Can constructive dissent encourage diversity of opinion?


It’s all very well saying that your organisation has a safe environment for differences of opinion, but would you consider actively encouraging constructive dissent? How would this work, and what would be the benefits?

Perhaps the most famous “yes-man” in popular culture is The Simpsons’ Waylon Smithers. Smithers is always on hand to agree with everything Mr Burns says, even though he does on occasion voice his concerns privately to others. Mr Burns values his “young bootlick” Smithers over all other employees, but would he run a better business if Smithers was empowered to voice constructive dissent? 

A different kind of heroism

Back in November 2019, I was glued to the U.S. Impeachment Hearings. For some this may have been like watching paint dry, but I was fascinated. I watched the House Democrats building their case against Trump with carefully chosen witnesses, and the way in which they took great pains to establish these witnesses’ credibility to head off sure-fire Republican attempts to discredit them.

When an official from the American Embassy in Ukraine named David Holmes was being introduced, one particular part of his biography caught my attention. In 2014 Holmes was awarded the William R. Rifkin Award for Constructive Dissent by the American Foreign Service Association. This is as close as you can get to an award for bravery in a civil role: the award recognises “demonstrations of intellectual courage to challenge the system from within”.

Every organisation should consider adopting some form of this award to encourage constructive dissent. Here’s why.

Hiring for diversity of opinion

The research is clear on the benefits of Diversity & Inclusion. Hiring and including professionals with diverse backgrounds, education, work and life experience can unlock a healthier workplace culture, combat ‘groupthink’ and supercharge innovation. But realising these benefits hinges on diverse employees feeling secure enough to voice dissent or difference of opinion.

The fear is real. We’ve all been in a situation where someone in a position of authority makes an announcement or gives the details of a plan that has a glaring flaw, is worryingly unrealistic or simply won’t work, and the team knows it. But if you’ve worked somewhere where dissent is discouraged or unheard of, people are genuinely concerned that speaking up will harm their career. The moment for feedback passes by, the plan is locked in place … and fails spectacularly six months later.

Dissent takes bravery because by nature it is always voiced upwards from below. Managers knock back ideas from employees every day, but reversing these roles isn’t easy. I’ve known managers who breezily ask for feedback on their ideas but lose their minds if one of their team members dares to give an honest opinion.

So, the challenge is to create an environment where dissenting opinions are not only welcomed, but encouraged. This can be done by ensuring all managers react appropriately to dissension (praising the dissenting individual and welcoming debate), but if you really want to scale up the flow of ideas, then creating an award for constructive dissent might be just the ticket.

Putting the emphasis on “constructive”

Let’s step into a manager’s shoes for a minute. Having a team full of employees enthusiastically dissenting with everything you put on the table could rapidly become extremely annoying, not to mention time-consuming. To ensure their feedback is constructive rather than just tearing down ideas, employees should be able to articulate:

  • What has been missed? Perhaps the person who came up with the idea is unaware of a factor that makes it untenable.

  • What risks would this create for the project or wider organisation?

  • What is an alternative proposal that addresses these concerns while solving the original challenge?

Dissenters should take care to avoid making their boss (or the proposer of the idea) look stupid. Be respectful, and focus on outcomes.

Uncomfortable leadership

In a way, the old image of the “strong leader” has been flipped upside down. It takes more strength of character to welcome dissent and feedback than it does to shut down all debate from your team. Dissent can create tension and discomfort; so a leader should be adept at keeping the debate constructive, keeping the conversation moving towards an outcome, and ensuring it doesn’t dissolve into an argument.

Leaders of diverse teams should be:

  • Comfortable with dissent and uncomfortable conversations.

  • Secure in their authority despite their ideas being challenged.

  • Adept at ensuring dissent leads to an outcome rather than just a debate.

Increased diversity of opinion will lead to higher quality decision-making in your organisation, but shutting down uncomfortable debate negates the benefits of hiring diverse employees in the first place. Creating an environment where difference of opinion is encouraged will take time, which is why creating a reward system such as the William R. Rifkin award could be an effective way to incentivise constructive dissent.

Talk to Six Degrees Executive to learn more about the benefits of diverse hiring.