Encouraging Dissenting Voices

Several years ago, I was doing a three-month check-in with a new employee. I had been working closely with him, and he had already shown great initiative and the ability to help us in a variety of new and unexpected ways. As a result, the feedback on his performance was glowing. He was therefore a little taken aback when I told him I had one issue.

He visibly braced himself for what he perceived would be negative feedback. However, what I said surprised him: “We need you to do a better job of telling us when you disagree with something. We need you to speak up and use your voice more when you have an idea or see something that’s wrong.” Upon hearing this, he noticeably relaxed as the feedback wasn’t actually hard to hear. In fact, it was a positive and affirming message – it was as if I was saying to him, “You matter and your opinions matter.”

Encourage employees to speak up.

One of the things I expect from our employees is for them to have a voice – and use it! When they see something that seems wrong or confusing, I want them to be confident and feel safe enough to say something about it. When they have a different way of looking at a problem or opportunity, I want them to share their thoughts, even if it’s counter to my own thinking. I encourage them to use their voices because I’ve learned that the willingness of employees to disagree is crucial to our success as an organization. Without dissenting voices, we would make more mistakes and we wouldn’t be nearly as innovative.

Time and again I have seen how dissenting voices help our organization.

Most days I am moving fast – going from one task or project to the next and making multiple decisions on a variety of initiatives. Sometimes I forget something or am simply considering things from a different perspective. And sometimes I’m just wrong! These are times when I need to be able to rely on those around me and trust that they are willing to call me out and challenge my thinking and decisions.

In practice, these interactions are not conflictual but more matter-of-fact. They may sound like, “Hold on Randy, have you thought about . . . ?” Sometimes hearing a new perspective ultimately changes my decision, and sometimes it does not. When it doesn’t, I still value that the person cared enough to ask questions, raise a point for consideration, or directly challenge my thinking.

Dissenting voices can be a positive thing.

Some managers may think of dissenting voices as negative and irritating because they can be associated with being uncooperative and divisive. After all, most of us are taught from a young age to be polite, never interrupt people, and never question our elders. There may be some situations where a dissenting voice is not appropriate, but I don’t believe this to be true for most situations.

Time and again I have seen how dissenting voices help our organization. Here are a few things I value about them:

  • They help create opportunities for change and foster innovation
  • They prevent mistakes and unintended consequences
  • They bring forth new ideas
  • They can turn good ideas into great ones

When someone is willing to disagree and share their honest opinion, it means they care about the work they are doing. As a leader you wouldn’t let something go unsaid if you knew a mistake was impending or thought there was a better way to do something. When our staff are willing to raise their voices and offer opinions, it shows that they have passion and commitment to good work. This is a positive thing.

When someone is willing to disagree and share their honest opinion, it means they care about the work they are doing.

There are valuable and clear benefits for encouraging dissenting voices. No one would argue against fostering innovation and preventing mistakes, yet it is all too common for organizations to unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) silence the voices of employees. Here are two signs your organization doesn’t encourage dissenting voices:

People Walk On Eggshells

Is the general feeling in the workplace one of apprehension and worry? Are staff reluctant to give feedback, offer ideas, and share opinions because they are fearful?

I’ve learned that dissenting voices are silenced in a culture of fear. When employees are worried about making the slightest mistake or voicing disagreement for fear of punishment, dissenting voices will not flourish. To counter this, organizations need first to establish a culture that is void of fear – one that is built on a foundation of strong relationships and trust.

There Are Many “Yes” People

Do managers seek out opinions of those they know will affirm their way of thinking to the exclusion of others who are more likely to disagree? Some managers really dislike being challenged – after all, they are “the boss.” For a variety of reasons, dissenting voices make these types of managers feel insecure. On the other hand, organizations that capitalize on dissenting voices have leaders who want their thinking to be challenged. These leaders have learned to embrace dissent, which results in their employees feeling confident enough to voice opinions and disagreements.

One of the things I expect from our employees is for them to have a voice – and use it!

Organizations benefit on multiple levels when employees speak up and use their voices. In these workplaces, many bad decisions have been avoided because an employee wasn’t afraid to say, “I think that’s a bad idea,” and new ideas were generated because they felt emboldened to say, “I’ve got an idea.”

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