Seeking Sustainability? Encourage Discussion of Conflicting Viewpoints

by | Mar 19, 2012

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Walter Lippman once said: “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” Perhaps it is fortunate that varying opinions abound within corporations concerning “doing what is right and sustainable.” But regrettably, in relation to sustainable strategies, company leaders rarely encourage and seldom enable enterprise-wide airing of all those diverse points of view. Perhaps leaders avoid the discussions because they fear that the conflicting opinions might impede the company’s ability to execute. It is true that problems with achieving sustainable strategies frequently stem from competing corporate priorities, varying levels of commitment and differing perspectives on what needs to be done.

For example, The U.N. Global Compact 2010 report conducted by Accenture indicated that while CEOs are placing sustainability at the core of their business strategies, many are struggling to implement them. One of the most significant obstacles to execution, CEOs said, is the complexity of integrating a companywide approach to sustainability across different functions.  At least part of the complexity undoubtedly stems from the diverse perspectives of the various groups. For example, marketing and finance may have differing opinions concerning the value of sustainable practices. Procurement is likely to have a unique point of view, as is operations.

However, ignoring differences is unlikely to improve the process of implementation. To the contrary, lack of acknowledgement of the varying views is likely to impede progress in carrying out the plans. Indeed forced consensus is almost always false consensus and breeds distrust.

Recently, we asked our network of readers and clients to comment on the following two statements:

1.     I trust the leaders of my company/organization to consistently do what is right.

2.     I trust the leaders of most companies/organizations to consistently do what is right.

Out of the 52 people who responded, over half (58%) disagreed with the first statement and close to half (48%) disagreed with the second. Most business leaders are truly committed to “doing what is right.” And nearly all want their employees to trust that they will do so. Yet if our informal and admittedly unscientific research is even close to being accurate, over half of employees do not trust their leader to do what is right on a consistent basis.  Perhaps this disconnect is due to lack of consensus concerning what “doing right” means.

Our respondents did acknowledge that “what is right” is very subjective. Right for whom? Right in what context? Who gets to define it? To the extent that sustainable strategies are tethered to the delineation of “what is right,” the various stakeholders across the organization must be involved in the conversations that define it if they are to implement the sustainable strategies in good faith.

When handled well, enterprise-wide conversations which encourage the airing and examination of conflicting points of view tend to create understanding across the organization. To build trust requires unguarded yet respectful inquiry into mixed perspectives on issues that are core to individual and organizational values, needs and visions. This type of exchange of ideas and perspectives is a vital component of successful achievement in implementing sustainable strategies.

Several approaches to enterprise-wide engagement have proven to be successful in furthering the execution of sustainable strategies.  For example, David Cooperrider, Professor in the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, founder and Chair of the Fowler Center for Sustainable Value, and the original author of the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) approach to organizational change, has employed a process that he refers to as an AI Summit.  This system involves bringing together a large and diverse group of the organization’s stake holders defined as:  those who are interested, have influence, have information or access to it, may be impacted and have an investment.  Once assembled, the group engages in facilitated conversations that explore differing views, perspectives and interpretations of shared experiences within the context of building on existing organizational strengths.  According to Diana Whitney, another Appreciative Inquiry pioneer, “The whole story is never a singular story, but is often a synthesis, a compilation of multiple stories, shared and woven together by the many people involved.” [i]

The airing of differences and open engagement in exploring assorted opinions and perspectives tends to lead to an appreciation of the strength that diversity can yield. Open conversation allows people to put aside suspicions that arise when conflicting views are cloaked in false consensus. The process of engaging with the conflicts rather than suppressing them somewhat paradoxically enables the organization to focus on the “higher good” and execute sustainable strategies more successfully. This approach provides the venue for all stakeholders to collectively define “what is right.”

Leaders who want to overcome the barriers to executing sustainable strategies can start by encouraging and facilitating the open discussion of conflicting points of view.  As Malcolm Forbes once stated, “Diversity is the art of thinking independently together.”   Embracing and addressing diversity is the path to real consensus.  And trust and real consensus comprise the foundation of executable strategy.

[i] Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom, The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change, 2nd Edition, (Berrett-Koehler Publishers,  2002, 2010, pg. 66).
Dr. Kathleen Miller Perkins is a psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management  founded in 1980.  In addition to managing the company, she continues to remain active in assisting client organizations in assessing and addressing the organizational culture and leadership requirements for executing sustainability strategy.  She has delivered services to over 100 public and private sector companies. Dr. Miller’s client list includes organizations such as IBM, Toyota, BC Hydro, Brown -Forman, General Electric, Ashland Chemical, Ernst and Young, Bristol Myers Squibb and Kindred Health Care.

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