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I will never forget the time I was invited to a board meeting for a private college where I led the board of trustees in a brainstorming activity. I explained to the group that, for brainstorming to be effective, all participants should refrain from evaluating the quality of the various suggestions. Evaluation could come later, but brainstorming was simply for multiplying options.
To help them remember this, I placed a glass jar on the table in front of me and said, “For every time you make an evaluative statement, you have to deposit a quarter into the jar.” At that, one man stood up, pulled out two dollars, and placed them in the jar saying, “Well, I may as well pay up right now!” And he looked around for approval as if to say, “I know myself and I’m proud of it.”
Later that day, during the meeting, the topic of campus diversity came up. The majority of those present felt that the make-up of the college did not represent the diversity of the community and that more should be done to add diversity to the board. Some felt, however, that the college should avoid any semblance of adding members to the board merely to fulfill some kind of ethnic quota. Just as the group was beginning to enter into true dialogue about these legitimate concerns, the same man who had deposited the two dollars, stood up, raised the volume and tone of his voice, and said with eyes squinting and neck bulging, “I for one am totally against any such proposal.” As he said these words, he gazed around the room as if waiting for someone to challenge him. It was obvious to everyone in the room that, further discussion of the topic would mean an all-out brawl with this man. The topic was dropped.
This kind of abrasiveness and in-your-face confrontation falls into the category of discord. In a capacity-developing organization, it is the responsibility of the leadership to protect the team from these kinds of men or women.
It is not so much the function of leadership always to have the answer, as it is to provide a safe environment where people can discover the answers for themselves. This creates an environment where people are released to think for themselves. Yet some leaders are suspicious of dialogue and their suspicion is based on some common myths that need to be challenged.
Myth 1: Dialogue is weak. Some people may think that to engage in dialogue—instead of opinionated belligerence—is a demonstration of weakness. But if you think this, then it is likely you have never tried it. Dialogue is hard work; it requires that we think and that we engage the thinking of others. It is far easier to call out your positional authority (assuming you have it) when resolving issues than it is to engage in dialogue. Deprecating dogmatism is the laziest and weakest approach to influencing others. It takes great strength of character to get out-of-the-way and humbly allow the force of reason to do its work.
Myth 2: Dialogue takes too much time. There is a grain of truth in this myth because Dialogue clearly takes more time than decree. It is only faster, however, at the point of decision. If you don’t bring people into the process of thinking for themselves, they cannot buy into the project. If they don’t truly buy in to the project, the most you can expect from them is conformity. Everyone knows that commitment is far better than conformity when it comes to implementing the project.
Myth 3: Dialogue is destructive to an orderly society. Some people still have an old-world mentality that see society as a pyramidal structure or caste system where those at the top do the thinking and those at the bottom do the working. In today’s world, however, the employee is often smarter than the CEO, particularly in his or her specialization. With the technology that makes information instantly and simultaneously available to all employees at all levels, there is no longer a need for one group to do the thinking and all the rest simply to obey orders. Does this mean that the basis of an orderly society is disintegrating? Not necessarily. It may mean that we are discovering new, more organic, ways to meet our needs for structure and order.
Myth 4: Dialogue is divisive. Some leaders don’t think their people can handle that kind of freedom. Give them an opportunity to have an opinion and the next thing you know they will want to take over the whole company. This myth may be based on past bad experiences where dialogue has led to mutiny. But good dialogue always has rules of engagement; it is the responsibility of the leadership to protect that process and help the group establish those rules. The leader should establish the parameters and then set the group free to dialogue within those parameters.
Dialogue is a power mechanism for leadership and one of the leader’s most important skills to learn and perfect. Without it, people keep great ideas to themselves and the leaders ends up isolated and out of touch.
What do you think? Has dialogue been an important factor in your leadership?