Way back in 1971, the US State Department created its official Dissent Channel. It defines itself as ‘a serious policy channel reserved only for consideration of responsible dissenting and alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues that cannot be communicated in a full and timely manner through regular operating channels and procedures…’
Responsible dissent. What is it?
Could it be the sustainable quality to stand up for what really matters, disagree and then come together again once the issue is resolved?
If so, how do we push ourselves into the right dissent? And what is the right balance in creating an environment that makes dissent a part of the workplace culture and not a standalone event?
The responsibility and accountability lies on both sides. Employees must learn how to question authority, and leaders should know how to listen to feedback and handle disagreements.
Let me wear the dissenter’s cap first. I disagree with my bosses on an issue – their stance bothers me, and the bother does not look like going away. I realize that speaking my mind to and disagreeing with power can be risky at best and dangerous at worst. Do I or not stick my head ‘above the parapet’?
The voice of reason in me should ask – how personally responsible am I for the thing I am concerned about? What personal level of attachment do I have to the issue? What is the power I have to do something about it?
I realize that the first tough questions are for me to answer, not my bosses! And so my mind makes a practical checklist of the costs and benefits. Job security, professional relationships, acknowledgement of merit and courage, respect…
Once I remove emotions through this checklist, the second set of questions emerges. Is this conflict that I am about to create a healthy one? Do I have a purpose that goes beyond my self-interest? Will it create value? Am I pointing my energy in a productive way in the right direction? Can I look at the road ahead, and not in the rearview mirror?
And what happens when I wear the cap of authority?
As a leader I must be open to constructive dissent. I must recognize and appreciate the courage and professionalism of the person who has stepped forward even if I do not agree with him. If I prevail I must ensure he retains his dignity and is rewarded for his risk taking.
Good leadership creates an open and two-way communication system that encourages speaking the truth to power centers. Only then will the quality of decisions improve – moving as it will from ‘What would my leader do?’ to ‘What do we think and do?’
When such a culture is created, dissent will be compelling and speak the language of what is possible. It will be a discipline and not a war. A discipline that pushes us, on either side, to find our ‘energy sweet spot’ that fires up more of our creative arsenal that makes us unique, innovative, and passionate. A discipline that, over a period of time, will build an auto immune system in our organizations to check and correct power abuses, errors and ambiguity.