Can Divisiveness Be Good?

[Re-post from April 17, 2009]

This morning, I taped a political TV show called “FlashPoint” that airs on the local CBS affiliate here in Central Florida. One of the topics was the current divisiveness and infighting within the local (and to some extent the national) Republican Party. (I am the former chair of a county Democratic Party, so I was on as a Democratic analyst. Also on the show were Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor, and Deon Long, an attorney and local Republican activist.)

The host, anchor Lauren Rowe, asked us if such divisiveness was good or bad for the party. Professor Jewett answered that it can be both – it’s good to debate ideas and understand one another’s different viewpoints, yet it can be bad if everyone doesn’t come together at the end once a direction or compromise has been established.

After the show, I got to thinking that this applies not only to political parties but really to any organization or company, and especially to start-ups:

How can a company successfully deal with differences of opinion so that no one is left feeling unheard, dismissed, or unimportant?

I think that, first and foremost, the company must be completely open and transparent with its employees regarding the issue at hand. That means ensuring that all meetings related to the subject are open to all and that everyone is given an opportunity to share their ideas and concerns in a structured and professional way.

Second, the CEO or founder must be actively involved throughout the process – not as the dominant voice in the debate, but as the person who acknowledges and respects everyone’s opinions and seeks to build consensus.

As I was writing this last sentence, it reminded me of an article I recently read in The Washington Post about Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, and his approach to group decision-making and leadership. According to the article:

“Every six weeks or so, around a giant mahogany table in an ornate room overlooking the National Mall, 16 people, one after another, give their take on how the U.S. economy is doing and what they, the leaders of the Federal Reserve, want to do about it.

“Then there’s a coffee break. While most of the policymakers make small talk in the hallway, their chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, pops into his office next-door and types out a few lines on his computer.

“When the Federal Open Market Committee reconvenes, Bernanke speaks from the notes he printed moments earlier. ‘Here’s what I think I heard,’ he’ll say, before running through the range of views. He sometimes articulates the views of dissenters more persuasively than they did.

“’Did I get it right?’ he says.

“The answer, in recent months, has been a resounding yes. And Bernanke’s ability to understand and synthesize the views of his colleagues goes a long way toward explaining how he has revolutionized the Federal Reserve, which under his leadership has deployed trillions of dollars to try to contain the worst economic downturn in 80 years.”

Now, regardless of whether you agree with Bernanke or with the Fed’s policies, you have to appreciate his ability to take in what everyone says and then build a consensus for action. That is leadership.

So, the next time your company faces a controversial decision or a group of dissenters, embrace the opportunity to have a spirited debate, generate new ideas, and ultimately find the best solution.

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