The Capacity to Engage a Deliberative Process
In a previous blog I spoke about the vital importance of good conversation towards wise decisions. And in another posting I spoke to the presence of bullies in our organizations. Along this same theme, consider the following: that one of the key capacities for all of us to be effective in organizations is that we can enter into a deliberative process.
By this phrase – a deliberative process – I mean the listening and speaking, the give and take, the attentiveness to a sequence of exchanges, conversations, including the formal engagement that comes within a committee meeting – that leads to a particular outcome. And my thesis is this: that we are only effective within an organization, that we only have institutional intelligence, if we know how to do this.
Organizations are only effective to the degree that they have the capacity to make good decisions – wise, courageous, and strategic choices: recruiting the right people, determining the right budget for the coming fiscal year, re-wording the mission so that it is current, whether to renovate a space or facility on the property, and more. One decision after another. In very few cases is a decision a one-person action item. We each likely have certain decisions that sit on our desk and they are entirely our call – in terms of what we choose to do. But most of the key decisions are actually the outcome of a process – more specifically, a deliberative process.
The process that leads to the presentation of the final budget draft – likely to the board of trustees – may have final sign-off by the president, but we do not get there quickly or easily. It came through an extended deliberative process. The recruitment of a director for a department within the organization is more than likely not a decision that one person can make but one which requires a process. And the key here is knowing where we fit in that process and how to best participate in the process so that our voice is heard, our systems of governance are honoured and a decision is actually made: the budget is approved, the personnel appointment is actually made. But the genius of this outcome is that it came out of a process – a deliberative process.
And not all people know how to be part of such a process. Sometimes the founding member of the congregation, who has been a major financial supporter, just assumes that he or she is right on key issues and this person has no desire or capacity for the process. In some professions, it seems, one is actually encourage to “make the call”. Some have suggested that medical profession cultivates this kind of “go-it-alone” mentality and I even had the head of a non-profit say that you cannot have a medical doctor serve as the chair of your board in that they consistently assume that the process is a mere formality; they know what to do [though I would stress that medical schools are changing and encouraging process and deliberation and that the emerging generation of doctors have no less confidence in their capacity for diagnosis, but they are eager to get input and to be in conversation and to realize that they need the voices of others to get a good diagnosis].
And in my world: some faculty in higher education may well be brilliant scholars and master teachers in the classroom but be completely lacking in the ability or desire to be part of a formal process of conversation that leads to a good decision. They are impatient with the process and assume that all it does it impede the right outcome – which, of course, is one that reflects their thinking.
So where does one learn this? Growing up, with a family that debates intensely over the dinner table – perhaps over a decision that the teens know ultimately is their parents to make but where their voice, into the process, back and forth, differing with one another but also eager to listen to one another eventually leads to a decision, perhaps about where they will go camping, but where each voice is heard and taken seriously? Is this where we learn this?
Wherever we get it, what is clear is that it cannot be taken for granted that a person can do this. I am wondering: can we recruit with this capacity in mind? When we appoint a faculty member, for example, or recruit someone on to our board of trustees, we rarely actually ask this question. Faculty are recruited for their scholarship and teaching and mission-fit. But it will not be long that they are on a search committee or a curriculum review committee and they need to be these kind of people who know how to do this. My question: how can we know, as part of the recruitment process – the interviews, the references – that this person knows how to be part of a deliberative process?