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As I See It

Respectfully disagreeing can be tough, but…

I like consensus. Like many other people I know, I dislike arguing and confrontation. Nonetheless, is consensus always good for an organization? For a family?

Conventional wisdom holds that quietly going along with the group is the path to success and happiness. After all, those who don’t support the boss are undermining morale and weakening the company’s chances of accomplishing its goals.

Thus, a good team player goes with the flow. If everybody agrees on what needs to be done, why rock the boat? This way of thinking is known as groupthink.

Other than a few really odd ducks who seem to thrive on causing trouble and have been known to argue with a brick, most people strive to get along with others. The native Southerners among us, in particular, were raised to believe that causing a ruckus in public was disrespectful and shouldn’t be done. Unfortunately, our upbringing could put us in danger of condoning unethical, or even illegal, actions as we passively go along with whatever is being proposed.

This whole subject of consensus came to mind because of the corporate financial debacles we’ve experienced over the last couple of years. How often have we heard that the board of directors of such and such company just approved everything management requested then got back to their cigars and cocktails? Well, some of those folks are reaching deep into their pockets and coming up with some major bucks to compensate shareholders for their lousy performance as corporate directors. Perhaps they were being nice, but they didn’t set a very good example.

Closer to home, here in our own backyard, some members of the Legislature are probably wishing they had questioned the cull cow deal more thoroughly and expressed their concerns with a louder voice. Some of those folks may get an unpaid leave of absence from the voters in their district next election.

What’s a nice Southerner to do?

Positions of leadership, both paid and volunteer, are awarded in the belief that the leader will lead. Just attending meetings is not leadership. Arguing just for the sake of arguing is also not leadership. Giving careful consideration to the issues at hand and then voicing an opinion is leadership.

Accepting a leadership role means assuming responsibility for getting up to speed on what is being decided. Absent that commitment, a person should decline to serve. Tough, but true.

All of us need to develop the skill of respectfully disagreeing with others. It’s really not that hard if we keep focused on the issues rather than the other person. The fact that I disagree with you on how we could best prevent hoodlums from robbing liquor stores doesn’t mean that I discount your value as a friend or human being. It just means we don’t agree on the best way to accomplish a goal. Perhaps you can persuade me over to your way of thinking or perhaps I can change your mind. Perhaps we’ll never agree and have to put our differences behind us and move on.

The danger of offending by disagreeing pales in comparison to the risk of condoning something that proves to be really awful. Aside from potential legal liability, loss of trust by those who placed us in leadership roles can never be regained.

Damage to our self-respect is equally devastating. Alfred Sloan, General Motors’ CEO from 1923 to 1956, once said at a directors’ meeting, “Gentlemen, I take it that we are all in complete agreement on the decision here. Then, I propose that we postpone further discussion to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

Sloan was clearly disappointed that the directors were not digging deep enough into the issue at hand and were merely rubber-stamping a consensus view. He suspended the meeting until some disagreement could be developed.

Now, that’s real leadership!

Thought for the Moment

I consider my ability to arouse enthusiasm among my people the greatest asset I possess, and the way to develop the best that is in a person is by appreciation and encouragement. — industrialist Charles Schwab

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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