Leadership Effectiveness: Dissent is an Obligation

Leadership Effectiveness: Dissent is an ObligationIt took 583 deaths in the 1977 Tenerife air disaster where KLM and Pan Am 747s collided to change the airline culture of “don’t question the pilot” (Deadliest plane crash in history.) An element of this tragedy was the KLM captain’s inability to listen to the Second Officer, who in essence was saying, “Where’s Pan Am, where’s Pan Am?” Instead, the captain went full speed ahead. He had been described as a “top 747 instructor and KLM celebrity.” He apparently was not open to challenge from subordinates and, in this case, the Second Officer was not forceful in his message. A major cultural shift in the airline industry came out of this and several similar disasters, when it created Crew Resource Management training which focuses on leadership, communication, taking responsibility, challenging up, and candor.

Admittedly, the stakes in certain industries, such as aviation and healthcare, are quite high. If the “captain of the ship” does not listen to a life and death warning from a subordinate who has a conflicting view, the results can be tragic. Your industry may have lower stakes, but the same principles apply. Bill Taylor in True leaders believe dissent is an obligation (HBR, January 12, 2017) gives a business example of McKinsey & Company, which has inculcated the “obligation to dissent” into their culture.

The concept that our direct reports have an “obligation to dissent” is commendable. In principle, we all want to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly so we can make wise and timely decisions, thus ensuring success. However, we often put up barriers that interfere with our teams’ confidence that “the leader” really wants candid feedback about an innovation, decision, person on the team, or some other topic. These barriers create an organizational culture that inhibits candor, challenging up, or speaking the truth to leadership.

Leaders who have difficulty hearing dissent – who interpret dissent as a challenge to or as a criticism of their leadership – present the highest barrier to dissent there can be. This kind of leader often responds to dissent by cutting off or even belittling/humiliating the dissenter. We probably have all witnessed, if not experienced, this behavior. If this happens, dissent is halted, and both the dissenter and anyone else present learn the lesson that dissent is neither respected nor desired by that leader and perhaps not within the organization either.

To change the organizational culture to encourage dissent, leaders need the courage to take risks and make changes. They need to admit that, in the past, dissent was not supported; then acknowledge the business reasons support of dissent is important, and agree on the behaviors that will encourage dissent. It will be necessary to “call people on it” and hold them accountable when they criticize dissenters – even if it is the boss who is doing it. Having “Team Agreements” facilitates holding people accountable and makes these changes in culture swifter and more compelling.

Here are five ways you can encourage dissent on your team to ensure outrageously positive and swift results:

  1. Be curious. “Pay attention to those employees who respectfully ask why. They are demonstrating an interest in their jobs and exhibiting a curiosity that could eventually translate into leadership ability” (Read more at: Harvey Mackay, The power of why).
  2. Advocate debate. Think Ben Franklin (create a pros and cons chart). Allowing debate and different points of view in decision-making ensures that more options and innovations will be brought forward.
  3. Listen and ask questions. Make time without distractions. So many leaders – even in their own staff meetings – are texting, sending or reading emails, or otherwise exhibiting distraction, thereby sending the message that those in the meeting are not important or worth listening to. Listen to ideas, ask probing questions, tell people that their ideas are interesting.
  4. Demonstrate humility. Leaders often find it difficult to be challenged by their direct reports and see it as a threat. Although the myth that “the boss knows best” is old school, its power rages on. If you combine that with some directs’ upbringing of “do as I say not as I do,” a significant obstacle to changing these patterns is presented. Be sure to let people know you don’t have all the answers, that you want their bright ideas, and that you are honored by their dissent. It shows you can be trusted to hear and welcome opinions that may run against your interpretations.
  5. Reward the dissenters. When you hear dissent, the best thing to do is say, “Thank you for raising that.” If fitting, say, “Good point,” or, “I see we need to do a better job fleshing this out.” Be sure to say “deliver the message” in your body language as well as your words and tone of voice. People need to see that it is safe to address the real issues and take action on barriers to performance.

How comfortable are your direct (and indirect) reports in challenging up to you? How can you change the culture to ensure you hear what you need to hear?

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