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The Sound of Silence

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Shhhh... what's that sound? Do you hear it? It is the creative clash of conflicting ideas -- the fire, spark, energy and emotions that erupt when people care passionately about doing the right thing (for customers, stakeholders, employees, and society) but disagree on how to get it done. It is a characteristic of healthy organizations. Creative synergy and spirited debate are tools to promote transformative learning, idea generation and problem-solving.

The sound was notably absent in many of the companies that were a root cause of the downfall that lead to the global recession. The silence was deafening. A CEO or executive proposes a course of action that many direct reports feel and know to be patently wrong. But they are mute. Their minds are racing, "who am I to challenge the CEO? After all, he's been right many times before. His rags-to-riches story is the realization of the American dream." After much deliberation and angst, the would-be challenger keeps his thoughts to himself.

Many of these companies were once dominant. They seemed unstoppable. Their stock prices soared and Wall Street cheered as they delivered chart-topping returns. But lack of dissent, quiet acquiescence and groupthink prompted a free-fall from grace. Leadership practices were driven more by arrogance, ignorance and greed than by a clear, noble and compelling vision. When the dust settled, the global economy was in shambles. Little was left but broken trust and shattered lives.

In her book, Extraordinary Circumstances, about the demise of WorldCom, author Cynthia Cooper notes: "In trying to forestall and conceal the impending demise, some executives lost their way and led others astray as well. Once they had begun to deceive, they did not regain their footing. Whatever rationalization was applied to the deceit, it brought nothing but ruin." And in his book, The Foreclosure of America, former Countrywide Financial Corporation Senior Vice President Adam Michaelson writes of the "marketing of a mirage and bad business decisions that brought the nation to the brink." He describes "the excitement, groupthink, momentum and fear that squelch resistance, and the systemic power of the mighty current pushing the fish along."

Michael Landon Jr., son of the famed television star, stated: "It's amazing how expedient people become when it suits them, and when they make up their own definitions of what constitutes moral behavior."

Alas, it is an oft-told tale: the confluence of arrogance, ignorance, and hubris results in a mindset of invincibility. The feeling, even certainty, that market forces would not hurt them -- that they alone would endure, even dominate -- permeates the culture, despite evidence of markets panicking, shares plummeting, confidence crumbling.

In turbulent times, people often huddle together seeking leadership and migrating to conformity. A person voicing a dissenting opinion, negative comment, or cautious appraisal is often ostracized from the group. Non-conformity carries great risk. In stressful times, leaders rarely get objective feedback because the messenger who delivers the unvarnished truth can get killed. Thus, groupthink may permeate the organization.

This dilemma worsens when Chairmen are also CEOs (an inherent conflict of interest). The Chairman is responsible for leading an independent Board. The Board's responsibility is to shareholders (owners). The Board is entrusted with hiring, overseeing, compensating, and if necessary, firing the CEO. However, if the CEO is also the Chairman, than he/she leads a Board responsible for hiring, compensating and possibly firing himself/herself. This latter part will not happen easily, even if deserved. The result is often excessive compensation, job security, and limitless power. Who would dare challenge such a person?

Thus, when the need for leadership, analysis, transparency and macro-management is greatest, we often find instead empire-building, adherence to flawed strategies, a lack of healthy debate and destruction of shareholder value. As employees tend to model the behavior at the top, these destructive practices cascade through the enterprise.

A healthy culture encourages dissenting viewpoints and differing perspectives. Ideas are evaluated based on the quality of the idea, not the level of the idea-generator. Such a culture might have prevented the dangerous and embarrassing actions of Toyota and BP.

Power and money change people; they tend to rationalize, yield to fear, and cave under pressure and intimidation from superiors. But without a minority opinion, who can save the company? The ability (or lack thereof) to accept or deliver the truth is about character, choices and courage.

Here are seven suggestions to foster creative conflict and better decisions:

1. Create and adhere to a clear, compelling vision, values, and culture. A well-formulated code of values and principles provides a clear set of standards for conduct. It presents an ethical and behavioral framework to guide responses to challenging choices. Each person is responsible to respond to situations in a manner that reflects values in action.

2. Encourage the minority opinion. A strong culture nourishes healthy debate and differences of opinion. In meetings, ask your staff to express their opinions before you share yours, to feel free to disagree or surface an idea that is different from that of others.

3. Encourage and reward true diversity. Diversity...in every sense should be encouraged and rewarded. Companies must embrace the diversity of a workforce that can provide a different perspective, thinks in different ways and contributes their unique background to achieve their goals. Select team members based on diverse styles, strengths, skills and backgrounds.

4. Appoint a devil's advocate when discussing agenda items. Rotate this role to each team member. Encourage healthy debate about ideas and alternatives, but disallow personal attacks.

5. Hold a "second chance" meeting. Often groups rush for closure. After working an issue long and hard, they want resolution. If the team feels too good about feeling good, revisit the issue again in a week or two. This second look will enhance the quality of decisions.

6. Create multiple anonymous feedback channels. Enable people to state their views freely, without fear of reprisal. You might have the 2011 version of the suggestion box and bring up items from the "box" at weekly meetings (or in tweets, texts, e-mail dialogues, surveys and focus groups) and use them to stimulate discussion.

7. Lead by example. Walk your talk. Model candor, openness, transparency and authenticity. In high-performing, healthy companies, you are expected to challenge the status quo; and doing so is viewed as an act of extreme loyalty. Avoid groupthink to tap individual and collective creativity and ingenuity. Surround yourself with people who tell you what you need to hear, even if it is not what you want to hear. By doing so, you provide an example of excellence in action.

When spirited debate is required, the sound of silence can erode your effectiveness and degrade your business into oblivion. You must assiduously avoid this.

Originally written in the aftermath of the November 22, 1963 assassination of President Kennedy, the meaning of words to the song, "The Sound of Silence" by songwriters Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel has been the subject of great speculation. However, the words can be repurposed to be very relevant to the above.

Michael G. Winston has served as Global Head and Chief Organization and Leadership Officer in five Fortune 100 corporations. He helps craft strategy, structure, culture and leadership. Visit www.businessthoughtleader.com and www.michaelwinstonandcompany.com.