Agree to Disagree: In Praise of Dissenting Opinions

Collegiality is overrated. Uncomfortable conversations can prompt some new thinking---and help you avoid some bad decisions.

The executive next to me at the table had had enough. “This is starting to feel like kindergarten graduation,” he said to me. “It’s too much.”

“It” was a presentation at a recent conference in which the speaker prescribed an attitude of respect and attentiveness toward employees, boards, and stakeholders. You’ve probably heard a similar presentation—it’s practically an iron law that respect-based relationships improve the bottom line, like saying the sun rises in the east and that grass is green. But while CEOs don’t pay money to hear about sunshine and horticulture, they’ll pony up to hear somebody tell them that human decency is an unalloyed good. It’s not that the presentation itself was bad, or wrong, or delivered useless advice; I just think the exec had finally heard one too many of the same ilk. Call it generosity fatigue.

Cultivating the kind of dissent that prompts critical thinking and effective responses is hard but essential work.

A presentation on the virtues of dissent is one I’d happily sit in on, but those are hard to find. For one thing, organizations already have plenty of conflicts, thank you very much. For another, cultivating the appropriate kind of dissent—the sort that prompts critical thinking and effective responses—is much harder to do. Even so, last week nonprofit consultant Cynthia Gibson delivered a reminder of how high the stakes are here. “It’s time to create public forums and spaces that encourage critical thinking and questioning,” she wrote at the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “And we need all of our organizations and leaders to value and practice strong critical thinking, rather than suggesting that it’s an attempt to impugn the good intentions behind nonprofits’ work.”

Spurred by Gibson’s piece, Nonprofit Quarterly‘s William Schambra identified an interesting disconnect between how the corporate and nonprofit communities discuss failure. When JCPenney recently fired its CEO, Ron Johnson, the move prompted plenty of thinkers to comment on the reasons for the decision, and what lessons might be learned from it. But when Ford Foundation president Luis Ubiñas announced that he was leaving the organization—silence. Any discussion about Ubiñas’s missteps, Schambra argues, were “entirely sotto voce, in personal emails and phone calls and hushed luncheon conversations over sparkling crystal.”

To be fair, the business-journalism apparatus is partly responsible for this disconnect: You can invest in JCPenney in ways that you can’t in the Ford Foundation, and the potential to make a profit off of corporate news invites (and monetizes) more scrutiny. But there’s little question that nonprofits have a politeness problem—or, to be more precise, a not-knowing-how-to-productively-disagree problem, which is due in part to their relatively under-the-radar status. Gibson’s post lists a few relevant questions that are designed to prompt more meaningful conflict: “Is what’s being touted as ‘new’ really new or is it just something old with different packaging?” “Is there evidence to show the idea has promise?” Has the idea been designed with suggestions from the people it’s supposed to help?” Each of those questions, if addressed head-on, are bound to generate friction, maybe even some hurt feelings. But not piping up runs the risk of bad ideas moving forward, simply because people were afraid to give offense or were too comfortable in their bubbles.

“In groups, the desire for consensus—for harmony and agreement—can be so overpowering that it largely nullifies critical thinking,” Newton Holt wrote in Associations Now in 2008. That article that argued for a “duty of dissent” for association boards as that was just as essential as the bedrock legal duties of care, obedience, and loyalty. There’s probably no way to make the duty of dissent legally binding, but responsible leaders can prompt boards to make it an essential element of their volunteer work.

Have you successfully cultivated dissent within your organization? Let us know in the comments how you’ve done it.

(Blend Images/Thinkstock)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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