Freedom to Dissent

A disagreementJake watched for his chance to jump into the conversation. “Our partners in this joint venture are idiots,” he announced witheringly. “No one in his right mind could agree with their conclusions.”

Melanie waited for him to continue, but he didn’t. “Where are you going with that, Jake?” she asked.   “Are you offering an alternative conclusion?”

“Don’t I have the freedom to dissent when I don’t agree?” retorted Jake.

Ah, that precious freedom of speech we so cherish!  The obvious answer to Jake’s question, if we look at the U.S. Constitution, is that Jake is in the right. But does that make him right?

Let’s look to another situation to examine this right to dissent. In January in Paris, eight editors of a satirical newspaper were slain because they regularly ‘dissented’. They printed unflattering and even scurrilous cartoons of politicians, religious leaders, and other public figures. World leaders locked arms in a symbolic march through the streets of Paris in defense of freedom of the press – defending even the coarsest expression of freedom of speech.

And yet, while defending their right to dissent, many people privately wondered whether the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo acted responsibly, or whether they were escalating a volatile situation.

And there’s the rub for all of us as leaders. Jake retains the right to dissent. Dissent is healthy in an organization, because it breaks down group think, and focus on pleasing the boss, and consensus management, all of which have the potential to kill innovation. But dissent is much less powerful as a tool for change when it is not supplemented with the equally important tools that build bridges to better ideas. In fact, dissent alone can do more to bomb the bridges than to reinforce them.

Dissent is a freedom, and like all other freedoms, it comes with responsibilities. As a leader in your organization, you will ask for open dissent. You will be a wise leader if you also ask for – and hold your people accountable to – the responsibilities that come with their dissent:

  • Respectfulness. Dissent should never become belittling, as Jake’s did. Dissent is about an idea, not about the person or people who offered it.
  • Constructive intent. Ask for constructive dissent, given with the intention of moving forward an idea, not killing it. Tearing down ideas deflates those who generate them.
  • Building blocks. Beyond good intent, dissent should be accompanied by efforts to build together on ideas, or at least positive branches off the original idea. Generative collaboration is the most significant factor in innovation.
  • Organizational viewpoint. It’s tempting for people, when dissenting, to see themselves as lone wolf prophets, and place undue weight on personal or minority group righteousness.  Driving home a view that all work is the organization’s work, not any individual’s work, neutralizes that temptation.

Encourage and protect dissent in your organizations, absolutely. And at the same time, keep a wary eye on it. Dissent for dissent’s sake is, at best, half a loaf. Your organization will reap few benefits. Instead, turn that dissent to positive purpose. Assure that everyone who dissents owns the responsibility to accompany his or her dissent with the intent and tools to build bridges to a collaborative future.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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