The value of dissent in your business

Sunil Dias explains the need for dissent in an organisation, the need to disagree and how to manage disagreements

It’s great having a workplace where everyone agrees with one another. Where taking decisions is a breeze since everyone seems so much in tune with one another. Where you can be sure that employees will sagely nod their heads during key meetings. For sure, it makes for a more cordial environment. Yet, there’s a dark side to this agreeable atmosphere. It could lead to lack of innovation and business stagnation.
In his 1974 article, Professor Jerry Harvey recalls a trip with his wife to his in-law’s house in Coleman, Texas.
“It is a hot afternoon, and the family is comfortably sitting on the porch playing dominos. The father-in-law suggests a 50-mile road trip to Abilene town for dinner.The wife says that it sounds like a great idea.The son-in-law thinks it’s a bad idea to travel 50 miles in a un-airconditioned car in the heat and dust. But he agrees since everyone seems to want to go. The drive is hot, dusty and long. And the food is bad. Four hours later, the exhausted foursome are back home. And they then realize that nobody wanted to go on the trip. The father-in-law suggested it since he thought everyone else was getting bored. The wife went along to keep her husband happy. The mother-in-law said she came since everyone else seemed enthusiastic about the trip. The group had taken a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably. Yet, they did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.”
Prof. Harvey called this the Abilene paradox. A situation where people take actions in dissonance with what they really want to do. These actions often defeat the goal that they are trying to achieve. In our professional and personal lives, we often encounter the Abilene paradox. Individually, everyone seems to know the obvious and the right thing to do. Collectively, actions and decisions are very different from what each individual thinks. That leads to dysfunction.
The Abilene paradox is different from ‘groupthink’. In groupthink, everyone thinks that the right decision has been taken. So, while the decision may be bad for the organization, at least it doesn’t have a direct impact on employee morale. In the Abilene paradox, every individual is aware of the sub-optimal action. When they know what’s wrong with a decision, but for some reason they can’t or won’t speak up. That can crush employee morale. It’s enough to puncture the enthusiasm of your best employee. Besides, the sub-optimal decision is bad for your business.
Considering the impact, preventing the Abilene paradox should be top priority. And it seems easy enough to assume that people will speak their mind. Yet, we are often afraid of speaking up. It’s easier, safer and faster to agree with what everyone else seems to be saying. How do you prevent the Abilene paradox playing out in your organization?

Encourage a ‘dissent culture’
If you’re in a leadership role of any kind, you need to actively encourage dissent. It can feel great to have subordinates agree with everything that you say. Yet, very little dissent is often a sign of employees being afraid of speaking their mind. Or not caring enough to share their views. Both hurt your business. A dissenting culture means that you shouldn’t allow people to just nod their heads at your ideas. For instance, get them to justify why they agree with a certain decision. And you will be surprised how often people don’t have a justification. Other than they feel the need to agree with you!
A leader should do a few things to ensure the dissenting culture doesn’t morph into conflict or lack of respect. There should be agreement about the need to disagree. It is best that everyone understands upfront how to manage disagreements. Ground rules help. For instance, an obvious one is not to allow shouting. Or to make it a rule that everyone asks for permission before disagreeing. Asking for permission, though a formality, demonstrates respect.

Speak your mind
As a professional, it is important to speak your mind. Disagree with something? Does that something have a direct or indirect impact on the business? It is your duty to say so. Sure, there may be organizations where your candour isn’t appreciated.
But organizations which discourage dissent aren’t the best places to work. Besides, speaking your mind can be therapeutic. You don’t need to endlessly weigh every thought in your mind before you air them. That said, it is important to differentiate between the stuff important to a business. And the stuff that’s not. For the stuff that’s not important, it’s sometimes best to agree if the other side has strong views. And save your energies to explain your views on the stuff that matters.

Closing thoughts
It is said that, with hindsight, we regret the things that we didn’t do more than the things that we did. And that starts with speaking your mind, and allowing others in your organization to speak theirs; because if you don’t, it is unlikely that you or your business will get to where you want it to be

The author runs iv-advisors, a consulting firm helping businesses become bigger and better.

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