Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Voice of Dissent or Don't Drink The Kool-Aid

I thought I would take some time this morning and write about something that happened during the week at work, because I think it is a pretty common event. I can't (and won't) go to deep into the details, but first, let me lay out the general scenario.

The company has a process that is very unpopular. Approximately 50% of all employees have a negative view of the internal process (as demonstrated on a survey). Since the process is viewed as necessary, the company has undertaken an extensive program to do two things - first, they are changing the process, rather significantly, and second, they are engaging in a widespread communication effort in an attempt to get the employee base to better understand both how the process works and why it is what it is. It's a noble effort in my opinion. I think it has a fifty-fifty chance of success, better if implemented well, worse if not implemented well. (On my cynical days I have used the expression - "you can paint a pig silver, but that doesn't make it a jet".)

So, upper management is tasked with addressing the issue of the 50% negative impression of this process. In a meeting with my management team (my peers and my upper management) we went into a long discussion about the existing process and the negative perception.

Now, I've got thirty years work experience, over half of that in supervisor, management or leadership roles within organizations. On top of this broad base of experience I layer both formal education and a lot of self-directed reading. Over the course of this experience I have come to the professional and personal opinion that, when it comes to managing employees, honesty is always the best policy. That includes the issue of being critical of company policy, when those policies are not working, poorly constructed, or poorly implemented.

Inside an organization these voices of criticism are critical to a successful organization. The ability of employees (and managers) to honestly voice their opinions, their perceptions, and their feelings is crucial to employee satisfaction, which in turn leads to higher engagement, higher morale, and higher productivity. For several years now I have been a vocal critic of the particular policy. I've written memos, I have presented my criticisms to upper management, in a variety of one-on-one and group settings. Often, it has felt like a lonely place to be - I've landed in meetings where I seemed to be the lone voice of dissent.

In the management team meeting to discussion the solution (which I think is communication, transparency, honesty and a solid feedback loop) things got - testy. My current director did not respond well to the criticism of the company policy and we ended up, overall, in five hours of meetings, both with the management team and one on one. At the end of this chain of events, I think I finally managed to get my points through, at least I left the last meeting with that feeling (thought I could be entirely wrong).

But it did bring me to the point I wanted to make here - dissent is important to the health of any organization, whether that organization is a company or a family or an informal group - if no one questions to processes of the group, if no one approaches them with a critical eye, then the group runs the very real risk of group-think. In my organization, I think a large reason the bad process did as much damage as it did (to the point where 50% of the people have a negative opinion of the process) was that no one was listening to the early voices of dissent. Now, fixing the process is a key objective of the entire corporation - and it never should have gotten that far. If you listen to the voices of dissent in your organization, if you foster an environment where that level of trust exists, where the rank-and-file members of the organization can opening apply a critical eye to internal processes and feel comfortable bringing those critical opinions and perceptions to their leaders - knowing that those leaders will listen, accept, acknowledge and follow-up on those criticisms as appropriate - then you are going to build a great organization, both from a productive standpoint and from a personal standpoint.

Let me close with a final little anecdote. In the course of the wide ranging and sometimes tense discussion with my upper management, the oblique criticism was leveled at me that I was someone not loyal because I wasn't "presenting the right message" (i.e. a non-critical view) to my team. My upper manager made the comment that she had "drank the kool-aid", by which she meant that she understood, accepted, and was completely loyal to the company. I responded "not only didn't I drink the Kool-Aid, I don't drink the Kool-Aid, ever". It let to a tense couple of moments. I've rarely been as far out of step with upper management as I find myself with this particular one. I am hoping this conversations, and others, lead us to find a place where we can compromise and understand each other. I am skeptical, but then keep in mind that I generally a highly skeptical guy.

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