Invite Dissent: Promote Business and Nonprofit Change

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To much fanfare and hand-wringing, Virginia’s governor has just declared April to be Confederate History Month. One of the great battles of our Civil War has been on my mind, since I just returned from a family trip to Gettysburg. We’d been several times before, but this time we had a private guide who truly brought the scale and devastation of those terrible three days to life. We walked the battle lines of the Wheat field and saw where men fell in lines at the Peach Orchard.  We imagined the cannon firing into the town, scattering frightened civilians.  We climbed Little Round Top and peered over the edge, imagining a sea of Confederate soldiers charging. And we saw the deadly conclusion in Pickett’s Charge.  And as we moved back and forth from Confederate to Union perspectives, I was reminded of my own divided history:   A Yankee through and through, having been raised in New York and Maryland, I have plenty of Confederates in the family, with ancestors who fought and died at Antietum, and southern  relatives–including a Confederate historian–who remain skeptical about northern ways.

Hidden or Banished Differences May Slow  Success

There are many legacies of our divided history, but one is clear: Americans remain separated politically, socially, economically and even spiritually. So why should my readers care? Because we often hide our differences, or operate in communities of the like-minded, thus subverting the real benefits of diverse perspectives and ideas.

For example, how many boards do you serve on where the leadership is predominantly of one political persuasion? What would happen if these leaders didn’t all support the same candidates and agree on the same issues (even if your organization isn’t political in nature)? And what about in business–do the leaders in your company represent diverse views and personal histories? Do they come from varied economic backgrounds? Or did they all attend the same schools and join the same country clubs?  Does your organization push for cross-cultural literacy and encourage leadership development among people of varied cultural backgrounds?  Do you promote gender parity initiatives that mentor and support women through childbearing years, when many fall off the leadership ladder?

Find Your Perspective Gap

Many times firms and organizations feel they are doing plenty to promote diversity, but if they asked for feedback from the people most affected, they might learn a different truth. For instance, according to a recent Bain & Company study, when it comes to gender disparity in leadership, men and women view the workplace very differently. Men think women are treated equally, whereas women don’t see it that way. Why the gap? I’ll let you read the report to see what the Bain folks think, but I have witnessed the “perspective gap” taking many solid nonprofits and businesses off their path of success.

What do I mean by “perspective gap”? I mean asking your staff or board members how they feel about having a different opinion or background from the rest of the group.  Are they encouraged to have a different perspective? Or is it less complicated to remain silent? In his recent book about the amazing technological success of Israel, Startup Nation, Dan Senor attributes Israel’s success, among other reasons, to a culture of people being willing to challenge their superiors, and those superiors being willing to listen.  He gives examples of how this has promoted a faster route to innovation and change.

OK, Amy, where is this going and what does it have to do with Confederate History Month?

Invite Opposition

Here goes. My suggestion is to create your own version of a controversial celebratory month within your company or nonprofit organization.  Let’s call it Contrary Opinion Month.  Invite everyone to make a suggestion that appears to be contrary to company tradition, policy or social custom. If you are a law firm, encourage your newest young associates to speak up at your next committee meeting! If you are a nonprofit, don’t let a unanimous vote obscure hidden dissent in the ranks–bring it on and into the light! If you are a big business, find out what that guy in the mailroom thinks about your new [fill in the blank] policy!

I’m truly curious to hear what happens, so if you have a good story, please email me at amy[at]amydelouise[dot]com.

0 replies
  1. Ami
    Ami says:

    Great suggestion Amy (re: Contrary Opinion month) The benefits of diversity in the workplace accrue from encouraging diversity of viewpoint and opinion. Diversity of perspective – and the attendant benefits to organizations – does not depend strictly on race, gender or national origin. (Consider Clarence Thomas) Organizations with the courage to encourage diverse views will thrive in a business environment that changes constantly – and quickly.


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