When it comes to dissent, my perspective is perhaps somewhat unusual if not unique. As a middle manager for 20 years, I often encountered dissent when presenting and enforcing policies that in some cases I didn’t agree with, either. And as someone who has also been middle-managed, I have on occasion played the role of dissident myself.
In both situations, I’ve had many opportunities to observe how various leaders, from managers to presidents, have dealt with dissent. Three strategies seem to be most common.
Some leaders try to punish or make examples of people who openly disagree with them. They might be somewhat limited in what they can do, because of union protections, EEOC regulations, or (in the case of college faculty) tenure, but managers can always find ways to make someone’s life miserable, if they want to: less-than-desirable assignments; arbitrary denial of legitimate requests; sudden, strict application of previously ignored “policies.”
This is a risky tactic, because at some point it becomes apparent to everyone what’s going on. Of course, some managers might think that’s a good thing, that occasionally you have to “knock some heads” in order to get everyone else to “fall in line.” But what often happens is that even those employees who basically agree with the manager, or who don’t care for the dissident personally, begin, over time, to side with him or her against what they regard as petty and vindictive treatment.
Meanwhile, the manager in question may find his or her moral authority slowly draining away. That’s why, in my experience, those who take this approach often end up being more damaged professionally than the person they set out to punish.
Another way some managers deal with dissidents is simply by ignoring them–and I mean ignoring them altogether. They don’t speak to them, don’t respond to their e-mails, don’t acknowledge them in any way. They decline to put them on committees or other working groups, refuse to recommend them for assignments, and fail to recognize their positive accomplishments. In short, they act as if they don’t exist.
This strategy, too, is unlikely to work, because it’s almost impossible to completely ignore people who work in your department. In fact, truly committed dissidents are often especially difficult to ignore, because they’re always in your face. Trying to act as if they don’t exist is liable to infuriate them even more, leading to further confrontations. Also, even dissidents (and sometimes especially dissidents) make positive contributions, and the manager who refuses to acknowledge as much ends up looking like a churl.
Lastly, some leaders deal with dissidents by attempting to win them over, to co-opt them and thus bring them into the fold. This is often accomplished through bribery, by offering them choice assignments or placing them on “key” committees where–perhaps after many years–their voices will at long last be heard. Or so they think. In reality, this is usually just a ploy, an attempt to make the dissident think that he or she has a legitimate opportunity to effect change when in fact the outcome has already been determined and leadership has no intention of considering opposing viewpoints.
The reason this strategy usually fails is that few genuine dissidents fall for it, and those who do end up angrier than ever once it’s clear that they don’t really have a voice.
The best and most effective leaders eschew all three of these strategies. Instead, they try to treat dissidents, as much as possible, just like everyone else. Such leaders tend to be open-minded, inclusive, and collaborative anyway–that’s what makes them effective–and so they listen to dissenting voices just as much as they listen to any other voices–no more, perhaps, but certainly no less.
In the end, these leaders may end up making decisions that the dissidents approve of, because (and let’s not lose sight of this point) the dissidents are often right. But even when they make decisions contrary to the dissenting point of view, at least the dissidents feel that their voices have been heard, that they’ve been taken seriously, and that they are free to speak out again on the next issue.
Indeed, the very best leaders welcome a healthy dissent, because it keeps them honest and because they understand that, if no one is questioning what they’re doing, they’re probably not doing anything worthwhile.
Women today make up 50.8 percent of the U.S. population. In addition, they earn 60 percent of master’s degrees, 47 percent law degrees, 48 percent medical degrees, and account for 49 percent of the college-educated workforce. While progress is being made in some areas, inequities continue to exist for women in terms of their representation in high-level executive leadership positions. In spite of women holding more leadership positions in academic medicine, dentistry, and pharmacy than ever before, 75 to 85 percent of deans and department chairs remain men.
Although some institutions and associations recognize the need for leadership development programs for women, additional preparation for women who aspire to leadership roles in the health professions is essential. For more than 10 years, The Academy for Academic Leadership has been dedicated to advancing people and institutions through professional development and consulting services. Answering the call to assist women who aspire to leadership roles in the health professions is aligned with AAL’s mission.
This year, AAL is excited to launch the Exceptional Executive Leadership Program for Women (ExcEL for Women) on October 16-18, 2016. During the 2-1/2 day competency-based developmental leadership program, participants will engage in a hands-on structured training and mentorship to enhance their personal and interpersonal leadership skills. The curriculum addresses topics critical to the growth of a high-impact leader:
The ExcEL for Women facilitators are Dr. Marcia Ditmyer, a Vice President at AAL and Emerita Associate Professor for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, School of Dental Medicine; Dr. Val Gokenbach, a Robert Wood Johnson Executive Nurse Fellow and a Former Magnet® Commissioner; and Dr. Felicia Tucker-Lively, Director of Professional Development for AAL. During the ExcEL for Women dinner on October 16, AAL will welcome our special guest speaker Rep. Stacey Abrams, J.D., House Minority Leader for the Georgia General Assembly and State Representative for the 89th House District. She is the first woman to lead either party in the Georgia General Assembly and the first African-American to lead in the Georgia House of Representatives. Rep. Abrams will provide inspirational insights about how women can function effectively in their lives and improve their leadership skills.
The ExcEL for Women program will be held at the Château Élan Winery & Resort, just 40 minutes northeast of Atlanta. Château Élan’s resort and spa combine French provincial and Southern hospitality with the beautiful, unspoiled vistas of the North Georgia foothills and lush vineyards of Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet, and Riesling grapes. See chateauelan.com for additional details.
To register for the ExcEL for Women program prior to the September 9 deadline, please go to aalgroup.org/excel.
In Chapter 9 of The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders, titled “Hope,” Rob and I devote several paragraphs to discussing the work of Viktor Frankl, a survivor of both Auschwitz and Dachau and the father of logotherapy—a theory founded on the belief that human nature is motivated by the search for purpose. Frankl once wrote, “Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” Another way of stating Frankl’s point is that people need hope, the vision of a better future. Leaders bring hope to organizations, communities, and societies. Leaders help others make meaningful lives. The recent publication of the World Happiness Report reminded me that hope, meaning, wellbeing, and happiness are familial concepts. What can leaders learn from this report?
First, so much for “melancholy Danes.” For the third time since the publication of the first World Happiness Report in 2012, Denmark is ranked as the happiest country in the world. Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway followed, with the United States ranking 13th in overall happiness. The 2016 report is an update in anticipation of the World Happiness Report 2017. Led by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a global initiative of the United Nations, these studies aim to establish a scientific, empirically verifiable basis to measure humans’ subjective accounts of their well-being. Most of the differences in happiness among countries and regions result from six key variables: (1) GDP per capita; (2) healthy years of life expectancy; (3) social support (e.g., having someone to count on in times of trouble); (4) trust (as absence of corruption in government and business); (5) perceived freedom to make life decisions; and (6) generosity (e.g., donations to charity). According to the editors of the 2016 update, “increasingly, happiness is considered to be the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy.” A fundamental premise of these ongoing studies is that “subjective well-being provides a broader and more inclusive measure of the quality of life than does income.”
In a chapter entitled “Secular Ethics,” Richard Layard, director of the Well-Being Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Center for Economic Performance, describes three propositions that comprise the “greatest happiness principle”:
1. Human progress should be assessed by the extent to which individuals are enjoying their lives. Enjoyment is defined by the prevalence of happiness and the absence of misery.
2. The objective of governments should be to create the conditions for the greatest possible happiness and the least possible misery.
3. Likewise, every individual has an obligation to create the greatest amount of human happiness in the world and the least misery.
The greatest happiness principle calls for us to care not only about our own wellbeing, but also about the wellbeing of others. Layard states that human nature is both selfish and altruistic. Moreover, he argues that we need an ethical system to promote the altruist within us over the egotist. Historically, ethical codes of conduct have come from various sources, most especially religious traditions. Layard maintains that, “In an ever more secular society, we urgently need non-religious organisations which promote ethical living in a way that provides inspiration, uplift, joy and mutual support—through regular meetings of like-minded people.” Such organizations need not be anti-religious; they simply need to provide a structure that will allow for the actualization of the greatest happiness principle.
While there are numerous organizations that can provide such inspiration, uplift, joy, and mutual support, I would like to propose that the workplace provides the greatest opportunity to create these conditions. For the majority of employed people, the workplace is where they spend most of their waking time. In a sense, workplaces create their ethical codes of conduct. Workplaces have cultures, characterized by values (whether explicit or implicit), and policies. For most people, the type of work they do, those with whom they work, and the rewards of work (monetary and otherwise) are fundamental to their sense of wellbeing and happiness.
What can leaders learn from the World Happiness Report? Income matters to employees, but other factors are more important to fostering a sense of wellbeing. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink uses decades of research to argue that the secret to high performance and satisfaction is the human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to improve ourselves and our world. Pink and others found that monetary rewards work best when the task is simple and straightforward. However, once even rudimentary cognitive skills are involved, larger rewards actually led to poorer performance. Pink found that granting people autonomy and self-direction actually improves engagement with the task and others. He argues that for most people, mastery is also a motivation: we by nature want to get better at what we do. Lastly, people are motivated by purpose—they want to know that what they do matters. I call this type of work meaningful work; and it matters not only in terms of motivation, but also to one’s sense of wellbeing—one’s happiness.
A basic question for leaders is whether the culture of the departments, units, schools, and organizations they lead values autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Policies should foster self-direction. Vision, mission, and values must be discussed, debated, implemented, and lived. The leader’s attitudes and behavior should be consistent with espoused values of individual worth. The leader cannot possibly ensure that a given employee feels happy all of the time, or that the employee has all of his or her desires met. However, the leader does have a responsibility to create a meaningful workplace. If we return to Layard’s three propositions comprising the greatest happiness principle and apply them to our organizations, the leadership challenge might take the form of these questions:
1. What am I doing to ensure that people enjoy working here?
2. How do I create the conditions (culture, opportunities, etc.) where people can grow, thrive, and make meaningful contributions?
3. How can our organization maximize its purpose to make the community and the world a better place?
I would offer that happiness and wellbeing are not only “a proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy,” but should also serve as a measure of the work environment and the societal goal of our schools and businesses.