Dissent Is A Good Thing. Here Are 4 Ways To Encourage Your Teams To Say No

23 May 2018

Dissent Is A Good Thing. Here Are 4 Ways To Encourage Your Teams To Say No

What are you doing as a leader to encourage the vital naysayer?

There’s plenty of research and evidence that suggests that engendering an open culture that gives the employees the freedom to say no can lead to better leadership, richer ideas, and a far more innovative workplace with higher rates of employee engagement and lower attrition.

At its worst, ignoring a well-timed contrarian view from a team-member can be disastrous. In 1996, a commercial expedition to the Mount Everest nearly ended in disaster endangering the lives of two of the world’s best climbers because junior staff didn’t speak up even when the seniors missed a core operating principle for safety.

Yet, most leaders struggle to nurture a work environment that values – and most importantly practices the value of dissent. Here are 4 ways you can usher a culture of saying no.

Be a role model

An effective culture of dissent usually starts at the top. As a leader, you’re in a far better position to embody these values and behaviours. Ask yourself, ‘how many times have I freely expressed my views to a client, or pushed back?’ With teams, ‘how many times have I made an effort to first hear out perspectives and counter-proposals?’, ‘How often do I actively seek out opposing views and honest critique about an approach?’

I remember a time when I was presenting a large proposal in front of a client and after two hours into a very intense and highly engaged meeting they remarked, “Yes, we like your proposal but we will assess you and your clients and if this works for us or not.” Given our trueness to our proposal, the honesty with which we answered all the questions and faith we had in our own art, we were open and upfront in saying “With all due respect, it’s not only you who will assess us, we would also assess if you are the ideal client for us or not and how this proposal fits in our overall purpose.” We still won the proposal as the client understood the value we will bring to the table and that we won’t only say ‘Yes’.

Of course, making these bold statements and asking those questions – and more importantly – practicing them in earnest on a regular basis isn’t easy. It takes leaders who are secure in themselves, have high regard of their own skills/art and who have a ‘learner’ mindset as opposed to a ‘judger’ mindset who can make the transition successfully.

Leaders often fall prey to attitudes like “I am invincible, I can’t be wrong,” or “my way or the highway” or “Client is always right” that get in the way of enriching their organizations and their teams.

By knowing themselves more and finding their own beliefs and values, leaders can get confident about their identity – who they are and who they want to be and what kind of culture they want to see. ‘Who am I” plays a big role in being authentic, bold and calling a ‘spade a spade’.

Reward Dissent

Saying you value the power of no is one thing, but when you reward dissent with a public recognition, it can send a much stronger message. You can be creative and nominate a dissent forum dedicated to opposing views. You could go further and even appoint a ‘Chief Dissent Officer’ whose role would be to ensure a healthy amount of multiple views are always sought out and followed. That person is the critical naysayer and their job is to always to critique the ideas and bring out the contrarian point of view. That person might be the ‘most hated’ person in your team. So choose wisely – someone who has high resilience and high sense of self would be best suited for this job.

All of these efforts need the leaders to lead the way – with plenty of real-life examples and gumption. The impact of playing a role model should not be underestimated.

Instant Acknowledgment

It’s important to acknowledge dissent when you receive it and not wait too long to share your views or acknowledgement. Even a simple, “We have heard you” or “I see where you are coming from” goes a long way.

Should it not align with your views, instead of shooting it down outright and abruptly with a feedback, consider giving a “feed-forward,” making constructive suggestions on building on an idea instead of an outright judgment.

Define Culture

A handful of companies practice openness to a degree where employees felt empowered to say no to their bosses. But most companies are on the opposite end of the spectrum. The technology industry and the captives in India have traditionally seen a subservient culture, which has often meant that disruptive and innovative ideas often times are ignored or not voiced because of the lack of a dissent culture.

Make dissent a core value – if not the most important value– of your company culture. Define it and uphold it with everyday behaviours that show saying ‘no’ benefits everyone. It’s not an exaggeration to say that dissent is an important part of an innovation culture.

How tuned in are you to dissent in your organisation as a leader? How long you leave them unexamined?


Puja Puja, Managing Partner, Head of Coaching & Leadership Practice at Recalibrate Pvt. Ltd. 

Puja PujaPuja is a Columbia University certified coach and is acknowledged by business leaders and executives for connecting them and their organisations to their inner compass and helping them find their true purpose and mission.

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