One theme of my last post is a problem endemic to many large corporations – the tendency of employees to fear offering different points of view, and the negative impact this has on decision-making. This subject, covered in a chapter in James Surowiecki’s excellent book, The Wisdom of Crowds, now has a full book devoted to it – Michael Roberto’s Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer: Managing for Conflict and Consensus (see my new "Recommended Reading" sidebar for thumbnail cover photos and links).
Let’s face it – the very existence of hierarchy stifles dissenting voices. Absent any other factors, most employees will – at a minimum – be cautious in expressing differing opinions, new ideas and bad news to the person with control over their paycheck. Add a little managerial ego and that caution will turn into reticence to do anything but nod along with the powers that be.
What about senior managers? Aren't hard-charging, Type-A folks above such caution? Not in my experience. I've worked in companies that welcome debate and conflicting views (including Clearwire) and several very large companies that did not. In the conflict-adverse companies, the greater willingness of senior folks to speak their mind was usually offset by the greater ego and unwillingness to hear dissent possessed by their C-level bosses.
There’s no question that properly-channeled conflict and debate will yield the best decisions, but most organizations have a hard time encouraging this kind of healthy debate. Instead, conflict is often repressed until it explodes into personal attacks, happens too late to change a decision, is conducted passive-aggressively, or all of the above. Leaders in an organization need to be hyper-aware of the things they do to stifle input, and come up with ways to encourage openness and not “punish” those who contribute different or unpopular opinions.
Note that this does not mean giving slack to whiners – not all input is equally valuable, and habitual naysayers are no better than yes-men. Most importantly, the whole team has to get behind the decision once it is made. Giving employees license to be candid should never be confused with giving them license to contribute less than their all once the course is set.
So what can leaders do to encourage openness? Roberto suggests actively seeking dissent by soliciting it directly, having staff role-play adversaries, or even appointing someone as devil’s advocate on a proposal. While the success of such formal steps will depend on the situation, every manager should be looking for opportunities to overcome the inherent bias amongst their employees toward clamming up.