or bad. Such climates improve job satisfaction and commitment to the organization, while providing decision makers information they need to effectively lead.

Johny Garner, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Bob Schieffer College of Communication at Texas Christian University.



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