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The importance of dissent.

September 25, 2020   ·  

Is it possible to effectively and constructively dissent in the workplace?

It's a question that I've been considering for some time and seems even more important right now as we consider yet further and critical instances of people not stepping up and doing the right thing in the face of colleagues clearly doing something that is wrong, dangerous, illegal and in some cases murderous.

One article I came across recently was published in HBR about the 'obligation to dissent' as a core principle of consulting giant McKinsey & Company. The article explains this obligation to dissent as follows "it means that the youngest, most junior person in any given meeting is the most capable to disagree with the most senior in the room"

The way they see it, and it's hard to disagree with, being obligated to dissent encourages deeper discussion, deeper thinking and better outcomes for all concerned.

How many workplaces operate like this? Not many in my experience.

For sure, most organisations aren't staffed with the kind of people that McKinsey & Co are able to attract... highly motivated, highly educated and intelligent, highly paid people throughout, but is that all it takes to make the difference?

Time and time again we've heard the stories of the people who have worked inside organisations and watched silently as others display the worst kinds of abuses of trust. It never seems to matter until it really matters.

Fear has a big part to play in this. The BBC's recent dramatisation of the Chernobyl disaster showed clearly how even in the face of what protagonists feared might happen, and despite protestations about protocols, lack of training or preparation... "shut up and do as you're told or you'll never work again" was enough to discourage dissent. We all know what happened as a result.

The important thing about dissent is that more often than not, it's people offering an expression of doubt, of a slight misgiving, something not feeling right rather than something cut and dried with a certain outcome. Our inability to raise concerns, doubts, misgivings in our workplaces makes our cultures dramatically weaker, makes the outcomes binary (right or wrong) and in some cases leads to disastrous consequences.

We know that the way most organisational cultures are described to those on the outside is vastly different to the way things are experienced inside them. We've got countless stories of companies being celebrated for their culture ('it's the reason for their success'), only for something terrible to come to light and then everyone quickly blames the culture for it (think Wells Fargo).

Dissent, rather than being an obligation to challenge, to query, to seek better ways of doing things, or even just a means to call out things that aren't right as they're happening, has become associated with 'whistleblowing', often long after the damage has been done and making it something akin to pressing the nuclear button.

I've known several people working in regulated industries that have 'blown the whistle' on practices and behaviours that simply weren't acceptable or represented a breach of regulations, and the outcomes are always as you'd imagine... unless, that is, you're imagining these people receiving congratulations from their senior colleagues for flagging something that they were hitherto unaware of... no, that didn't happen.

What actually happened was probably closer to what most people might expect. They were treated as someone who has committed an act of treason, leaving the firm shortly afterwards and becoming somewhat 'toxic' to other organisations in their field as a result of having the kind of moral fortitude that many companies say they revere.

Faced with consequences like this, it's no wonder that people save their dissent for the day they have to hit the red button rather than calling out the daily indiscretions, the behaviours that don't fit with the company's stated values, and indeed stop us from raising even the slightest doubt about a better way of doing things.

The outcome we all see, hear and experience in organisations of all kinds is one of withdrawal, disengagement, and mindless compliance - we're robbed of our ability to use our judgement, of our desire to exercise our experience in search of doing the right thing. It stops us saying "hang on a minute... this doesn't feel right".

The organisational response (encouraged by regulators and law-makers) is a doubling-down on rules, procedures and process governance, further reducing our ability to do the right thing - or even consider what we're doing to be anything but the right thing.

Encouraging dissent doesn't mean we have to challenge the system all of the time, it doesn't even mean we have to challenge everything in the system, but shouldn't we be challenging more systems and more parts of these systems more of the time?

Fostering conditions in which people feel safe enough to raise their hand, to express a doubt, even to seek clarification - 'why do we do it that way?' - will encourage everyone to seek better ways, to have open and healthy discourse on the way we do things right now, and indeed to reduce the threat to our norms when we're challenged about them. Far too often it feels like if we say something could be done differently and that way might lead to better outcomes, it's received by managers as something akin to calling their children ugly... something deeply personal.

Nothing is ever perfect, but holding ourselves to unattainable standards of perfection, or arbitrary descriptions of 'excellence' only compound our lack of willingness to accept opportunities to improve or challenges to the status quo. Accepting that we can always do better, but along the way doing as well as we can, is an invitation to seek ways to improve ourselves, what we do, and how we do it, all of the time.

As I mentioned at the outset, organisations that have made the obligation to dissent a positive feature of their culture (like McKinsey & Co has) are few and far between, perhaps preferring the idea that when things go badly wrong they can blame the few bad apples. When things go wrong accountability may lie with the individuals involved but the system is most likely to blame.

I started with the question: is it possible to effectively and constructively dissent in the workplace?

I'm wondering now whether it's possible to have an effective and constructive culture without it.


David Bellamy
David Bellamy

Founder and CEO, Connect with David on LinkedIn

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