The Power of Intentional Dissent In Organisations

“Always ask why, Annie,” Dad said one night to a fifteen year old me, as we were washing the dishes together. “Never take anything at face value.” I’m pretty sure Dad later came to regret that advice when I took it to heart and applied it to everything he had ever told me (“Clean your room.” ... “Why?”), but the life lesson had been delivered and accepted: there is profound merit in asking “Why?” with the intent to understand, and then, if the explanation doesn’t sound quite right, asking “Why?” with the intent to dissent. 

Dissent, according to a quick “define dissent” Google search, is: the holding or expression of opinions at variance with those commonly or officially held.

Organisations are full of commonly or officially held opinions. We have elaborate narratives about who the company is in the market place, the service we provide, the need we fulfil, the types of people we employ, the culture we have, the place that our strategy will deliver us to, the efficacy of the leadership that we exist under, and who we are as managers. 

And, as always, amongst our employee population there will be those who:

  1. Accept the narrative;
  2. See the holes in the narrative, but go with the flow; or
  3. See the holes in the narrative, and say so, like the child crying from the sidelines of the parade, “The emperor has no clothes!”

Dissent isn’t something that is routinely encouraged in organisations. In fact, if you’re one to challenge the ‘company line’ then, depending on the appetite for challenge in your company, you could quite quickly become the social pariah for it. Cue the un-evolved response of: “Bob just isn’t on board with where we’re going. He’s so negative. He puts people offside.” 

The majority resist dissent because it demands change - whether it’s a change in narrative to a more truthful but less palatable one (e.g. “we care more about cashflow than we do about people”), a change in opinion, or a change in approach or direction. And change is hard, even for those who think they’re well seasoned in it: we don’t keep changing for change’s sake, and we can become quite attached to narratives that we have accepted or the plans that we have formed. As the mighty Errol Boffey (my eighty seven year old grandfather) once said from the soapbox within his lunchbox, in describing the Law of Inertia: “Things like to keep doing what they’re already doing”. And that includes us: most human beings like to keep thinking in the way we have become accustomed to. 

So when we meet dissent, our instinctive response is to dismiss it (“it’s not true”), discount it (“it’s not really true in this situation”) or to dehumanise the person saying it (“I’m not entertaining the notion that this might be true because I don’t like Bob, who said it”). We do this rather than acknowledging: “This makes me feel uncomfortable, but I’m going to quietly sit in that feeling until I remember that dissenting views help us to create more realistic and robust answers. And once I remember that, I’m going to calmly open my mouth and say, “Oh yeah? Tell me more about that.” ”

Why dissent is brilliant for organisations

  1. Dissenting views given upfront and out loud are a sign of engagement. People want to contribute, and, at this point, they’ve just communicated that they still care enough to do so. You need to facilitate that desire to contribute if you want to ongoingly get the best out of your employees.
  2. When you facilitate dissent, it enables progress. As George Bernard Shaw stated: “All progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Who is the unreasonable man? The one with a dissenting opinion. Everything we take for granted - the fact that women can vote, the fact that we routinely put people in space, the fact that we have discrimination laws that are enacted and upheld - was all a profound unlikelihood at the time it was first raised, and it came from a dissenting view. And the dissenting view held firmly over time ultimately forced progress. Although people are typically (and strongly) incentivised by organisations to be compliant rather than dissenting, organisations will be better off if they make room for employees to force progress through dissent. 

Beliefs that prevent us from facilitating dissent

We won’t facilitate dissent if we believe:

  1. We don’t have the time to do anything about it. It takes time to hear these views and respond to them (either by querying, actioning, or providing reasons for why action won’t occur). And this time might not look like the kind of action that we're so routinely rewarded for.
  2. There is no appetite for change in the organisation. If too many people think, “What’s the point? It’ll never change. That’s just the way things are done around here,” then that view becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. 
  3. It’s too controversial. If you feel too scared to support a view that you see as controversial, then you won’t put your neck on the line for it. 
  4. Dissent is wrong. A lot of people have grown up in situations that have taught them that dissent is dangerous to their well being (command and control parents) or morally wrong (certain religions believe that all authorities are instituted by God and are not to be resisted) or culturally wrong (certain cultures have face-saving drivers that strongly discourage dissent). Those are hard beliefs to combat, so you’d need to institutionalise safe ways to dissent, and normalise that as a behaviour, in order to combat those beliefs. 
  5. That we don’t, personally, have the ability to handle a dissenting person’s opinion. There might be a number of reasons that someone could feel like this. If you have a conflict avoidant personality or are high on the strengths of Harmony or Consistency, then you’re probably going to freaking hate the situations where you come face to face with (as you think of her) Negative Nancy. Actually, she’s just Dissenting Debbie, and your response is an instinctive one, not a fair one. It is, as the colloquial saying goes, “your shit, not her shit.” 

Ideas that help us make room for dissent

  1. Dissent gives us a more complete, more truthful picture. Picture a group of objects on a table in the middle of the room, surrounded on all sides by people with sketchpads. Everyone is going to draw a different picture of exactly the same group of objects, based on where they are sitting - that is, based on their perspective. Whenever we approach a situation at work, this exact same thing is happening - we will all see different possibilities based on our perspective. If we facilitate the input of everyone, we will get a much more complete picture than if we don’t. We need to remember that there is always more than one way of seeing the world, and so, while convenient, individual ideas about “right and wrong” are rarely helpful and definitely never complete. As the cliche goes: no one has the monopoly on good ideas.
  2. Dissent is not a personal attack. Even if you’re the person who came up with the thing that someone else is saying “I don’t think we should be doing that,” we need to remember that that is not the same thing as saying “[insert your name here] is an idiot for thinking that we should do that.” Sometimes dissent might look like a personal attack when we challenge a narrative that we have surrounding a person - say, a leader or a manager - but this can be mitigated if we set up safe environments to express dissent about leadership or management styles respectfully. 
  3. Dissent is indicative of courage, not a character flaw, on the part of the person delivering it. Dissent requires courage. At its most unconscious and instinctive, the mental process for the majority of human beings will go along the following lines: “If I challenge this person/situation/issue then I might ultimately lose my job, and thus lose my means of meeting the various needs that I and my family have. Dissent = bad.” Most people don’t bother to open their mouth, and either put up with whatever issues the organisation is currently beset with, or they vote with their feet instead by leaving. 
  4. Dissent can be done in incredibly respectful, enriching ways, that leave everyone better off for it. It doesn’t have to be rude or blunt or traumatic. It does require time, a safe space and attentiveness, though. It does require a willingness to suspend what you think you know, in order to create room for something new to penetrate your realm of possibility. 

What happens in organisations that do not facilitate dissent 

Dissent can be an incredibly powerful tool when harnessed and approached in strategic ways. If you do not harness it, and instead dismiss it, you can expect to:

  1. Create a culture of Yes Men. The resulting homogeneity of views will stifle innovation that most organisations require to stay alive;
  2. Disengage people with dissenting views, thus leading to their lower productivity and possible turnover (both of which have bottom line impacts); and or
  3. Create division within the company when the dissenting person simply starts dissenting in private to their peers. There’s a real potential for toxicity (and widespread disengagement, with all of its negative side effects) when this occurs.

There are multiple ways that organisations can strategically facilitate dissent, but that’s an essay for another day.