“Power of disagreement”- 8 October 2013

The meeting started as usual at 9.30 in the morning, the first item on the CEO Dilip’s agenda. All were present, except one – Manoj, the technical assistant to a division head. Twenty minutes into the meeting, he walked in, apologised for being late, and joined the discussion. The CEO said nothing. Manoj took part in the discussion opposing almost every point the boss was stating. He took the debate to a very high pitch and heated exchanges took place between him and a couple of others, including the CEO.

This was an everyday affair – Manoj would come in late, argue rather too much, take the meeting by storm, and disturb everybody. Today, however, he was far more cantankerous, as many felt.
So, after lunch, 2-3 seniors approach the CEO and complained about Manoj’s continued rough and in-disciplined behaviour, and recommended strict action against him. CEO Dilip just smiled, promised to look into the issue and ended the small complaint session. This he had done many times, each occasion giving others an impression that the CEO had some vested interest in Manoj, which is why he was reluctant to take any action against him.
There was another bad fall-out, too, of bad behaviour of Manoj. A couple of others, too, had started asking ‘unnecessary’ questions at departmental meetings and ‘disturbing the mood and the decorum’ of the place.
More complaints went to the CEO, who again made promises but did not take action against any of the so-called offenders.
So, one day, when a couple of members of the Board of Directors were visiting the plant, a small delegation of middle-level managers called on them to make a serious complaint against CEO Dilip. So forceful was the complaint and so correct did it sound that the Board was constrained to call the CEO seeking his explanation of his intriguing reluctance to take action against the confirmed offenders.
Dilip was a mature man in his mid forties. He understood everything in a split-second. He smiled and said, “Sirs, thank you for this chance to explain why I am not taking any action despite repeated complaints. Manoj is a very smart, very deep-thinking executive whose domain knowledge is of a very superior variety. Each of his suggestions in the past three years ever since he joined the cadre has benefited the company immensely. So, why should I disturb his useful contribution? So, if I try to straighten him, then he may shrink and may stop making his suggestions altogether. I am pleased to share with you the details of his contribution. Put together, all those points have helped the company save literally lakhs of rupees every year. Here is the list.
“And, Sir, the so-called argumentative colleagues in other departmental meetings also have made similar contributions. In fact, I do not mind disagreement, since that gives an opportunity to thrash out the issue comprehensively. This internal democracy is our real strength, and I will be the last one to disturb this process.
“If you feel that I should still take action as demanded by our colleagues, then I will be constrained to follow your instructions, but under protest and under duress. Please let me know what you would prefer.”
This firm statement by CEO Dilip made things clear. The Board said nothing, and agreed that internal democracy was essential for the company’s progress.
Most leaders face similar situations, and react differently to the individual cases. Unfortunately, democratic action of expressing disagreement with the bosses generally meets with oppression. Very rare are CEO’s like Dilip who have the courage to answer all questions.

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