Dissent is not disloyalty. Employers must accept this — the earlier the better

Representative image.

Representative image.

In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) business world, which is increasingly becoming intensely competitive, and where the survival of the business has no legacy to guide or support to seek from, being inward-looking or having only ‘yes-sir’ voices within the business is a big blind spot.

Family businesses in particular (including even large conglomerates in India) have traditionally treated such consenting voices as loyal and dependable, and have rewarded them more than the independent competent voices. It worked well historically in a less dynamic and competitive world, where the insights within the family and its relationships with authority were the key engines for growth, profits, and risk mitigation.

No more.

Dissent is a word that means disagreeing.  Does voicing a difference of opinion make an employee disloyal?

Dissent And Loyalty

As much as the leadership strategies have shifted to notice and accept the beneficial aspects of dissent, the (corporate) cultural moorings remain that disagreement or dissent is disloyal. Consenting voices treated as loyal, often cast, at least subconsciously, independent competent, differing voices as disloyal. When one questions a decision, the promoter-leader(s) usually take it as a lack of faith or disloyalty.

In ‘Why Smart Executives Fail’, Sydney Finkelstein looked at some of the corporate failures and searched for patterns. He summarised that in almost all cases, there were persons loyal and dedicated to organisations (not necessarily to the leader) who raised their hands and pointed out the folly of decisions advocated by those in power. In almost every instance, the dissenters were not only ignored, but also exited from the organisation.

Dissent helps bring out different perspectives in a controlled environment, and within the confines of the organisation. This tells the employees that they are trusted and that their views are important. It opens stakeholder conversations, encourages healthy communication, improves collaboration, enhances problem-solving capabilities, intensifies engagement, team cohesion, and team effectiveness. If colleagues in a team, irrespective of the role they play, can share different opinions, such teams develop innovative ideas and do better in managing risk. Such an environment will also attract, nurture, and retain top talent, creating a positive feedback loop.

A Team That Appreciates Dissent

This calls for shaping a cultural attribute. Such attributes manifest in behaviours, actions, and choices and are rooted in mindsets, values, beliefs, and purpose.

Good leaders would build their organisation with the full obligation to dissent to be a core value. Walking the talk with humility is the most effective way to energise the layers of management, and inspire and demand commitment to getting better at living similar values. Leaders would do well to appreciate that it requires courage for a subordinate to stand up to someone with more status, power, and prestige and tell them that they disagree. Leaders also need to manage their own egos that fall for consenting voices — a tough ask indeed. It would be liberating and insightful to ask who are the incompetent consenters generally loyal to — to the leaders, or to the organisations, or to themselves? Leaders will have to raise their awareness that loyalty to them is not necessarily loyalty to the organisation.

As the trust in the culture of appreciation for dissent builds, the differences can be resolved with data, reason, and principles — and humility and maturity that agreed upon course may not necessarily be the best. In the world of business, it is not always clear which is a better solution, and often there are not enough resources to assess and luxury to delay the decision.

Shaping cultural attributes is not easy or quick, but the rewards are immense. This value-based behaviour from employers/leaders, shared understanding, system, and processes would make employees/subordinates feel safe and encouraged to speak up, share ideas, and hold team members accountable.

Risk Of Not Embracing Dissent

If it’s about leaving a legacy, one won’t know that the organisation crumbled, especially after they are gone. In a world where disruption is the only certainty, without different perspectives, how would you innovate and mitigate risk?

Don’t almost all of the transformative initiatives such as professionalising the business, succession planning, and improving organisational/corporate/family governance require competent differing voices?

In a business environment, where employees and internal stakeholders, as well as consumers are getting younger as large proportion of your interactions, can you afford not to be accepting of differences?

Won’t a ‘business as usual’ attitude cost you long-term business survival?

Would not an environment where only silent-spectators survive, and consenters thrive encourage sycophancy? — and the illusion of loyalty that follows. Just think if you are a part of such an ecosystem.

Srinath Sridharan is a corporate adviser, and author. Twitter: @ssmumbai. Nilesh Khare is an executive coach, and educator. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.