Seek Dissent, Not Consensus

We spend a lot of time and energy trying to create consensus…with customers, employees, partners, etc.  But consensus does not always create the best decisions.  In fact, sometimes it results in big mistakes.

The most successful managers actively seek out dissent.  They realize that people often withhold unpopular viewpoints, and that decisions will be better if all perspectives are on the table.

This article is based on the research of one of my Harvard professors, Amy Edmondson, who has spent decades analyzing team decision making.  Thank you Professor Edmondson!

The Problem: People Don’t Always Speak Up

Have you ever had a situation where something went wrong, and you wish someone had spoken up sooner?  A big reason why this happens is that it’s often not “cool” to share conflicting viewpoints.  There’s a lot of unspoken pressure to be a “team player” and to not “rock the boat.”

Especially vulnerable to this pressure are people who are lower in the hierarchy, or newer to the organization.  They often choose not to speak up because they’re not sure of themselves, and they’d rather not incur the group’s wrath if they’re wrong.

This reluctance to speak up resulted in the Space Shuttle Columbia explosion in 2003.  A junior NASA engineer had information suggesting the shuttle had incurred serious damage.  However, he wasn’t 100% sure, and he was too scared to confront the mission leader, who was always stressed and in a hurry.

The Solution: You Must Seek Out Dissent

As the leader, it’s your job to draw out conflicting viewpoints.  This is summed up in a great quote from Alfred P. Sloan, CEO of General Motors during the 1930s-1950s:

Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision… Then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.

Here are your four steps to proactively seek out dissent and make better decisions.


Be Aware of Your Own Desire Not to Hear Bad News

Running a business is crazy.  Naturally, we don’t want to hear one more potential issue.  Only when we are conscious of our own bias, can we keep it in check.


Proactively Ask Opinions from Those Who May Be Scared to Speak

Remember that junior people and recent hires are typically the most nervous about speaking up, so you must intentionally draw them out.  The intern may have a great insight!  If someone has been quiet, ask them an open-ended question like, “Kristin, any thoughts?”


Build a Team of Strong-Minded Individuals

Steve Jobs was famous for creating contention in the board room, in order to reach the most informed decision.  While his team is an extreme example, we need to look at our natural tendency to prefer “yes-men,” and proactively seek people who think differently from us.


Reward Candor

Too often, conflicting views are squashed, or even punished.  Instead, follow the advice of another of my Harvard Professors, and former CEO of Medtronic, Bill George: “You must acknowledge and thank those who disagree by telling them that they made the discussion, and hence the ultimate decision, much better.  You need to reward and promote the mavericks or else the organization will lose its creative edge.  You try to create tension inside because the outside challenge is so great.”

Share Your Thoughts

What has been your experience with consensus, and with dissent?  What techniques do you use to arrive at the best decisions?  Let me know by posting below…especially if you disagree with me!  😉

For further reading, check out the article “Encouraging Dissent in Decision-Making” in the Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge blog.  For a deep dive, I recommend Professor Edmondson’s book, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy.

Receive free Bite Size Business Tips from Evan every month: click here.