The best teams I have been on have been teams where dissent was invited, opportunities to dissent were created, and gratitude was expressed to those who cared enough to dissent. To dissent is to “hold or express opinions that are at variance with those previously, commonly, or officially expressed.” I am of the mind that dissension is a demonstration of a strong opinion, of confidence in oneself, and of comfort with the leader. As a leader, I have always seen a junior’s willingness to dissent with me as a measure of all three. And of those three measures, the one I valued most is that I made them comfortable enough to dissent.
I have worked with people who had strong opinions yet held back either because they had little confidence in themselves or didn’t know that I was so comfortable receiving constructively critical honesty. When in those situations, I worked hard to make it clear that everyone understood that I valued such honesty and that being unwilling to dissent is the surest way to let the team down. Additionally, I would publicly praise those who cared enough to openly express a differing opinion and I would frame dissenters as among those who were most committed to continual improvement.
But what happens when a dissenter defaults to a difference of opinion? One of my most valued mentors shared a story with me years ago. I won’t tell you the story, but the moral was “…when my boss and I had a difference of opinion, he owned the opinion and I owned the difference.” The key is to constructively share that difference regardless of the outcome. I have been on teams when I owned that difference with my boss and the frequency with which I was owning a growing list of differences made it clear to me that it was time for me to leave the team. Though I have never been on a team where I, as a leader, had a long list of opinions that differed from the team I was leading, I could suppose such a scenario would leave me to believe that either I wasn’t the right leader for the team or the team was not properly oriented.
Even when we are committed to the mission of the team to which we belong, if we find ourselves defaulting to dissent, it’s time for a change. A change of employment, a change of opinion, or a change in our approach. I value constructive dissent a great deal, as it helps inform the best decisions. Being on a team where the leader invites dissent is a blessing. Being a leader of a team who feels comfortable constructively expressing dissent is wonderful. But when the differentiation becomes the constant, it’s far from a blessing and it most certainly isn’t wonderful. When we default to dissent, it’s time to recommit to the team or commit to a new one.
- Do you care enough to dissent with your leader?
- Are you leading in such a way that your team feels comfortable constructively expressing dissent?
- What happens when we find ourselves defaulting to dissent?