Inviting dissent

I’ve been talking with clients a lot lately, it seems, about truly engaging others around them.  Some of my clients who are very direct in their communications are baffled by others’ reluctance to speak up, particularly in what appears to be a collaborative group effort.  They are frustrated by others’ after-the-fact passive resistance to doing “what the group agreed to do”.   They recognize that it negatively impacts the performance of the team, but they don’t know what to do about it.

“I’ve asked them what they think!” they say, shaking their heads. “Why won’t they just say it?”

“Have you invited dissent?” I ask.  

“What do you mean?” they respond.

“Well, have you intentionally asked them to provide an opposing view, or point out gaps in the current thinking?” I explain.

“Uh, well, no.”

We live in a corporate society where there is a premium on agreement.  He who disagrees with new ideas is labled “resistant to change”.  She who asks critical questions is said to be “not on the team”.   People have been well trained, through experience, not to speak up.  You want to rise quickly to the top?  Don’t ask questions.  Just make things happen.  Get your numbers.  Period. 

In this environment, why are we surprised when people elect not to stick their necks out? 

So, as leaders, to find out what people really think, we must go beyond asking the open question, “What do you think?”  This is read only as an invitation to agreement.

We must invite dissent.  Not all the time, in every situation.  But much more than we do today.  They say knowledge is power.  Gain a better understanding of the situation you are in by asking questions such as:

“What are we missing?”

“What do you see that we could do differently?”

“Tell me which parts of this you’re not comfortable with.”

“Let’s really think through this.  Where are the holes in this idea?”

Then, the key is to listen. Really listen.  Incorporate the negative into the planning, addressing obstacles or providing back-up plans.  And, in some cases, go a different direction altogether. 

I’m sure there were a number of people in the banking world a few years ago who were saying, “Spreading risk is not the same thing as eliminating it,” and “This growth rate is unsustainable.”  Were they listened to? Or, were they marginalized? 

Do you want to be the leader who says, with egg on your face, “I thought everyone was on board!”  or “I had no idea this would happen!”  No?  Then, engage your people in real conversations.  Not one-way, yes-sir exercises.   Invite dissent.  You’ll be more successful for it.


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