AC Insights
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AC Insights

Welcoming Dissenting Opinions

Steve M. Dorman, Contributor, AASCU Consulting

The university president is served well if they have surrounded themselves with cabinet colleagues who will “push back” or respectfully critique and disagree with the ideas that are brought to the cabinet table. Believe it or not, sometimes ideas are presented that are unknowingly, not in the best interest of the organization or have not been thoroughly thought through. This is the value of having a group of honest cabinet colleagues who can provide candid feedback to the chief executive.

The university president is not served well by surrounding themselves with individuals who always say “yes” or continually repeat the prevailing opinions, ideas or executive’s words. The president needs diverse opinions and ideas to successfully lead any organization. Hopefully, the president has stated this as an important value in the onboarding process with each of the direct reports and vice presidents. Getting to these ideas, however, requires one to have a thick skin and the ability to hear one’s ideas or opinions being shaped and even eviscerated around the cabinet table. It means that the idea as was originally presented may be different in the end. It requires the chief executive to understand what parts of the idea they consider essential and what parts they are willing to let go of for the betterment of the idea. It also requires actively seeking and rewarding diverse and dissenting opinions and ideas when they arise. In the end, however, the president will have created greater ownership of the idea among cabinet members by engaging and soliciting these diverse opinions and ideas. In addition, the CEO might find that the final agreed-upon idea is even better and is certainly more polished than the original presenting idea.

Why is Dissent needed?

Protect against groupthink. It becomes easy and comfortable for a group to settle into “groupthink” regarding an idea or project. Instead of pushing back on an ill-formed idea and creating a bit of discomfort with colleagues, it is easier to stay quiet or nod in agreement. And, when several members express support, then it becomes even more difficult to offer dissent against a rapidly forming group opinion. As the discussion proceeds without any dissent, the entire cabinet agrees to an idea that may not be the best idea. This “groupthink” can prove to be disastrous for the organization. Encouraging dissent welcomes out-of-the-box thinking and the application of new ideas and thoughts at the cabinet table. Dissent also protects against the tyranny of groupthink by encouraging other opinions to be heard.

Recognize that there are differing opinions around the table. Seeking input and dissent encourages all members of the cabinet to get involved, not just the presenter of the idea. This means that a diversity of thought and ideas are welcomed. When dissenting ideas are valued and encouraged, there is greater involvement by all members of the cabinet. Cabinets that are formed to provide no diverse or dissenting opinions or ideas are of limited value to the president and the strategic movement of the organization. Failure to understand this will mean the president will be missing important diverse thoughts and ideas.

Greater ownership of the idea by the entire cabinet. Cabinet members who are encouraged to speak their minds and their ideas will feel increased ownership of the organization and will feel more involved in the leadership of the organization. The idea now becomes the idea of the whole group, not just an individual member of the group.

Ideas brought to the table can be strengthened and shaped by the inclusion of diverse ideas. Many times, ideas are not fully developed. Dissent may bring out things not thought about in the previous discussion of the idea. When dissenting ideas are presented the cabinet can shape an idea to become even better. Sometimes ideas are presented in the cabinet meeting without thinking fully about the total overall consequences of implementing the idea. Allowing for and welcoming dissenting opinions will ensure that all sides of an idea or issue are fully discussed. As noted above, this might even permit the idea to be shaped in a way that will enhance the original thought.

Fully vets an idea. Allowing for an open and honest discussion of the idea will make sure that a full understanding of the presenting issue or problem is discussed. Why is the idea being presented? What problem is to be solved or resolved? An unobstructed discussion may allow for better ideas to be formed or presented once the originating issue or problem is fully identified. A full and open conversation about an idea or opinion will reveal if there are errors in thinking or reasoning in the originating idea or solution. It will also permit potential weaknesses to be confirmed or resolved as the idea is fully discussed.

Prepare the leader for opposition to the idea when it is more broadly circulated. Fully vetting an idea from every angle will allow the chief executive to advocate for the idea better when it is promoted to the entire organization. Hearing cabinet members give dissenting opinions or reasons as to why the idea might not work or weaknesses incumbent to the idea will allow the executive team to develop answers for arguments that they are sure to hear when the idea is presented to the entire organization. The chief executive will find it to be helpful to know what dissenters are going to say, rather than be caught on the spot, because of a failure to be surrounded by people who could not or would not tell the truth about an idea. The chief executive will have a better idea of what the “opposition” will say or what they are thinking by allowing for dissenting opinions to be presented in the safety of the cabinet discussion.

Actively solicit feedback and dissent

As mentioned earlier, the chief executive must actively promote and ask for dissenting ideas or opinions. It is the rare board member who will speak up and dissent with the chief executive unless they have been prompted and feel it is ‘safe’ to do so. Therefore, it is important for the chief executive to create an environment at the cabinet table which will allow and encourage respectful dissent to occur.

There are several ways the chief executive can solicit input and give permission for dissenting opinions. First, simply asking for it is a good start. To start a discussion that would solicit diverse opinions, the chief executive might ask a series of questions that encourages new thought to be brought to the table. What do you think about this idea? What are we not thinking about? Is there a way we could do this differently? Can someone tell me why we should not do this? Are there other ways to approach this or solve this problem that we have not considered?

Simply asking the questions may not get the opinions presented unless the cabinet members feel that it is safe to respond. Having set the pretext of valuing dissent, the executive must now model that value. Here is where the executive must be careful not to overreact when someone pushes back or dissents against the president’s ideas. The president must trust that the process and conversation will lead to a better and more enhanced idea. In fact, praising and thanking individuals who take the initiative to push back or present a dissenting opinion/idea may encourage others to consider giving their opinions as well. (“Oh, wow, I had not thought about that. Thanks for the observation. Great suggestion. Thanks for providing that feedback.”) When colleagues see that honest feedback is welcomed, they will be more likely to provide it.

In the end, leadership is about encouraging and enhancing the best ideas and strategies that will lead to the achievement of the goals and objectives of the organization. While the president certainly has a vantage point as the leader to present and provide ideas and strategies, the president who will step back and allow their ideas to be shaped and molded by others many times will find that the final idea is even better, and they are better served to champion the presentation of the modified idea because they have allowed for dissenting opinions.

Dr. Steve M. Dorman served as president of Georgia College & State University for nine years. He was previously dean and professor in the College of Health and Human Performance at the University of Florida, and professor and head of the Department of Health and Kinesiology at Texas A&M University.

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