The importance of a naysayer’s dissent

The importance of a naysayer’s dissent
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First Published: Sun, May 31 2009. 10 37 PM IST

Updated: Sun, May 31 2009. 10 37 PM IST
There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether we’re beginning to see “green shoots”—budding signs of economic recovery—breaking through the rubble of the recession. That may be true, and if so, it certainly would be cause for relief, if not a bit of celebration. But we’ve also been intrigued lately by “green shoots” of another sort. We think we might be seeing incipient signs that the US Democrats’ current total political hegemony, which has been an unstoppable force ever since Barack Obama was sworn into office and a Democratic Congress took power, might be beginning to give way to more healthy bipartisan debate.
Our evidence? First, that former US vice-president Dick Cheney’s critical comments on national security issues are getting significant traction in the media (even if Cheney himself decidedly is not). And second, that Californians voted overwhelmingly to block another round of tax-and-spend mayhem. Of course, two events don’t make a trend, but it sure would be better for the country if they did. The reason: Everyone knows that ideas are improved through energetic inspection, sceptics batting them around, and by being poked and probed by people who are coming at them from different angles. Everyone in every sector, including government and business, has been in one of those meetings where a solution was improved not just by discussion, but by dissent. Everyone has seen a project that exceeded expectations because somewhere along the way a naysayer interjected, “Hold on a minute. Is this the best we can do?”
Recent US political history supports our case. Jimmy Carter’s disastrous presidency from 1976-1980, with sky-high unemployment and inflation, and economic policies that were running the country completely off the rails, was made possible by a compliant “yes-yes-yes” congressional majority. Ultimately, Ronald Reagan was able to right matters, not just by instating Republican policies, but by formulating a new approach in conjunction with the feisty Democratic opposition.
Similarly, Bill Clinton’s first two years in office, 1992-1994, weren’t nearly as successful as his last six, when Newt Gingrich spearheaded the Republican Party’s strong counterpoint to Democratic initiatives. Surely, the sustained prosperity of that era was aided by the thoughtful (read: fierce) debate raging in Washington.
Finally, you need only look at George Bush’s first six years of hegemony to see the downside of one-party rule. Our leaders in government abandoned all fiscal principles as they spent like drunks at a liquor mart and steered us into a difficult war.
But our point here is not to repudiate any particular president. Rather, it is to underscore the negative consequences of uncontested leadership. Arguably, the most effective US presidencies of the past 40 years have been Reagan’s and Clinton’s, and without question, both benefited from the debate led by their loyal oppositions. That’s why we were so heartened when we saw Cheney’s comments featured on many front pages alongside the President’s remarks. The differing opinions will undoubtedly enhance the conversation, and might even lead to a more effective, centrist outcome.
As for California, the recent vote also strikes us as promising. Finally, after years of the state government’s unchecked financial irresponsibility, people are saying “enough”. In fact, the 2-1 margin suggests California residents are shouting out and trying to make their voices heard.
The lesson for managers? Create an inclusive culture that encourages real debate. The fact is, it can be tempting for leaders to shut down “noise” in their firms. Back-and-forth slows things. Dissenters often come in very annoying packages. Who hasn’t met a company gadfly who makes everyone insane with his pernicketyness?
But managers can’t listen only to the head-nodders. Whether you’re running a team or an organization, press yourself to reward the best ideas, no matter where they come from. Prove that stripes on the shoulder don’t matter as much as the soundness of that person’s argument. Make heroes of the people who stand up for unpopular views. And endure the cranks; indeed, force yourself to listen to them. Very often, their opposition to the status quo is motivated by passion and caring for the company.
Now, we started this column with the suggestion that two events might indicate a small movement towards increased bipartisan debate. But even if we’re wrong—and here’s hoping we’re not—our point remains: Every enterprise benefits when ideas get their due. Pushback invariably increases payback.
Write to Jack & Suzy
Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Their latest book is Winning: The Answers: Confronting 74 of the Toughest Questions in Business Today. Mint readers can email them questions at winning@livemint.comPlease include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.
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First Published: Sun, May 31 2009. 10 37 PM IST
More Topics: Jack Welch | Suzy Welch | Managers | Culture | Ideas |