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Stifling dissent and debate on your team is not leadership

Mar 09, 2010 Business Daily, Leadership

“Any leader needs frank advice, and the biggest obstacle to receiving it is often the leader himself. Even a polite and level-headed boss will be tempted to cut naysayers out of the loop. Knowing this, sensible juniors will avoid expressing criticism or grim tidings if at all possible.
“If you deliver bad news, you’re disempowering yourself,” says Professor David Sims of Cass Business School. “You’re less likely to be listened to in the future.” For some ambitious subordinates, this is a far worse fate than the threat of being thumped.”

TIM HARFORD, Financial Times (24 February 2010)


Whenever I meet a new CEO, I look around at his team and say: where’s the contrarian? Where’s the pesky fellow who keeps raising unnecessary questions, always has a different view, invariably fails to agree with the rest? If such a person exists on the team, I rest easy. If not, I warn of impending danger.

If you are a leader, it is way, way easier to populate a team with clones of yourself. We all spend our lives looking for like-minded friends, kindred spirits, birds of a feather. People who are like us are comforting; they validate most of our views of the world; they make us feel connected.

But therein danger lies. Recognise, please, that the real learning and growth in your life has come when you’ve been challenged, when you’ve been forced to rethink your assumptions, when someone you dismissed as ridiculous turned out to have a point after all.

Management teams are not social clubs or intellectual circles where it is necessary to have a common point of view. In today’s hyper-speed world, management teams need to be high-tension pools of energy where ideas emerge unchecked and diverse points of view are considered and debated. Who knows what tomorrow’s landscape will look like anymore? In such an environment, nurturing multiple options is vital.

The reverse is highly dangerous. As Tim Harford pointed out in his recent FT piece, UK premier Gordon Brown is now at the centre of a “bullying” row – allegations that he physically and verbally abuses and intimidates his staff and associates. The danger with that is that he is not listening to advice that could help him and his country – it’s his way or the highway. Many of his closest associates are reportedly unable to voice any dissent in his presence, for fear of a foul-mouthed rebuke.

The same happened with US foreign policy when Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were ruling the roost: the US made a series of disastrous moves in Iraq, simply because no dissent was being brooked. Rumsfeld would not even allow the use of the word “insurgency,” preferring to pretend there was no real opposition to the US occupation in Iraq.

We are in a similar place in Kenya. There are few management teams of diverse opinion and perspective. Sycophancy and timid alignment with the boss’s position on anything and everything is the norm. Bosses intimidate and shun contrarians, and people soon learn to toe the line. But there’s a problem: if you are all always in perfect agreement with the leader’s views, you’re all going to fly off a cliff together.

I know what you’re thinking: surely lack of unity of purpose is a problem in organisations, and we must always seek alignment and consensus? Certainly, but at the right time. When constructive debate is stifled from the outset, many avenues are closed down. At the end of the day it is still the leader’s job to make a final decision. But it is vitally important that the decision is informed by all shades of opinion. Leaders who listen only to the bleating of sheep they have beaten into submission over the years should not kid themselves that they are getting the right advice.

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