July 4, 2023

Boardroom dissent is an intentional learning resource Part I

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By Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE

While organizational decision-makers worldwide knew this would be a turbulent decade even before it began, most were unprepared for the swift and forceful disruption of a global health emergency and its follow-on consequences. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic has entered a different phase, boards and management teams everywhere continue to deal with its lasting impact.

From this arduous experience, board directors, officers, CEOs and C-suite executives would be wise to internalize a fundamental lesson: intentional learning is a non-negotiable requirement in ‘The Turbulent Twenties’ and beyond. (‘The Turbulent Twenties’ is the term I used to describe this decade long before we knew how it would unfold.) Without the vigorous pursuit of intentional learning, decision-makers will find it more complicated to anticipate and adapt their work to dynamic social, technological, economic, environmental and political conditions in the years ahead.

Boardroom dissent is an unused learning resource

One powerful source of intentional learning that goes largely unused by most boards is dissent.

I define dissent in this context as the act of sharing contrarian or divergent perspectives to interrogate accepted points of view and beneficially influence decision-making outcomes. Dissent creates a space in which boards can discuss more challenging questions, pursue deeper sense-making and meaning-making, and develop a more robust shared future orientation to facilitate their decision-making process.

Unfortunately, dissent is also considered a threatening mode of conversation that many boards prefer to avoid altogether out of concern about its disruptive impact and possible damage to collegiality. Whether or not those views are valid will likely be moot as increasingly diverse boards grapple with more complex questions. Some board chairs and directors may not be ready, but boardroom dissent will emerge organically and with greater frequency throughout the rest of this decade and beyond. Harnessing it as a uniquely valuable learning resource is the best course of action.

How orthodox beliefs impede boardroom dissent

To maximize the learning benefit of dissent, boards must be cognizant of the role orthodox beliefs play in preventing productive dissent and promoting counterproductive dissent.

But first, what is an orthodox belief? Orthodox beliefs are the deep-seated assumptions we make about how the world works. Orthodox beliefs have developed over many years and decades through repetition, making them widely accepted as true and helpful ways of thinking and acting. As a result, orthodox beliefs are mostly invisible to us and yet exert a substantial (and mostly detrimental) influence over how boards operate.

For example, many organizations hold a sacrosanct orthodox belief that “short-term concerns matter more than long-term thinking.” Even before the pandemic, short-termism was considered the greatest threat facing humanity, and the danger is arguably more acute as boards begin to contend with the implications of polycrisis. The depth of commitment to orthodox beliefs allows board complacency and risk aversion to undermine the pursuit of intentional learning.

Board adherence to unquestioned orthodox beliefs can produce counterproductive dissent or prevent dissent entirely. The former occurs when board directors and officers are fully invested in defending their orthodox beliefs: dissent is likely to lack the attention, energy and intention necessary to unleash significant learning. The latter occurs because the notion that dissent threatens board cohesion and, thus, is something to be feared, is itself an orthodox belief. Once again, if board directors and officers choose to prioritize the enforcement of conformity over the exploration of ideas, orthodoxy will prevail over learning.

Embracing dissent over orthodoxy and Part II

If boards are intrinsically motivated to embrace dissent as a learning resource, a candid confrontation with their orthodox beliefs is an excellent place to begin. Thinking and acting beyond orthodoxy can enable boards to promote productive dissent, reclaim agency to steward their organizations into an uncertain future, and develop an essential habit of mind that every fit-for-purpose board will need in the years ahead.

In Part II of this series, I will share next practices that boards can adopt to transform dissent into the learning resource they need to thrive in the future.

Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE, executive advisor for Foresight First LLC in Reston, Virginia, U.S., helps association and non-profit boards set a higher standard of stewardship, governing and foresight [SGF]. Jeff is the 32nd recipient of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) Academy of Leaders Award, the association’s highest individual honour given to consultants or industry partners in recognition of their support of ASAE and the association community. Jeff can be reached at jeff@foresightfirst.io, on LinkedIn at jeffonlinkedin.com, or on Twitter @dutyofforesight.

AUTHOR’S ATTESTATION: This article was written entirely by Jeff De Cagna FRSA FASAE, a human author, without using generative AI.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this column belong solely to the author.

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