Dealing with dissenters in the workforce
“May we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.”
~Dwight D. Eisenhower~
At a team meeting, Valerie pitched a marketing strategy she’d been thinking about for a while. A fellow team member vocally outlined a number of holes in the plan, leaving Valerie feeling shaken. She’d believed this was the best idea she’d ever brought to the table.
“Dealing with dissenters in the workplace can be scary,” a colleague told her later over coffee. “It forces you to get outside of your comfort zone and hear criticism about your ideas, your performance, or group dynamics that might sting at first.” Often it’s hard to hear because it’s expressed with a tone of anger or frustration, her colleague acknowledged. He then added, “But dissent is actually a gift—it points out gaps that need to be filled, weaknesses that need to be strengthened. When you’re open to hearing dissent, you’ll continually improve your best ideas. Plus, open communication is key to building trust in the workplace.”
How to encourage dissent at work:
- Ask for critiques. Soliciting criticism is the only way to make your people feel comfortable voicing it. Don’t assume they feel comfortable stating it just because you respond well to it. Ask for it assertively; show real enthusiasm for hearing it, rather than making weak statements like, “Feel free to voice any criticism you might have.” Explain why dissent is so important to your organization to show you’re committed to hearing and using it. Trusting your people to provide input will make your whole team shine.
- Ask follow-up questions. To really listen to what your dissenters have to say, prompt people to explain their rationale for their dissenting opinions. If in a group discussion, ask others what they think about the dissenting opinion. Dig deep into the issue, igniting conversation that helps people more fully understand how they feel about the issue. That way, the dissent won’t just be taken at face value, and one person won’t shift the direction of the plan without everyone’s input. Dissent in the workforce needs to be explored, validated, and utilized by the group to be effective.
- Make sure the comments are directed to the people who need to hear them. Communicating dissent is only empowering if the people voicing it know it will be heard by someone with the ability to use their feedback. Make sure people know who will hear their comments. For example, tell your team about your upcoming meeting with high-level executives and assure them you’ll share their feedback there, if appropriate. Then follow through, and share the results with your team.
- Ask for solutions. Challenge dissenters to present possible solutions, even far-fetched ones. When people start thinking creatively, solutions that higher-ups never imagined might take shape. However, people should feel free to voice dissent regardless of whether they’ve thought of a solution yet or not.
- Rework the plan together. If critiques go to only one person who reformulates the plan singlehandedly, you’ll just see different problems arise. The plan needs to be reworked by a group who can see it from different vantage points and talk through concerns that arise in the moment.
- Express gratitude for the dissent. When you share genuine gratitude in the workplace with someone for having the courage to voice their dissent, you’ll encourage more constructive dissent in the future. Thank the person in front of the group to send the message to everyone.
Dealing with dissenters in your workplace will grow easier as voicing dissent becomes an accepted part of the culture. When it’s welcomed rather than feared, people will start to present it in a more positive way rather than feeling they have to be aggressive about it or stay silent. As people put it into practice, they’ll hone their ideas into stronger plans of action. Additionally, hearing and working with dissent is an important way of becoming a strong communicator, which is key to career advancement. Valerie and her team worked to address the issues raised at the meeting, and together they created a plan that was stronger than any of them could have created on their own.
Do you encourage dissent in your workplace, or do you avoid it? Looking back, can you see any missed opportunities to grow from dissent? Share your stories here.