The social philosopher Eric Hoffer once said “The beginning of thought is in disagreement – not only with others but also with ourselves.” It’s an ethos that I have followed in both politics and business.
If there’s no disagreement, no healthy discussion of issues, then the collective decision-making process will be lacking and the result sub-optimal.
That’s why when I’m hiring I always ask one question, ”How will you go about disagreeing with me?”
I don’t want to employ a clone. I want to know I’m surrounded by people who exercise sound judgment, and aren’t afraid of using their skills or expressing a point of view that differs from mine. While, as chairman, I’m the ultimate decision maker, there’s no value in someone just telling me something they think I want to hear. It’s important to encourage people to argue a point as this enhances the collective decision making process. I want people to disagree with me.
Constructive disagreement is core to collective responsibility. Democratic parliaments are based around a system where differences of opinions are properly aired, discussed and constructively assessed. This process has a lot of merit in the corporate sphere as well. While there’s a chain of command and decision-making processes that have to be honoured, it’s critical that people are free to express contrary points of view.
For some leaders this concept is scary, but being challenged doesn’t make you a weak leader, it makes you a better one. A good leader has the courage and resilience to enable different opinions to come to the fore, even when they’re the target. The key is understanding that this type of discussion isn’t personal. It’s about getting to the core of what’s right, or what the majority’s perspective is.
As a leader your job is to distil all of the points of view and establish a position that everybody is comfortable with. The end result doesn’t always have to reflect your personal position, but good governance demands that one person’s opinion doesn’t mean more than the collective. There are times where as a leader I’ve had to say, ‘’well most people think differently from me so I’m going to go with the majority view”.
This isn’t always easy to do, but I think back to the caucus culture which I believe is a good model for collective decision making. Essentially you have two choices; honour the collective decision or resign. There isn’t a third choice.
If you’re part of a collective organisation, then you have to impose limits on yourself. You’re either all in or all out, there’s no in between. You’re always trading away a certain degree of personal independence. If you don’t want to do that, then you can always choose to leave the organisation.
As a director, you set the standard and must faithfully honour the majority view, even when it may jar with your own value system. It tells people that you’re not trying to impose your own view on the organisation, but rather that you’re trying to get to a point where everyone is comfortable. Making the decision is just the start of the process, you then need to follow through and execute it. After all, what you do speaks 100 times louder than what you say.
But when hiring people I can only rely on their words, so that’s why I ask the question. Often body language gives away those who aren’t comfortable with expressing a view. I’ve seen many blank looks accompanied by complete silence. Needless to say, they are inevitably shown the door.
Those that have got the job are able to express the importance of putting your point forward, and importantly knowing when to stop. Once the decision-making process cuts in and the deliberation is over, it’s no longer important to express your disagreement. That’s the time when you take responsibility for the collective decision. This kind of answer demonstrates a level of sophistication and an understanding of how collective organisations function. It shows that they’re a serious professional who takes the process of forming a view seriously, and is ready to take responsibility.
Ultimately, I want people who work for me to have the courage of their beliefs. It’s my responsibility to ensure that have the freedom to put forward their point of view. While I may disagree with them, I’ll never denigrate anyone for expressing a thoughtful opinion. Until the decision making process cuts in, it’s critical to have maximum contestability. After all, it’s these collective decisions that have gone through a rigorous process of debate, that produce the best results for the organisation.
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Lindsay Tanner / About Author
Lindsay Tanner is a professional company director and Special Advisor to Lazard Australia. His board experience includes The Mitchell Institute, Virgin Australia (International), Covata and VICT.
Lindsay was previously a Federal Member of Parliament, serving as the Minister for Finance and Deregulation. He has strong experience and expertise in government and governance. He is a long-standing supporter of the Essendon Football Club and currently serves as club Chairman.