The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
Yes, but don’t you think...

Years ago, Tata Steel ran an advertising campaign highlighting the fact that it encouraged dissent within the organisation. That was when Russi Mody was riding high as chairman. He eventually had to leave because of dissent. His own; he fell out with group supremo Ratan Tata.

Mody, by his own admission, used to eat 16 eggs for breakfast every morning (he says he is down to three a day now because of age). So he may have had the capacity to encourage grumbling in the ranks and take it on squarely. But most organisations across the world actually do their utmost to stamp out dissent. Says Michael Roberto in Why Great Leaders don’t Take Yes for an Answer: “Managers feel uncomfortable expressing dissent, groups converge quickly on a particular solution, and individuals assume that unanimity exists when, in fact, it does not. As a result, critical assumptions remain untested, and creative alternatives do not surface or receive adequate attention.”

In Chinese, Japanese or Korean cultures, dissent is practically unheard of. You obey your boss, even if he is totally wrong. In India, the scene is somewhat different. The freedom struggle played its role in this and, of course, the natural tendency of Indians to be argumentative. In family-run businesses (which, by and large, still stick to older traditions) the owner’s writ cannot be challenged.

In the public sector also, what the government decides goes. No matter how independent some CEOs of PSUs seem these days, the “Yes, Boss” culture is deeply ingrained in them.

Faced with dissent, organisations (and individual managers) tend to adopt a number of characteristic positions. These include:
Domination. This involves the authoritarian position of might is right. They assume that they are right and dissenters wrong.
Capitulation. Some organisations give in to dissenters if they believe they are right, will win in the end or be faced by litigation, strikes or worse. Few like to be seen to capitulate, and most will strive hard to do a good PR job to present their capitulation as something very different.
Compromise. This seeks to take the dissenters' views into consideration by modifying the policy, plan or decision. The question is whether the result is a strengthened hybrid or essentially a fudged and weakened solution.

These companies ' the family-run lot included ' are what you may call the old guard. There are a lot of them. But there are several other younger organisations ' or older organisations now run by younger people ' where dissent is actively encouraged.

The view from one side is that such dissent doesn’t help the organisation very much. It wastes time. People often argue on a subject without being aware of the big picture. Besides, such discussions always detract from the stature of the CEO, particularly if he has to agree with a majority view that is different from the line he has taken. “You don’t need a CEO then,” says an MNC executive. “The core group can function as CEO.”

On the other hand, if discussion and dissent within the organisation is not encouraged, you can end up making horrendous mistakes. People, even when they think you are wrong, will keep silent. “Taken to extremes, this can easily lead to groupthink,” says Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College, London. “When group members become tremendously loyal to each other, they may ignore information from other sources if it challenges the group’s decisions. The result is that the group’s decisions may be completely uninformed, irrational or immoral.”

Roberto says that the best bosses encourage debate and dissension. But nothing is really decided at meetings. The CEO has actually been taking the views of his key team members earlier and convincing them to toe his line. When it comes to major corporate decisions, the board or any other decision-making body is just a rubber stamp. If you have any doubts, ask a much-in-the-news Indian corporate giant. You can rely on their example.

Email This Page