“Why can’t we all just not get along?”

I’m moved to respond to a quote from Alfred Sloan. Mr. Sloan was the CEO of General Motors (relax, this was a long time ago when GM was a successful company!). He is reputed to have said about his management team:

“If we are all in agreement on the decision – then I propose further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

I think there’s a lot going on in this statement, and it’s of particular relevance to us in the nonprofit sector.

Nonprofit decision-making tends to be built very much around consensus and unanimity. We talk and consider and process and try to get to the point where everyone around the table is in agreement before we act. There’s much to be said for this. However, like most things, it has its dark side, as well.

When everyone is in agreement, that generally means one or more of several things:

  • As Mr. Sloan said, people don’t really understand the issue; or,
  • People aren’t engaging with the issue enough to really care; or,
  • We’re taking a very conservative approach; or,
  • We’re avoiding risk and innovation.

Or all of the above.  And probably some others.

The bottom line is this: if everyone is happy with what you’re doing, what you’re doing probably isn’t very interesting. Remember, people who never make mistakes spend their lives working for those who do.

So, encourage everyone to have a voice, and encourage people to disagree. Constructive dissent leads to productive creation. Get comfortable with the idea that not everyone will like everything you do. Get comfortable with a management structure that encourages debate, then makes executive decisions that some people don’t like. Make it part of your culture.

A healthy organization argues the points, comes to a conclusion, and expects everyone to support it (as long as it’s not illegal or unethical) whether it’s their preference or not. That’s how you drive mission.

And, in uncertain times, decisive action is crucial to survival.