About two weeks ago, I posted about organizational behavior and included a quote from Peter Drucker about the value of dissent in decision making. Since then I came across another article specifically focused on the constructive use of dissent when serving on a board.
The article by Newton Holt acknowledges the power of groupthink and the pressure to always be in consensus I had noted earlier. It goes on to note that this can be an even greater issue with volunteer boards because there is a sense that the members are doing it out of the goodness of their hearts so you want to avoid conflict which may lead people to seek another way to spend their free time.
The piece also quotes BoardSource’s founding president, Nancy Axelrod, who notes that the infrequency of meetings and the turnover of part of the board membership every year or so makes it difficult to establish a culture of constructive dissent. Informal communication outside of meetings and the structure of meetings are important.
Given that building such a culture does take time—something in short supply for boards—Axelrod and others note the importance of frequent communication, formal and informal, among board members. A quarterly meeting simply isn’t enough to build the sorts of relationships needed to foster and maintain an environment of open dissent…
Sometimes, the procedures organizations establish to keep board meetings moving along do their jobs a little too well. “One of the biggest laments of most board members is that board meetings are boring,” says Axelrod. “They’re scripted, they’re ritualized, and their outcomes are predetermined. People are really not given much of an opportunity to weigh in, much less dissent, on important issues. The way a board meeting is structured and choreographed will have a profound impact on whether healthy debate and even dissent are tolerated on the board.”
The article spends a considerable amount of time discussing how you can tell the difference between constructive and destructive dissent. Briefly, the former focuses externally on influencing trends and decisions that will advance the cause. The latter is more internally focuses on personal power and authority. They will tend to see support or lack of support as reflection on them.
I thought the following a particularly interesting observation about why it can be so difficult to know the difference between constructive and destructive dissent. (my emphasis)
Tecker comments that part of the reason people have a hard time distinguishing between constructive and destructive dissent is because neither group, destructive or constructive, does a particularly effective job in presenting dissent. This is critical: For dissent to be effective, for it to be something besides an alarm bell or a cry of disapproval, the dissenter needs to make his or her case gracefully. Dissent takes “a lot of self-confidence,” says J. Clarke Price, CAE, president and CEO of the Ohio Society of CPAs. “It takes political savvy, because you could either be viewed as a lunatic or as a concerned, committed member. And the cultural challenge is to make sure that once you go through the dialogue, you can move on to the next issue and not have grudges carry over.”
Constructive influencers, says Tecker, “tend to be sufficiently thoughtful, and their own natural inclination is to look at situations from a multiplicity of perspectives … they tend to constantly examine the advantages and disadvantages of every position. Dissent for them will occur when they believe there is an alternate view that is not being given adequate attention. They usually will recognize that when someone identifies the disadvantage of an option, it’s not necessarily because they oppose the option—it’s just that they see a disadvantage. They will also recognize that when someone sees a particular advantage to a choice or an option, it’s not because they are advocating for it—it’s just that they see an advantage.”
I really appreciated the way they tackled the subject of dissent on boards. I had not seen it approached as thoroughly or from the perspective that constructive dissent requires a great deal of self-confidence. It is rather evident when you think about it. I just have not seen it addressed from that context.