10 Ways An Organisation Can Strategically Facilitate Dissent

Toward the end of last year I wrote an article about The Power of Intentional Dissent in Organisations, which advocated that, because dissent forces progress, organisations that can strategically facilitate dissent from their employees will end up with a competitive advantage. But how, practically, might an organisation strategically facilitate dissent? As with any behaviour that you want from your employees, you must firstly make it safe, and then make it valuable, to engage in.

To make dissent safe, it must be: 

  1. safe to give - that is, there is no retribution for expressing a dissenting opinion; and 
  2. safely given- that is, dissent is delivered in a way which is respectful and enquiring, so that the people who receive it are not damaged in the process. 

These are behavioural norms that would need to be established within the culture of the organisation.

To make dissent valuable, it must be: 

  1. incentivised,as all human behaviour is a response to an incentive; and 
  2. engaged with in a meaningful way. That is, dissent must result in some form of clear response from the environment. No employee will keep giving their feedback if it is never acted upon, or if the action doesn’t respond to their feedback in a way that feels appropriate. 

Bearing in mind these requirements for safety and value, here are 10 ways to make it more likely that your employees will tell you what they really think:

  1. Train employees in how to deliver dissent respectfully, succinctly and compellingly. This is particularly important if the dissent is in relation to the efficacy of a management or leadership style. 
  2. Train managers in how to facilitate, and appropriately respond to, dissent. Help them to understand their individual reservations to facilitating dissent, so they are not tripped up by them.
  3. Create a code word that someone can blurt out to indicate that they need to dissent, and to remind everyone else that the rules for dissent need to be remembered in the interaction that is about to happen. I like the phrase “By George!” (in reference to George Bernard Shaw, who said that all progress in life depends on the unreasonable man) or the word “Emperor!” (for the Emperor Has No Clothes). 
  4. End each meeting with an invitation to dissent - something along the lines of “Who can offer a dissenting view?”, “How do we make this better?” or “What am I missing?” are all sufficiently positive and open-ended. 
  5. Make it fun - celebrate the courage of those who do dissent, until it becomes normal to do so. What if you handed out a Lion Award (in reference to the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz, who went to the Wizard for courage) each team meeting, to the person who had offered up the most useful, or thoughtful, dissenting view in the previous period? 
  6. If you genuinely want to incentivise behaviour, it must have a carrot or a stick attached to it. You could reward really helpful dissent with some form of compensation or recognition, or you could make dissenting a certain number of times a KPI that each manager and senior leader needed to hit.
  7. Use technology to poll your employee population whenever a large change is imminent, so you can understand how they think and feel about it. Politicians poll their constituents to gauge sentiment, so why don’t organisations do the same? If we cared more about the opinions of our employee population, I posit that we would end up with much better engagement scores than those that currently exist. 
  8. Stop telling your employee population what you’re going to do with the results of engagement surveys, and let them tell you what they want you to do about it. If you've asked for their input about areas for improvement, the least you can do is also ask them how they would like to see these areas addressed.
  9. Build float into projects to accomodate changes that need to happen as a result of information or ideas that have come about through dissent.
  10. Keep a register of dissents, so that you can see how many are or are not resulting in actual change. This will give you an idea about whether or not you are engaging with dissent in a meaningful way, or if it’s all just lip service. 

What do you think? How else, practically, could organisations facilitate dissent?

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