How to Encourage Dissenters to Speak Up

Organizations often pay lip service to the value of dissent. But cultivating real and valuable disagreement means understanding power---which doesn’t always rest with the exec.

Most leaders understand that dissent is a good thing. When it comes to governance, dissent implies that board members are engaged with the issues the organization faces, and some CEOs go out of their way to make sure that potential board members aren’t just go-along-get-along types.

Even so, good intentions about cultivating dissent can still fail. Hesitance to speak up leads to rubber stamping in the boardroom; valuable criticism in the office goes unspoken. Or, worse, a curdled form of dissent takes hold, one that’s little more than arguments and voicing of grievances. What creates that culture, and how do you fix it?

That’s something that Adriano Pianesi has been thinking about for years now. Pianesi, a leadership scholar and teacher at Johns Hopkins University’s business school, wrote an article last month for SmartBrief about the perils of not speaking up in the workplace. His frame is the #MeToo movement, but the powers that stifle dissent cover plenty more territory, and the failure to express it can do harm to institutions, he argues. “When dissent is not allowed or openly discouraged, the real casualty is the organization’s ability to learn from its environment, failing to make sense of it through differing interpretations and alternative courses of action,” he writes.

Dissenters have the tough job of making power that is invisible visible.

But if a CEO wants to create a more open environment in an association, Pianesi tells me, that leader needs to do more than just proclaim an open-door policy or say it’s OK for dissenting board members to disagree. That’s because while a leader’s tone matters, power doesn’t always flow clearly from the top down; different stakeholders all across the org chart have different levels of power, and the person who wants to speak up can be very sensitive to them.

“When it comes to dissent, the issue becomes, first, is dissent available to me or not, and what are the conditions that increase or decrease the ability of dissent to be available?” he says. Increasing the ability to dissent, Pianesi says, requires a talent for “making power that is invisible visible”—that is, knowing where power resides, and knowing it’s not always with the CEO or board chair. “The condition of using dissent successfully, I found, is in the understanding of how power is distributed in the organization.”

Is it any wonder, then, that dissenters are disinclined to pipe up? It can be hard even in small organizations to determine who wields power and who’ll use it against you should you speak up in a way they dislike; in large organizations, that kind of interpretation can be tantamount to advanced calculus. And ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. As Pianesi points out in the SmartBrief article, disengagement and silence are its own form of dissent, but one that starves the organization of ideas and discussion and “perpetuates the organization’s pervasive narrative of powerlessness.”

To start attacking the problem, Pianesi says, leaders do well to promote a policy of openness. But putting that openness into practice matters too, and much of that demands that offices and boardrooms become more communicative—because without regular communication, stray critical statements can be misinterpreted.

“There’s a distinction between cognitive conflict and personal conflict,” he says. “Personal conflict is always to be avoided: ‘I hate you.’ Cognitive conflict is ‘The idea doesn’t work.’ That has nothing to do with the fact that it’s your idea, but that the idea in itself needs to be denied and probed and attacked. But in the absence of a human connection it’s very easy to take cognitive conflict as personal conflict. So my perspective has been to try to deal in some level of basic community connection between people. That will safeguard a cognitive conflict from turning into personal conflict.”

To that point, Pianesi recalled recently sitting in on a board meeting where he was struck by how little two longtime fellow board members knew about each other on a personal level, about family members and recent trips. So those get-to-know-you icebreakers that we often dismiss have a real role to play as the first building blocks in creating understanding and trust. After all, what’s your reflexive reaction to disagreement from a stranger, versus that of a close friend? That doesn’t mean you have to be pals with board members or co-workers, but if effective disagreement is your goal, understanding each other matters.

What do you do in your organization to promote a culture of effective dissent? Share your experiences in the comments.

(julief514/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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