Striving for the status quo risks impairing company culture and output. On the other hand, companies that pursue healthy dissent will be more prepared to think creatively and solve complex problems.
If you’re in the business of making products, offering services or meeting client needs (i.e most businesses), fixating on consensus will likely do more harm than good. Instead, actively inviting healthy dissent can prevent tunnel vision and reduce potential risks. It just needs to be done right.
“Healthy dissent is giving people permission to express different views or challenge existing ones,” says Margit Mansfield, CEO and psychologist at Keogh Consulting.
After all, it’s well-established that cognitively diverse teams are more likely to solve problems faster. One study found that having at least one person in a team to act as a ‘devil’s advocate’ improved the quality of the group’s decision exponentially.
That’s because seeking consensus narrows focus. Encouraging different perspectives will produce alternatives, spark creativity and push people to consider alternative options.
“Divergent thinking improves the quality of decisions. Considering new perspectives means it’s more likely the final product will meet the end-users needs,” says Mansfield.
Normalising healthy dissent
Do you feel embarrassed, defensive or irritated when challenged? You can chalk that up to evolution.
“The brain is wired for threat. Social threats are perceived in the same way as physical threats,” says Mansfield. “If someone disagrees with you, you may perceive it as a threat to your status. It’s human nature to want to protect the status quo because it feels comfortable.”
The best way to move past discomfort is to reflect on how you react then normalise dissent by actively pursuing feedback, constructive criticism and questions, and being open to change.
“Creating a culture of healthy dissent will improve employee wellbeing and increase productivity. Even though it can feel uncomfortable, in the long run, it’s a win-win situation for both employers and individuals.”
And that doesn’t just mean formal feedback sessions. Instead, you could invite employees to give each meeting a rating, for example.
“Say they give the meeting a three out of 10. Ask, ‘What could I do to make it five?’ Regularly seeking their opinions will instil a culture of continual improvement and help people realise they don’t have to settle for standard practices.”
You could also build feedback sessions into your workflow. For example, whenever a team is finalising a campaign, project, product or strategy, host a review meeting and invite people with different perspectives to weigh in, says Mansfield.
Read HRM’s article on how to host a retrospective review.
Know when to hold your tongue
You can’t expect subordinates to share feedback if they feel like it’s not welcome, or worse, that they’ll get penalised for it.
For people to feel comfortable sharing opinions or raising issues, curiosity, openness and acceptance must be modelled at the top.
There’s just one elephant in the room. Or should we say HIPPO (highest paid person’s opinion). Quite often, people will defer to their leader’s opinion rather than suggesting alternatives. This is also known as authority bias.
Mansfield says if a leader needs to make the final decision, they could say, “I’ll make the final call, but I want to hear all your feedback before I do.”
Leaders should also make a conscious effort to speak last, encouraging more junior people to share their perspectives and ideas, unencumbered by their boss’s point of view.
“If someone disagrees with you, you may perceive it as a threat to your status. It’s human nature to want to protect the status quo because it feels comfortable.” – Margit Mansfield, CEO and psychologist, Keogh Consulting.
Whatever you do, avoid ‘pretend consultation’ where you ask for feedback and then ignore it, says Mansfield.
“This will stamp out critical thinking and discourage employees from contributing ideas or giving feedback in the future.”
If you do end up choosing a different route from what was discussed, you need to articulate why that is, she adds.
Learn how to become a master of giving feedback with AHRI’s short course Having Difficult Conversations.
Useful phrasing to consider
If asking for dissent or criticism feels negative, flip your phrasing so it’s future-focused.
For example, you could say:
- If we never discussed this again, would everyone feel satisfied that we’ve examined every angle?
- Under what circumstances might this idea not work? When might it be a bad idea to implement this plan?
- Has anything been left unsaid? Is there something we’ve been avoiding?
- What about this plan could go wrong?
If a leader is unknowingly shutting down ideas, it might be worth pulling them aside and calling it out privately.
“People don’t always realise they’re acting defensive,” says Mansfield. “You could say something like, ‘I noticed when you shut that person down, people stopped sharing ideas.’ For most leaders, that’s not their intention. Making them aware of their behaviour and its impact will make them more mindful in the future,” says Mansfield.
The golden rule for any HR professional wanting to encourage healthy dissent is to adopt a learner’s mindset.
It’s easy for leaders to narrow their focus, especially when a decision is on their shoulders. Curiosity will help all decision-makers, regardless of their seniority, to create better output that works for more people.
Five tips to incite healthy debates
Mansfield has a few key guidelines for launching a sparring without creating any tension or stress:
- Separate discussion from decisions. This will take the pressure off your team and encourage them to share feedback.
- Depersonalise criticism. Encourage people to attack the idea, not the person behind it.
- Set clear parameters. Before hosting a feedback session, be clear about what behaviours are critical for success.
- Bring in an outside perspective. Invite a junior or new employee to come in with an impartial perspective and point out deficiencies in the plan. This person can be branded as your ‘naive expert’.
- Practice debate jams. This is a low-stakes approach to get people comfortable with arguing about something that’s not work-related, like food or music.
How do you facilitate healthy debate in your workplace? Let us know in the comment section.
This article first appeared in the November 2022 edition of HRM Magazine.