By Gaurav Shah, Founder, Indian School of Development Management (ISDM):
Previously, I had written about the concept of ‘agency’ (the capacity of individuals to act autonomously and to make their own free, informed choices and decisions about things that concern them) and its integral importance to the work done within the social development sector. To be human, to live a life of dignity with the freedoms that are guaranteed to us, we need to be able to exercise ‘agency’.
The concept of ‘agency’ should hold true for all stakeholders within the system most definitely – including the beneficiaries (for lack of a better word) and the employees of social sector organisations. This necessitates the creation of an organisation which has the maturity and openness to listen to diverse opinions, the capacity to get into discourses, and the ability to guide those discourses to a logical conclusion (or possibly, an emotive conclusion?). This is in direct contrast to a ‘command and control’ organisation, where ideas and opinions might flow upwards but directions and directives typically flow from the top to the bottom.
Conceptually, an organisation embracing ‘agency’ has a lot of appeal, but it is not easy to implement in reality. Where do we draw the line between individual opinions/values and organisational priorities and need (in case they conflict)? What processes should we use to ensure that decision making is not ignoring critical and enduring concerns of individuals (not just because it helps improve the quality of work being done but also because it’s important as a goal in itself)?
While there may not be a ‘one size fits all’ universally-true approach to this, being conscious of some factors can definitely help in the process.
If we have strong beliefs based on our values, so do others. The ability to listen to people and trying to understand where they are coming from is extremely important for cultivating a healthy and respectful group dynamic. At the end of it, we may still choose to disagree, but the process should leave people feeling satisfied that their viewpoint was genuinely heard and discussed with an open mind. This also involves deep listening coming from a space where we suspend the rational mind for a while and listen to the individual’s heart.
It may not be possible to have our own way all the time in an organisation (that may not be healthy either because it presupposes that we, at all times, have all the right answers). It is critical to prioritise what’s really important – either from an ‘organisational’ imperative or a ‘personal values’ standpoint – and argue only that case in a cogent, exhaustive manner. People pushing for their viewpoints all the time tend to lose credibility among their colleagues, which could also lead to the creation of a blind spot (or a deaf ear) towards them. That would be counter-productive for all parties concerned.
While the concept of the ‘larger common good’ is sometimes used to justify potentially unacceptable actions/decisions, it should still be an open factor during discussions. The ‘larger common good’ could be as simple as an organisational deadline which needs to be met, or as complex as the discussion between scale and quality in any social intervention. For instance, watering down elements of an intervention (so that more people can be reached) can be used to justify interventions in organizations where scale is a strategic imperative possibly due to funding issues, etc.
As far as possible, people taking sides during a discussion should be based on the discussion in question and the merits of the arguments. In such a case, one might stand up for the ‘minority opinion’ in a particular discussion, while upholding the ‘majority opinion’ in another. This is healthy and enduring. Creation of ‘permanent minorities’ for other reasons can always have disastrous consequences for the organisation in the future.
The choice between being true to one’s values and going along with the organisational ‘majority decision’ (post discourse) is always a tough one. Ultimately, if there is too much and too frequent a clash between the two, then we should decide whether this is the right team/organisation for us to be in. Till then, however, there is definite merit in standing by each other as a team, while continuing to make efforts in influencing and persuading others.
Featured image used for representative purposes only.