Dissent is vital to the success of a business.
Yet despite what we know about its power, organizations increasingly value harmony over vigorous debate. While the desire to keep the peace in these contentious times is understandable, the reality is that too much harmony can breed complacent organizations.
The dissent I’m talking about isn’t expressing dissatisfaction or annoyance; it’s voicing ideas or concerns that go against the commonly held opinions of the group. When organizations encourage dissent, they’re less susceptible to groupthink. Leaders can tap into multiple perspectives and diverse experiences. Teams can better assess risk and opportunity. When people feel free to challenge the status quo, continuous improvement and innovation flourish.
On the flip side, there is ample evidence of the disasters that occur when dissent does not surface. Consider the 1996 expedition to the top of Everest. Several climbers, including two of the most experienced, died partly because junior members remained silent when the experienced leaders violated the agreed-to safety protocols. The Columbia Space Shuttle is another example. In the days following what appeared to be a normal lift-off, one of the chief structural engineers and several colleagues determined that the stray foam strike that occurred seconds after the launch warranted investigation. The photos needed for the investigation were expensive, and given the pressure to tighten budgets, nobody wanted to be charged with spending the money. When the head of the mission management team asked who wanted to view the satellite photos, no one spoke up. Ultimately, the foam strike was cited as the cause of the disaster that cost seven astronauts their lives.
Why People Don’t Speak Up
Our brains are wired not to rock the boat. The instinct goes back to primitive times when survival depended on the protection of the group. We fear being labeled as troublemakers, embarrassing others, or making colleagues uncomfortable—anything that could lead to rejection by the group.
The voice of the majority is a powerful force. It can make us question ourselves even in the face of hard evidence that supports our thinking. Solomon Asch’s classic “Line Experiment” proves how social pressure from a majority could lead a person to conform. Study participants were shown a straight line and asked to judge the length in comparison to three other lines. When asked the question without other participants present, 99% of respondents answered correctly. But when the participants were placed in a group where the majority deliberately gave the wrong answer, only 25% held their ground and never conformed to the majority’s wrong answer.
Encouraging Productive Dissent
Convincing people to challenge prevailing thinking has always been tough, but a new Crucial Learning study shows that people are more reluctant than ever to speak their minds. The research reveals that nine out of 10 people have felt emotionally or physically unsafe speaking their minds more than once in the past 18 months. Instead of voicing their opinions or concerns, respondents resorted to unhealthy behaviors that cripple constructive dialogue and drive people farther apart. These behaviors include staying silent but feeling inauthentic (65%), avoiding people (47%), silently fuming and stewing (42%), and ruminating about all the things they’d say if they had the courage (39%).
Productive dissent is not the norm in most organizations. Cultivating it takes intention and effort. Using specific leadership behaviors is vital to success.
Don’t mistake civility for harmony. We’ve all been in those meetings where people sit silently, politely nodding in agreement. Then five minutes later, they’re complaining to their colleagues about the ridiculous decision the team just made. In healthy work environments, people don’t bury their concerns or ideas. Leaders must model that we address issues openly and directly because unresolved issues jeopardize relationships and performance.
Be skeptical of your point of view. Keep an open mind. Many leaders ask for feedback when they’ve already made up their minds. What they’re looking for is buy-in. Instead of hearing and internalizing alternative points of view, they focus on overcoming objections and selling their ideas.
Create dissent. Stimulate the conversation by asking specific questions. Instead of a benign “Does anyone have anything to add,” say, “Who can offer a contrarian view?” or “What’s a different perspective we can consider?” Another option is to set a precedent that no important decision is finalized if the team has zero questions or objections.
Be patient. Dissent will slow the process in the short run. The upside is that surfacing diverse views and concerns early will increase buy-in, minimize risk, and generate better solutions while saving time in the long run.
Provide a framework for dissent. People are increasingly sensitive. Colleagues challenging the status quo can be upsetting and viewed as confrontational or offensive. Set ground rules that keep conflict productive and stop emotions from spiraling out of control.
- Pick your opportunities—Choose issues that can make a material difference, are consistent with strategy, and have the organization’s best interest in mind.
- Focus on the future, not decisions made in the past.
- Support your ideas/concerns with facts and rational analysis.
- Package dissent with potential solutions.
- Keep the dissent constructive; aim it at the project, not the person.
Pay attention to what happens with dissenting views. People need to know that the risk of dissenting is worth the reward. Do dissenting points of view get a fair hearing? Do they lead to change? Are people recognized for speaking up? Do you tell stories about how challenging the status quo made a difference?
The Bottom Line on Dissent
Dissent may be uncomfortable in the beginning, but the payoff is worth it. A Boston Consulting Group Study of 100,000 corporate filings revealed that companies that described themselves as “supporting debate and diverse opinions, truth, fact, and transparency,” enjoyed an additional 0.7% in annual growth and an additional 0.6% in annual shareholder returns over a three-year period, as well as enhanced employee engagement and management diversity.