Constructing a Culture of Dissent

Seldom has a great business product or idea evolved without being tested or questioned by others in an effort to improve it. Most innovation or idea creation is a function of a collective where individuals, through discourse and discussion, work together to create something special.

The key ingredients in many of these creative sessions are dissent, disagreement and discourse. It’s human nature to disagree, so why not make it productive? “Decision making improves if you can stimulate constructive conflict, or vigorous debate, within teams,” said Michael Roberto, a professor of management at Bryant University and author of Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer.

Yet too often organizations struggle to foster a culture where dissent from the bottom up is not only accepted but encouraged. Roberto said the issue is partly driven by the fundamental nature of organizational hierarchy. Those further down the chain of command view hierarchy as a compensation and promotion driver; therefore, disagreeing with a superior, or questioning his or her idea, may seem ill-advised.

The nature of a firm’s business and the culture that comes with it is also a factor, Roberto said. A large corporation may bring with it a culture steeped in traditional values, maintaining some of its historic principles while also creating new ones, though transformation may happen less quickly.

A younger or smaller firm, on the other hand, may naturally operate more horizontally in its leadership structure, thus providing a favorable environment for discourse and discussion because a strict cultural hierarchy was never there to begin with.

Much of the power in embracing dissent comes down to individual leaders. No matter how restrictive or accepting of discourse a corporate culture may be, Roberto said, it’s up to front-line leaders to set the tone. Further, it’s a diversity leader’s job to act as the catalyst, coaching and developing leaders to embrace practices that encourage productive discourse within their teams.

“You almost can’t have effective diversity without a culture that embraces constructive dissent,” said Deborah Elam, vice president and chief diversity officer at General Electric Co.

Designing Dissent
Fostering a culture of constructive dissent relies on communication and team dynamics. First, diversity leaders should encourage front-line leaders to create an environment of psychological safety within their teams.

Corinne Post, an assistant professor of management at Lehigh University, said creating a safe environment means generating a sense of trust throughout the team. “When you have that feeling of safety, people are more willing to speak up, they’re more willing to bring information to the table,” she said.

Part of creating a safe environment is openly setting the table for debate and diversity of thought during team meetings.

Rosanna Durruthy, chief diversity officer at health insurance firm Cigna, said leaders should purposefully invite debate at the start of an idea-generating session. A leader should “invite individuals to take opposing sides of an issue and place those differences on the table as an act of creation,” Durruthy said.

This requires leaders to be actively curious and listen, instead of always seeking to place their own ideas on the table first.

Simply encouraging dissent in a meeting isn’t always enough, however. Encouragement might not compel the most intimidated of employees to speak up, according to Diana M. Smith, author of The Elephant in the Room: How Relationships Make or Break the Success of Leaders and Organizations.

Smith said leaders must find early adopters of constructive dissent in a team environment. This is especially true when trying to get more junior employees to be comfortable speaking up. “People need to see that [constructive dissent] isn’t punished, but that it is rewarded and encouraged and well received,” Smith said. Once early adopters of dissent are established, the more reluctant employees will start to feel comfortable.

For some leaders, early adoption might come naturally. There are some practical ways leaders can bolster early adoption in preparation for a team meeting or discussion.

Bryant University’s Roberto said one thing leaders can do is purposefully ask some team members before a meeting to play the role of devil’s advocate. Say, “Your role is to question people’s assumptions today,” he said.

Roberto said another option is to split the team into smaller groups during a meeting. This helps avoid groupthink and might encourage those typically hesitant to speak up in a large group environment to participate.

A final option might be for the leader to leave the room altogether. Roberto said team members behave differently when a leader is in the room because they’re trying to read the boss’ facial expressions or nonverbal cues, or they’re simply waiting for the boss to express his or her views.

Sometimes, however, team meetings might not be the right setting to have dissenting dialogue. Depending on the purpose of the meeting or the particular employee’s personality, other professional settings might be more suitable, Cigna’s Durruthy said.

Some employees might feel more comfortable expressing dissenting views in a one-on-one situation; others might prefer an informal setting, such as at a lunch or while walking through the office, Durruthy said. Again, it depends on the employee’s personality or preference.

Further, as team communication continues to increase via virtual networks and mobile devices, promoting constructive dissent requires flexibility and nuance. Email is one of the primary forms of business communication today, but dissent in an email needs to be treated differently, according to Candice Barnhardt, chief diversity and inclusion officer at auto insurer Nationwide Insurance.

“If someone sends you a note or an email that is complimentary, feel free to write back,” Barnhardt said. “But if someone sends you a note or an email that is concerning, that is expressing a differing point of view or seems in any way to be challenging, you don’t get to write back — you pick up the phone and call or you walk to their office.”

Because so many nonverbal elements of face-to-face communication are absent in an email, it’s more productive for team members to discuss disagreement or challenge over the phone or in person, Barnhardt said.

GE’s Elam said she would never recommend using email to exercise constructive dissent. “There’s too much open for misinterpretation,” she said. “… It takes too much energy to try and navigate through versus a real-time discussion.”

The Rules of the Road
Constructive dissent has to have purpose to be productive. It also has to be shaped in a way that maintains its value and avoids veering into destructive territory.

Saj-nicole Joni, co-author of The Right Fight: How Great Leaders Use Healthy Conflict to Drive Performance, Innovation and Value and CEO of Cambridge International Group Ltd., a CEO advisory, said there are three important elements of healthy conflict.

First, it has to be “the right fight.” In other words, the dissent has to be about something that matters; it has to have an impact on something material, such as the bottom line. “If something matters but the marginal difference … doesn’t matter to the customer, don’t fight about it,” Joni said.

Second, healthy conflict has to be about the future, not the past. In researching The Right Fight with her co-author, Damon Beyer, Joni said they found that some 85 percent of internal conflict in organizations is about something that’s already happened. Constructive dissent, she said, cannot be about settling scores; it has to be about the future.

Finally, the business issue being debated has to have value or noble purpose for the business. “What you’re trying to create has to matter more than just making 10 extra cents per widget,” Joni said. “It has to allow you to put a product in the market that makes a difference. It has to allow you to create a service that allows you to make a difference in people’s lives. It has to be something that people are proud of working on.”

Constructive dissent also can’t be steeped in the narrow self-interest of the individual moving it forward, said Smith, the author of The Elephant in the Room. Constructive dissent is productive only as a dialogue, not a one-way street. Leaders should make sure that the dissenter not only presents his or her argument but also invites a challenge in response.

The context of the discussion in the meeting or interaction among workers is also important, Roberto said. For instance, if a meeting or discussion is meant as a brainstorming session, the idea is to generate as many ideas as possible, not to jump in and invite conflict about those ideas.

There also has to be clarity about the structure of the decision-making process. “Certainly constructive dissent does not serve the responsibility to arrive at a decision,” Cigna’s Durruthy said. “And sometimes the decision is not a majority rules decision. Sometimes the leader will be the one to decide.”

Given the continued globalization of business, leaders also must pay attention to how practices related to communicating constructive dissent work across cultures and countries.

“There are cultures that are probably more accustomed to and more used to being verbally dissenting than not,” Elam said. “So you’ve got to have some level, as a leader, of cultural competence to know that, and to know if you’re operating in a culture where verbalizing dissent has not historically been valued. You need to be smart enough to know that silence is not agreement.”