The Minority Voice – Tending to and Affirming Those who Differ

Healthy organizations are marked by diversity of perspective.  Yes, there is a shared mission and a set of shared core values; and yes, we affirm that in key decisions we have a shared understanding of how the final action or decision will actually be made – most typically we agree that we will act on the basis of majority vote.   But with that understanding, we also affirm and indeed encourage diversity of perspective; we value that within our cohort others will see things from a different perspective.  We will disagree with one another; we will debate and argue for a policy or an action item.   And this is good; we need diversity of perspective.  Wisdom comes not through everyone being unanimous all the time but through the actually grist of critical engagement that brings different views to the table.  This is good and the sign of a healthy organization. 

Unhealthy and autocratic organizations insist on compliance:  and this typically means agreement with the leader.  And weak leaders display that weakness, in part, in their inability to handle any dissent, any disagreement.  They even start to think that if we disagree with them on anything it is a sign of disloyalty.   Strong and effective leaders actually invite and encourage diversity of perspective and are the stronger for it.  They do not assume they have all the wisdom that is needed; the seek out the views of others and invite debate and push back. They are not threatened by those who thoughtfully (and respectfully) disagree. 

As a president I have to make the call on a whole range of issues; but I need a group of senior leaders and faculty who are thoughtfully engaged with the issues that we need to tackle.   Further, in group decision-making, in the end, a board or a committee will vote and the majority vote will carry the day.   But good processes will actually defend the right of the minority to contribute to the process and value that voice and perspective.  We do not assume we have necessarily made a better decision because it was unanimous. 

However, there are three kinds of minority voices that are not helpful or constructive.   And wise leaders recognize these kinds of voices and know how to marginalize them.   First, the strident minority voice that refuses to accept the will of the majority.  The assume they are right on this or that and they will not graciously accept that they got out-voted.  And they continue to grind the machinery in a way that wears one and all out.   Or, another variation of this is the bully who assumes – because of length of tenure (“I am a founding member of this church”!, for example), or whatever the rationale whereby they assume that something gives them a privileged voice, they will not tolerate disagreement and even when they know that the majority disagree with them, they will insist on their way.  And when happens many people will simply go along; they do not want to fight.  So they let the bully rule the playground and assume that he or she has veto power.  And those who want to avoid conflict will let them have their way.   

Then there is the contrarian who for whatever reason finds that to be a satisfying posture.   Being negative suits them; choosing to be cynical or raining on the parade gives them a feeling of power.   They assume that their cynicism is a sign of intelligence and moral authority.    

And then, third, there is what we might call the toxic voice.  Their speech and their behaviour is covert and divisive (rather than transparent and helpful):  rather than truly contributing to the conversation they use whatever voice they have to undermine leadership and good processes. 

Wise leadership welcomes diversity of perspective.   But wise leadership also recognizes when the bully, or the contrarian or the toxic voice is not a constructive or helpful contribution and learns how to marginalize that voice – how to limit the damage and moderate the process such that the will and perspective of the majority is affirmed and so, for example, the president of a non-profit can actually do the work of leadership.   Effective leadership does not accede to or allow the unhealthy minority voice to have undue influence.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.