How dissent helps your organization

If you talk to many leaders, they’ll tell you that dissenting views are welcomed and even encouraged in their organizations. Intellectually, they understand the value of dissent for improving thinking, learning and decision-making.

But in practice, truly welcoming dissenting perspectives is pretty rare. Dissent is more often seen as uncollaborative, an obstacle to progress, and even disloyal. Some leaders fear that if one person expresses dissent, it’ll spread like a virus, and spin out of control.

But when dissent is shut down—even through subtle body language or indirect comments—it tells the team that their views are only welcome if they conform to what the rest of the team (or the leader) thinks or sees. This hampers performance.

There are countless examples in which the lack of tolerance for dissent has cost organizations dearly. Two classic examples include Netflix’s famous serial pricing and branding gaffes in 2011, costing the company roughly 80% of its stock price within a few months of these decisions. CEO Reed Hastings concluded that the absence of dissenting views within the company was a big factor in these disastrous decisions. The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 is another well-known case where NASA’s cultural intolerance for dissenting views had catastrophic consequences for the seven crew members aboard.

On the other hand, if dissent is met with real interest and curiosity, it becomes an asset, even a competitive advantage.

When I work with leadership teams in which dissent is viewed as an expression of resistance or stubbornness, I remind them that dissenting views can be much more valuable than unexamined or assumed agreement and consent. Even if coming from a disgruntled place, dissent can expand our thinking if we embrace it.

Another reason dissent is important has little to do with the content of a group’s conversation. When team members have the opportunity to openly question, challenge and disagree with each other, then free and informed choice and internal ownership of the outcome—good or bad—usually follows.

On the other hand, when folks don’t feel that their well-intended dissenting views are welcome, they can easily distance themselves from decisions and outcomes as if it were someone else’s problem.

And you don’t need to explicitly discourage dissent to shut it down. Sometimes, dissenting views don’t even register. They may fall so far outside of the “common sense” of the group that they just seem irrelevant, and nobody responds. 

I encourage you to begin paying closer attention to how you and others handle dissenting views on your team. You’ll probably notice several subtle ways that people are discouraged from voicing dissent. Sometimes, just noticing this can begin to change your own—and your team’s behavior.

How do you and your teams embrace dissent? Share your views in the comments.

May 18, 2023 by Grayson James

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