Traditional work cultures have conditioned us to think that even a small, benign disagreement might spell our doom. This fear has produced organizational cultures dominated by what I like to call “violent agreement.” (As it’s normally accompanied by fierce head nodding and aggressive high fiving.)
But if everyone’s always agreeing, how do you know what people actually think? You don’t.
Is this the best way to work together? No.
Two things are true:
- People don’t always agree
- People don’t always share their real thoughts (see conditioning above)
To create work cultures that foster respectful dissent, we need to acknowledge the first and address the second. Because it’s through conversation, debate, and yes, even argument, that real ideas come out and better decisions are made. Yes, there’s no doubt that creative conflict isn’t always, well, comfortable. And it may lead to tense moments or feelings getting bruised. But the payoff is quality.
In a world of mediocrity, chose quality. Even when it’s uncomfortable.
Just know it takes work to get there. And remember: the emphasis in respectful dissent is always on respectful.
8 ways to develop a work culture that values respectful dissent
1. Argue like you’re right, and listen like you’re wrong
Another way to put this: more elephant (big ears) and less hippo (big mouth). When we’re talking about organizational culture, this has to involve every layer. I think of it as 360 degrees. That is, to be great at this you have to listen all around you. Above, beneath, from the sides — great ideas come from everywhere and anywhere. This means that leaders must feel secure enough in their roles that when someone “beneath” them disagrees, it isn’t perceived as a threat. And everyone in the organization should feel supported when taking the risk to speak up, because it isn’t easy. What they shouldn’t feel is over-exposed and vulnerable to grave repercussions when they do it.
Arguing requires passion, listening requires dedication. Regardless of the ultimate aim for your work culture, better active listening is the gift that keeps on giving.
2. To solve complex problems you need cognitive diversity
Better ideas come from diverse perspectives, there’s no doubt about it. Therefore, your organization’s core values are a good place to start when thinking about how to invite more respectful dissent. Cognitive diversity, just like the other aspects of workplace diversity, isn’t something organizations should improve simply to “look good” or to meet some self- or otherwise-imposed quota.
People with different backgrounds and life experiences and histories bring more to the table. That’s why diversity matters. How can you think outside the box with people who only see the same box?
3. Different opinions aren’t a tax, they’re an investment
Our conditioning also leads us to feel like disagreement is a tax, and different opinions slow things down. We need to turn opinions of all kinds into an investment mind-frame. The result of this thinking: improved ideas.
Think of it like this: diversity isn’t a “problem,” it’s an opportunity. Dissent isn’t a “tax,” it’s an investment in better outcomes. I like to say, “If you spend a $1 on diversity, save $2 for retention.” And by this I mean, there’s no point hiring and finding these people if you don’t also create an environment that enables them to flourish.
4. Leave smarter
Never leave a meeting knowing what you knew going in. In other words, focus on leaving smarter. It’s a simple idea, but requires consistent thoughtful action. It requires a commitment to a growth mindset, which is like the jelly to active listening’s peanut butter. If you will.
5. Be a role model
You don’t choose to be a role model. Other people choose you, and they don’t tell you. But you’re always a role model, in a sense, whether it’s because of positive or negative behaviors. So lead by example. Don’t hesitate to talk about respectful dissent as you’re about to engage in it. Set some ground rules. Explain that it’s welcomed, and recognize it when it’s happening. Most of all, don’t punish it. If it’s offered in the right context, in the right spirit, it’s exactly what you’re looking for. Learn together how to do it in a way that benefits your team(s) and organization.
6. It’s not about you (or, the continued chronicles of getting over yourself)
Your focus should always be on solving the problem and not simply defending your idea or stance or viewpoint. Disagreement with your idea is not an indictment of you — or it shouldn’t be. We’re awfully quick to hear “I disagree” as “You’re bad and wrong.” But it’s true that often when we disagree, we’re feeling it on a personal level. Atlassian has an “unofficial” sixth value: Seek first to understand. It’s super handy in these situations.
Again, it takes courage to speak up, and it takes courage to admit that someone else’s idea is better. Remember, at the end of the day, you’re trying to solve for the customer. Don’t let that most important of lenses drift too far from your viewpoint. “Is it better for the customer?” should always be the focus you return to.
7. Roles and responsibilities matter
Even though divergent voices and opinions deserve respect, it’s very important to be clear about certain roles and responsibilities. That is to say, a strong leader might invite many opinions but still not change the plan after all has been said and done. And if that happens, and your opinion or change or comment isn’t directly reflected in the outcome, be prepared to agree to disagree and commit to the work anyway. It’s not about consensus. A driver of a project needs to step in and say: “Thank you, everyone! I appreciate your views, and I listened to them and I heard them. Now, here’s why I chose to go this direction…”
Check out the Roles and responsibilities play from the Atlassian Team Playbook.
8. Clean it up, have a retro
The final step when creating work cultures that invite respectful dissent and that engage in a fair amount of creative conflict: commit to cleaning it up.
Be brave, be compassionate, and be outgoing. If you’ve tussled with a teammate about a project or problem or design or headline, talk about it when tempers and emotions and feelings have calmed. This can be done in a team setting by using the Retrospectives play from the Atlassian Team Playbook. But it’s also an excellent idea to simply approach your teammate H2H (human to human), take a walk, go grab a coffee, and discuss what happened. Let them know you respect them, that you weren’t attacking them personally (or didn’t mean to), and that you understand their point of view. You’ll become much closer to that teammate. It’s when you ignore misunderstandings and miscommunications that you risk drifting apart.
It’s also worth noting that sometimes just letting something go is the best strategy. Something happened, but it’s over now. Maybe the best course of action is to simply move on? You be the judge. Just know, too often people choose avoidance and build up conflict debt and there’s so much to gain by engagement and talking openly.
When it comes to creating new and improved work cultures, ones that foster innovation and original thinking, we all need to put on our adultwear. In other words, every member of the organization needs to be an adult. Respect all voices, opinions, and viewpoints. Forget about the b.s. related to hierarchy. That’s corporate nonsense, committed more to the power structure than the enduring success of your organization.
When opinions are offered in a respectful and thoughtful way, though contrary to your point of view, they should not only be received well but received in this spirit: it means people care. About the work, the mission, the ultimate goal. Let’s welcome respectful dissent and creative conflict in our teams in the spirit of trust and a commitment to doing great work. After all, when trust trumps fear amazing outcomes are possible.
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Special thanks to Jamey Austin for his contribution to this article.