How to use dissent to your advantage

by | Nov 19, 2018 | Blog | 0 comments

Do you long for consensus over dissent on your teams? If so, you might be surprised to learn that dissent has a distinct upside.

You and your team members can reap many benefits from dissent without actively searching for it. The secret is simply avoid the suppression of dissent. Your aim is to listen to the lone voice who holds a different point of view from the majority.

Let’s first review the benefits of dissent – that is, all the positive things that can happen when one differing voice is brave enough to speak up.

According to psychology professor and author of In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business, Charlan Nemeth, just one dissenting voice provides these three benefits:

  1. Broadens our thinking, motivating us to be more flexible and consider more information, often from different sources.
  1. Stimulates us to think about an issue from multiple perspectives, which reduces our biases, helps us avoid complacency, and encourages us to contemplate alternatives, even see new opportunities.
  1. Helps us make higher-quality decisions because we’re more open, curious and thinking more creatively. We’ll then consider more options rather than deliberating in an either/or situation, which tends to happen when we are following a systematic and logical narrow path. (This is the difference between divergent and convergent thinking.)

In Dr. Nemeth’s judgment, the dissenting voice doesn’t have to be persuasive for the group to gain these benefits. The value comes from the individual’s action of speaking up, which prompts different thinking.

When exposed to dissent, individuals start to work more as independent thinkers rather than a unanimous group, which helps guard against the insidious problems of groupthink.

Groupthink can be a common trap these days for a couple of reasons.

One, we humans are social animals, so we often find ourselves conforming to group norms, sometimes without fully recognizing it. We’ll muzzle the courage of our convictions and “go along to get along.”

Two, when faced with the extreme complexity and competing priorities pervasive in our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment, we may be inclined to rush to a simplistic solution that we hope everyone can agree to rather than making the effort to understand and explore the nuances of the situation.

To avoid groupthink and improve critical thinking, Professor Nemeth points out one more important caveat that she and others have discovered through research. For the dissent to produce benefits, it needs to be authentic.

In other words, don’t waste time and energy assigning someone the role of “devil’s advocate.” If people aren’t defending positions they’re personally passionate about, they won’t be sincere in the devil’s advocate role. They’ll go through the motions, which lessens the chances of eliciting any break-through thinking for anyone.

Now, let’s now explore how you can get an authentic dissenter to speak up – assuming you want to take advantages of the benefits that dissent offers.

Here are my five tips to increase your comfort with dissent and seek it out:

  • Adopt a different mindset about dissent. Rather than viewing it as a potentially messy, time-consuming annoyance, think of it as a checks and balances step plus a developmental opportunity. By hearing at least one different point of view, you’ll be performing due diligence as well as giving everyone an opportunity to practice their critical thinking.
  • When you convene a group for the first time, ask individuals to find and share the differences among them, not just their similarities. This will help them recognize their “optimal distinctiveness,” what makes them unique. (For more about this, check out How you need to balance belonging with standing out.) This also will help everyone recognize the diversities of thoughts and experiences that people bring to the group.
  • Assume someone in the group will have a different point of view. Or at a minimum, an individual will see both sides of a key issue with the different trade-offs and want to talk about the implications and potential unintended consequences. It’s your job as a leader to make it psychologically safe for someone to speak up. For instance, you can say something like, “We’ve heard a lot of comments against this course of action. Who sees it differently and wants to speak in favor?”
  • Be prepared to meet with team members and others individually. Some individuals find it easier to speak up in private settings, or at least outside the confines of team meetings. In addition to hearing their perspective, you can discuss how to best introduce it to the group.
  • Acknowledge individuals for sharing a different opinion. When you thank someone for voicing their point of view, you show them that you don’t consider them an enemy, but rather a thoughtful thinker. You also encourage them to continue this behavior. Plus, the recognition can encourage others to speak up too.

Seeking dissent takes confidence, courage and commitment from leaders just as it does from those expressing their dissent. And while it may feel uncomfortable at times, you and your team are able to think more critically and reach better conclusions, especially decisions, when you’re challenging each other rather than always acting as one unanimous body.

So if you dread dissent in your teams, how about reevaluating your position?

And for more ideas about improving creativity, productivity, and team cohesiveness, contact me.



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