The importance of dissent

If no one challenges the beliefs of the leadership, soon there are no beliefs – only thoughtless, unchanging dogmas. Full consensus leads to utter mediocrity.


Many leadership methods are about creating consistency. It is easy then to overlook the vital importance of dissent in an effective organization. Organizations depend on shared values and common purpose. Leaders try to build alignment around their decisions, working to eradicate passive-aggressive behavior. Company policies are there to streamline the conduct of employees and remove unwanted individualism.

We say that a functioning organization is like a school of fish – fish that all swim in the same direction. Yet none of this would work without pockets of dissent. We need the obstinate herring that has his or her own view and tries to swim in a different direction.

We need dissent and divergence in order to reach the right conclusions and decisions at the end. If no one challenges the beliefs of the leadership, then soon there are no beliefs, but only thoughtless, unchanging dogmas. Full consensus leads to utter mediocrity.

As a leader, you make decisions and you stand for them, but you must also leave room for those who disagree with you and listen to them. Listen to the dissenters and hear them out and understand why they have a different opinion. You do this not only for them, but for anyone in the organization who once, in the future, may become a dissenter for a while.

From time to time, you’ll make decisions to you decisions and policies based on the input from the dissenters. As you do that, it’s important that you make it known to everybody that you did listen to them and you did take their view into account. That statement alone will reassure everybody that it’s perfectly all right to speak your mind – to say what you think and make proposals that diverge from the current plan.

When that happens, your organization strengthens, becomes much more agile, more productive, even more innovative, because people know they won’t be judged by their opinions. They may be judged by their results and commitment to the company, but not by their opinions.

Once the dissenting views have been heard and fully considered, it’s time for alignment again. After divergence comes convergence. Decisions are made and communicated. Now it is time for the organization to agree and commit, or to disagree and commit. Commitment from everyone is key.

For long-term success, the leadership team must learn to appreciate dissent and to create unity around a joint commitment. When that happens, the fish will again all swim in the same direction, but the direction may have been influenced by the obstinate few who had valuable input on the direction of where the company is going.

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