How many of your board votes are unanimous? If it’s all votes, then you may have a problem. What’s that, a problem with everyone agreeing? Maybe—if all board members agree on every single thing, then do you really have enough diverse thinking on the board? But the way votes turn out is less important than the fact that there are differing viewpoints and periodic disagreements. Vibrant organizations have board members with varied views, which is a healthy situation that generates discussion and new ideas. And “disagreement” doesn’t have to be polarizing or negative.
Disagreement isn’t easy. It can be frustrating deciding if it’s worth fighting for an opposing viewpoint, handling the conversation, and then dealing with any uneasiness that might follow. Although staying silent may be easier, it’s rarely the best avenue for the organization. This is where the concept of “loyal dissent” comes into play.
Let’s be clear, we’re not talking about anything that is ethically, morally, or legally wrong. Anything like that requires formal channels inside or outside the organization. It may take some reflection to decide if it’s an ethical issue—or an ego issue. That is, when your first reaction is “That’s just not right,” you need to reflect a little on why you feel that way. If it’s not an ethical or legal issue, it may be an ego issue. And if that’s the case, it’s time to check your ego at the door and determine if your position is the best for the organization. If you believe it is, then you should consider making your position known.
Most people’s initial thought is to lay out an impassioned argument for your position based on your strong opinions. That’s not likely to be successful. You should go into the meeting or discussion and lay out an impassioned argument with data and facts that support your position. Make sure to understand the considerations that led to the decision—then lay out your argument for your point of view. With internal discussions you should feel comfortable laying it all out and doing your best to convince your fellow board members to make a change—or at least consider your position. Hopefully you have a healthy enough relationship that you can be frank and candid.
Many people at this point will be nodding their heads thinking, “Yeah, that’s what I normally do.” That’s the dissent part of “loyal dissent.” Unfortunately too many folks forget the “loyal” portion. After you’ve had your say (even if it’s over a couple of meetings so more data can be gathered or opinions sought), when the meeting ends with the final decision—you need to support the new policy with as much passion and support as if you agree with it—even if you don’t. No one outside the board should be able to tell that point forward that one side won and another lost. Everyone on the board supports the decision, even if it was not unanimous.
There’s no grumbling at the proverbial water cooler; no “I can’t believe we are doing this …”; no comments, actions, emails, or posts that are anything but loyal to the decision. Any negativism, passive-aggressive disagreement, etc. is a recipe for organizational sabotage.
Organizations grow and prosper when leaders are willing to discuss and disagree rather than succumb to group think. It’s important to handle those disagreements in the most supportive, loyal fashion possible.
Bill Hoffman is CEO of Bill Hoffman & Associates, LLC, a Tampa-based consulting firm with national-level independent sector expertise in educational engagement strategies, on profit leadership transitions, and organizational and board development. Bill has senior-level nonprofit management experience in education, having been the president of one of the nation’s top K-12 education foundations; functioned as interim CEO for prominent national and state education and philanthropic associations; and led national, regional, and state boards of directors. He is also an adjunct professor at National University, teaching Non-profit Leadership and Board Development