The power of dissent


How many times a day are you engaged with others about a decision, opportunity. or challenge in your organization? How many meetings do you have to discuss them? How do these meetings go?

I am guessing that nearly 100% of the attendees of the meeting come in with their own opinion and the meeting is actually a debate as each person tries to convince the others in the room that their point of view is in fact the correct one.

I hope you are not excited about reading about this type of situation but I promise I will cover that in a future post. What I want to shine a light on is when there is a majority but one or two folks put forth an alternative point of view?

This type of action is called dissent. By definition, dissent is "the expression or holding of opinions at variance with those previously, commonly, or officially held". It is also a step in the direction of divergent thinking (more on that in another post as well) as opposed to convergent thinking. The majority of our days are spent in convergent thinking because we face challenges and those challenges require solutions and we are pressed for time so we efficiently and effectively move to matching one of our known solutions to that problem and move on. That is precisely why we quickly silence dissent within organizations which also prevents us from entertaining different and novel solutions to our challenges.

There are 2 main reasons that leaders do not like dissent:

  1. Leaders are the smartest and wisest person in the room. They were promoted to a leadership role because they excel at problem solving so it makes sense that they know the right answer. If they don't have the right answer, they would not be the leader. (this also has to do with fear of ambiguity and control)

  2. Time is money. We need to move quickly because speed is essential to success. Leaders are already working 10-12 hours days so there is not additional time for them to consider other options when they already know the right answer.

These are both laughable but also very true.

Dissent is a powerful tool that leaders should leverage because it provides a very real benefit over time. Consider the following:

  • Dissent opens up thinking. It doesn't matter if the dissenting opinion is right. The value of dissent is that it widens the view of the people in the discussion and offers an alternative reality. There are so many assumptions built into solutions that are not questioned and this causes tremendous angst down the line.

  • Agreement does not equal efficacy. There are so many dynamics at work when any group meets it is hard to imagine that everyone is even focused on the actual discussion. Group dynamics are challenging because everything influences the outcome. Many thing impact the quality of a meeting - things like location, seating arrangement, attendee roster, agenda (f there is one), career implications of disagreement, each attendee's current to do list...the list goes on and on. Remember that just because the majority agrees with a solution (that is normally put forth by the highest ranking person in the meeting) does not make it the best possible solution.

  • Dissent strengthens decisions. If dissent is permitted (don't misunderstand...you should not encourage dissent as that can lead to dissent for the sake of dissent), the resulting decision will be stronger. If dissent is not allowed, it is like lifting weights with no resistance...no gains are made. If we never question and explain our thought process, we assume it is right and repeat it time and time again. (Not to get too graphic but you can see how this approach plays out biologically by reading The Dangers of Royal Inbreeding)

  • Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Manage your emotions. There are many studies that show how we feel about someone impacts how we view their opinions. Leaders must have a high EQ when it comes to decision making discussions so they don't discount someone's opinion because they don't "like" them.

  • Stupid decisions are not always make stupid people. There are two concepts at play here. No one is their decision. You can make a stupid decision and not be a stupid person. The other concept is that individuals are smart but the collective IQ seems to drop when we are in a group...not sure why but it does.

If you want to see the power of dissent at work, take 96 minutes and watch the original version of 12 Angry Men. It is a phenomenal piece of movie making and shows how many things are at play in a "simple" decision.

Hate & Anger

No one cares about your "Why"