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4 ways dissent and alternative viewpoints can power growth

Speaking coach Eileen Smith observes that responding to employee calls for change can be a minefield for business leadership. She outlines how management can make the most of it.

4 ways dissent and alternative viewpoints can power growth
Wayfair Inc. employees participate in a walkout after the company sold more than $200,000 in bedroom furniture to a Texas detention facility for migrant children on June 26, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. [Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images]
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Companies often scramble when they find themselves on the receiving end of employee activism. Wayfair employees walked out over the company’s decision to provide furniture to a U.S. government detention center. More than 100,000 Walmart employees signed a petition against the sale of firearms. Starbucks employees pushed back for the right to wear Black Lives Matter clothing.

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Employees are urging their employers to take stands on environmental, social, and governance issues more and more. They expect more from their employers than just a place to work. They want their employers to do the right thing—although the right thing can be debatable. As a leader in today’s social justice-charged atmosphere, how can you ensure top executives receive the benefit of your employees’ most well-reasoned arguments while you maintain an effective workplace? Take a page from the United States Department of State Dissent Channel.

State Department employees across the world work within well-defined structures. This system is critical to ensuring that the department focuses on achieving policy goals, that host countries know the U.S. Ambassador speaks for the President of the United States, and that leaders resolve the internal tensions inherent to the intricate system of regional and functional interests within the State Department family through a clear and understandable process.

What happens when State Department employees, based on their hard-earned knowledge of a policy challenge and deep analysis of a problem, find themselves in direct opposition to their chain of command? When faced with the clear internal conviction that their leadership has chosen the wrong path, State Department officers have a direct and immediate line to the Secretary of State.

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Setting up a system for differing opinions

The Dissent Channel isn’t for personnel disputes—there’s an HR department for that. It isn’t for waste, fraud, or mismanagement—there’s an Inspector General for that. However, for “dissenting or alternative views on substantive foreign policy matters,” when either time pressures or operating channels prevent a differing viewpoint from being reported, all American-citizen State Department employees at any level have an established protocol to present their written views to the big boss. Authors of Dissent Channel cables (that’s State Department lingo for an official, internal written communication) who have exhausted all other avenues can expect their opinion to be read at the highest levels of the State Department and that they will receive a substantive response.

As a leader in your organization, you can implement this in your own workplace by contemplating how best to make it work within your structure and culture. Think carefully about who will provide oversight, and in what timeframe. What process will you establish to review and respond? The State Department system is supposed to protect these communications from leaking and prevent workplace repercussions against the employees. In all honesty, sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Leaders in your organization may want to consider establishing policies and procedures around privacy, protection, and retaliation. Consider installing an internal version of Facebook’s Oversight Board to review and manage the process. Designate a trusted colleague in a key leadership position to own the process. Ask the members to sign an ethics agreement to adhere to these guidelines.

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Employees must respect the process or it won’t work

Here’s the key to the efficacy of this approach: the use of the Dissent Channel is rare and it is taken seriously. Speaking truth to power can be a difficult trip across the tightrope. Company messaging when you roll out this process must emphasize the gravity of using this channel. Leadership will take it seriously and employees will be putting their reputation on the line. Place the onus squarely on dissenting employees to have exhausted all other solutions, to be certain of the imperative of their position, and to make the clearest, fairest, most compelling argument of their career.

This is no time for a frustrated, angry rant. It’s not the time to offer suggestions that won’t stand up to the harsh reality of the conditions in which you work. Employees who establish their deep knowledge of the situation, demonstrate their analytical acumen, and make a well-argued case for why the current direction (doing business in a country where employees disagree with the government, taking (or not taking) a political position, selling a particular product) is not in the best interest of your company, can distinguish themselves through constructive dissent.

Management should encourage excellent examples

At the State Department, there’s an award for this. Every year, senior, mid-, and entry-level officers are recognized for their efforts. Retired U.S. Ambassador Jonathan Addleton earned the Christian A. Herter Award for “intellectual courage, initiative, and integrity in the context of constructive dissent,” according to the American Foreign Service Association. Ambassador Addleton, while stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, wrote in the Dissent Channel, “whether driven by policy sensitivities that seek to avoid directness in countries where radical Islamist agendas drive our discourse, or because of institutional structures that deaden our creativity and flexibility, we are somehow unable to engage with confidence on the ideas that we hold dear.”

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Jason Smith, who earned a dissent award in 2020 for his disagreement on U.S.–Israeli relations, said, “dissent does not need to be a solo journey. I was privileged to be able to work with a number of exceptional colleagues who shared my concerns and joined with me in raising them, not only at post but in Washington.”

When you establish your constructive dissent channel and the oversight committee to manage it, build motivation into the system. Does your company offer annual accolades? Performance awards for achieving or exceeding goals? Consider designing an incentive that recognizes and encourages your employees who have made the most of the opportunity you have created. Perhaps it is the distinction of being honored, or maybe you could add in a donation to their choice of worthy causes.

The boss is still the boss

Here’s the kicker: If a State Department employee uses the Dissent Channel, does the hard analysis, and makes their best case, yet their argument doesn’t win the day, they remain obligated to implement a lawful foreign policy. Senior State Department Officer and former U.S. Marine Timmy Davis earned an award for making the case that the U.S. Consulate in Basrah, Iraq should remain in operation despite the security threats. He said, “in my case, I could not have moved forward in my career without standing up for what most mattered to me as a leader: taking care of the people I worked with and speaking clearly about the sacrifices we, Foreign Service and Civil Service personnel, are willing to make for our country.” Davis’s dissent was overruled, after which he personally oversaw the expeditious closeout of the consulate.

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When you announce this new approach to your organization, be sure to make clear that company leadership will consider dissenting opinions and then will make the best decisions for the business. Constructive employee input is wanted and the CEO will continue to implement the company’s priorities.

Leaders can demonstrate strength through diversity of opinions

One way to demonstrate your leadership and executive presence is to be open to hearing your employees’ dissenting views. Building trust in this way can improve the success of your organization’s mission and maximize the trajectory of your career. Make it clear to your employees that you want to hear their dissent—either spoken or written—when is well reasoned, clearly states easily identifiable and finite points, and ends with a recommendation for a way forward that recognizes the costs and benefits of the proposal.

When employees feel strongly enough about an issue at work that they must speak up to persuade management to do the right thing, give them an avenue. The Dissent Channel offers a pressure release valve for frustrated employees and may give your company a new path to greater achievement. Being a good business is good business. Ask yourself how you can ensure your company has a system in place that encourages and rewards employees for constructive dissent so you can do good while doing well.

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Eileen Smith is a public speaking coach, author, and keynote speaker.