It is a prevalent state of affairs that in most Gulf companies, dissenting from the familiar and established corporate rules and policies are frowned upon, but in progressive companies around the world, employees are encouraged to participate in a corporate culture that encourages intellectual development through curiosity, critical thinking, imagination and open mindedness.
Considered and well-argued dissent is encouraged as long as the dissenter has a clear articulation of the objectives of the dissent. Not allowing this often sows the seeds of company disasters, as people find it easy to discuss the familiar but are reluctant to talk about corporate risks whether this is from individual behavior let alone the behavior and orders of their leaders.
Most find it embarrassing, dangerous or both to raise these subjects and dissent and so let it pass. With the Gulf embarking on many visions, missions and transformation plans, instilling the seeds of argued dissent and critical thinking in the current generation of students and government employees is crucial for a successful outcome to avoid allowing such initiatives to become one man driven.
How leaders take this dissent is important to establish a corporate culture. Good leaders balance confidence with humility, principal on rules with pragmatism, and candor with compassionDr. Mohamed Ramady
For many in the Gulf, social attitudes ensure that there is little questioning of the ability of superiors magnified by reverence and unquestioned loyalty. Healthy skepticism channeled into intelligent and forceful questioning of the status quo is unheard of.
The reason is simple: in many institutions allocating responsibility clearly ensures that all know who is in charge, and this culture is rooted in history, whether in the military or the private sector to avoid chaos.
However, as military campaigns of the world also illustrate, battle outcomes have been changed when a lower ranked officer dissented from established orders and took an opportunity that was presented to him to change the course of the battle.
How leaders take this dissent is important to establish a corporate culture. Good leaders balance confidence with humility, principal on rules with pragmatism, and candor with compassion. At the board level, the existing mode of chumminess and connections found in many Gulf boards need to be replaced by assessing risky aspects of leaders characters and discussed openly at the board meetings, otherwise being appointed an “independent” board member becomes meaningless.
Most important for managers who are accustomed to set policies and rules is how does one respond, when objectives clash with principles? How does one deal with subordinates who get the right result by crossing corporate red lines and what about some employees who forgo deals that are important for the long term survival of the company because they would not cross these red lines?
What do employees do when faced with a rule that does not work in the real world but only in the planned forecasts that have no touch with reality? Does one shrug his shoulder, obey the rule and achieve the wrong result? Does one work around the rule and disregard it completely? Does one have that intelligent dissent conversation with his superior?
In the real world most people opt for the first option, but this undermines the ground rules, risking serious company consequences, whereas feedback from intelligent dissent reinforces the company and improves it.
The company culture
On the other side of the equation – what happens if something goes wrong? Does one tell his superiors and analyze what went wrong and why? Does the company culture then makes sure that weaknesses are fixed and lessons learned quickly? In classroom discussions, my students found it odd that I encouraged them to make mistakes and to learn from these mistakes.
They had been brought up to blindly obey and not raise questions, and more likely that they graduated with a mindset that the problems they faced are discussed amongst themselves, if at all, and then buried.
Mishaps happen to all institutions, and often without grave consequences and these provide valuable feedback as to how the system is working or not. Part of the reason for the persistence of this blind obedience culture to superiors is that leaders have not created psychological safe spaces where subordinates, let alone other similar level leaders, can admit to mistakes and deal with them.
Whatever the cause, good common sense judgment is undermined and organizations fail to learn, leaving weaknesses embedded and unresolved until the next problem blows up.
Dr. Mohamed Ramady is an energy economist and geo political expert on the GCC and former Professor at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran , Saudi Arabia.