Into all problem-solving, a little dissent must fall

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Events of the past several years have reiterated for executives the importance of collaboration and of welcoming diverse perspectives when trying to solve complicated workplace problems. Companies weren’t fully prepared for the onset of a global pandemic, for instance, and all that it engendered—including supply chain snarls and the resulting Great Attrition and shift to remote (and now hybrid) work, which required employers to fundamentally rethink their talent strategies. But in most cases leaders have been able to collaborate their way through the uncertainty, engage in rigorous debate and analyses about the best steps to take, and work with employees, suppliers, partners, and other critical stakeholders to react and, ultimately, recover.

And It’s not just COVID-19: many organisations have had to rethink their business strategies and practices in the wake of environmental concerns, the war in Ukraine, and social movements sparked by racial injustice, sexual misconduct, and widespread economic inequity. Ours are fast-moving, complex times, rich not just in worrisome challenges but also in exciting potential—organisations that enable innovation will find ample opportunities to thrive. So now more than ever, decision makers can’t act alone; they must bring diverse perspectives to the table and ensure that those voices are fully heard.1Diversity wins: How inclusion matters,” McKinsey, May 19, 2020.

But while many leaders say they welcome dissent, their reactions often change when they actually get some. They may feel defensive. They may question their own judgment. They may resent having to take time to revisit the decision-making process. These are natural responses, of course; employees’ loyalty and affirmation are more reassuring to leaders than robust challenges from the group. There is discomfort, too, for potential dissenters; it is much safer to keep your thoughts to yourself and conform than to risk expulsion from the group.2

What’s missing in many companies, in our experience, is the use of “contributory dissent” or the capabilities required to engage in healthy if divergent discussions about critical business problems. Contributory dissent allows individuals and groups to air their differences in a way that moves the discussion toward a positive outcome and doesn’t undermine leadership or group cohesion.3

McKinsey’s research and experience in the field point to several steps leaders can take to engage in healthy dissent and build a culture where constructive feedback is expected and where communication is forthright. These include modeling “open” behaviors, embedding psychological safety and robust debate into decision-making processes, and equipping employees with the communication skills that will allow them to contribute dissenting opinions effectively.

In this article we outline the steps leaders can take to encourage healthy dissent, and the actions teams and individuals can take to share their voices and perspectives most effectively. It takes both sides, after all, to engage in robust debate, find the right solutions, and enable lasting, positive change.

How leaders can encourage contributory dissent

Senior leaders in an organisation play a central role in ensuring that individuals and teams see contributory dissent as a normal part of any discussion. They can signal the importance of dissent by taking a series of steps to institutionalise the practice within an organisation and empower employees to share their ideas freely and productively. Specifically, senior leaders should strive to inspire rather than direct employees to collaborate, explicitly demand dissent and, taking that one step further, actively engage with naysayers (see sidebar “How to encourage healthy dissent”).4The four building blocks of change,” McKinsey Quarterly, April 11, 2016.

Inspire, don’t direct

As the inspirational speaker Simon Sinek put it, “The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.”5 That is especially important for fostering an atmosphere of collaboration and contributory dissent. Rather than immediately jump into a discussion about solutions, one senior leader in an international organisation addressed his team’s anxiety in the wake of a crisis. “Let me guess,” he said, “you’re all feeling confused and uncertain about the way ahead. Terrific. I’m so glad we are of one mind and that we all understand our situation correctly! I’m sure that we can work it out together, but it’s going to require the best of everyone’s thinking. Let’s get started.” His authenticity and understated humor allowed him to connect with the group and inspired them to keep calm, carry on, and generate solutions that the leader alone couldn’t have come up with. Harvard professor Ron Heifetz describes this as creating a holding environment, a key element of adaptive leadership.6

Explicitly demand dissent

It’s not enough for leaders to give people permission to dissent; they must demand it of people. In many companies, individuals and teams may (understandably) default to collegiality, not realizing that there are ways to challenge ideas while still respecting colleagues’ roles and intellect. It’s on senior leaders, then, to help employees understand where the boundaries are. In World War 1, Australia’s General Sir John Monash was determined to develop better tactics to overcome the catastrophic impasse of trench warfare. He knew there were answers to be found from the experience of soldiers in the trenches, but he needed to loosen the military discipline of blind obedience: “I don’t care a damn for your loyal service when you think I am right; when I really want it most is when you think I am wrong.” Monash scheduled open battle planning sessions and pulled in advice from whoever offered it. In doing so, he built ownership of and confidence in his plans among all ranks. The resulting orchestration of tanks, artillery, aircraft, and troops led to rapid advances along the Somme Valley, and Monash garnered respect and appreciation from his troops, whose chances of survival and ultimate victory had increased markedly.

Actively engage with naysayers

Taking the demand imperative one step further, it’s beneficial for leaders to actively seek out the views of vocal naysayers, who can turn into influential champions just by being part of the conversation. They can immediately improve the nature of business debate and may boost the quality of the final decision, although engaging with naysayers can be tough. Some dissenting opinions can be ill-informed or uncomfortable to hear. The objective for senior leaders, then, is to put their discomfort aside and listen for signs of cognitive dissonance within an organisation. As an example, front-line employees may say things like “We’re not considered strategic thinkers,” or “The company doesn’t put people first,” while senior management may actually feel as though they have made strides in both of those areas. Still, leaders need to absorb such comments, treat them as useful data points, assess their validity, and engage in what may be a challenging discussion. They may want to use red teams and premortems, in which teams at the outset anticipate all the ways a project could fail, to frame up dissenting opinions, mitigate groupthink, and find a positive resolution. These behaviours also serve to enhance organizational agility and resilience.

How leaders can establish psychological safety

Senior leaders need to establish a work environment in which it is safe to offer dissenting views. The McKinsey Health Institute’s work on employee well-being points to a strong correlation between leadership behaviors, collaborative culture, and resistance to mental health problems and burnout: only 15 percent of employees in environments with low inclusivity and low support for personal growth are highly engaged, compared with 38 percent in high-scoring environments.7Addressing employee burnout: Are you solving the right problem?,” McKinsey, May 27, 2022. Leaders can build psychological safety (where team members feel they can take interpersonal risks and remain respected and accepted) and set the conditions for contributory dissent by rethinking how they engage in debate—both the dynamics and the choreography of it.

The dynamics of debate

The poet and playwright Oscar Wilde described a healthy debating culture as one in which people are “playing gracefully with ideas”— listening to, and even nourishing, opposing points of view in a measured and respectful way.8 Indeed, the best ideas can emerge at the intersection of cultures and opinions. In 15th century Florence, for instance, the Medici family attracted and funded creators from across the arts and sciences to establish an epicenter of innovative thinking that sparked the Renaissance.9 Closer to this century, we have seen cross-discipline innovations like the application of biologists’ research on ant colonies to solve problems in telecommunications routing. And in the business world, extraordinary innovations have been achieved by open-minded leaders bringing together smart people and creating the conditions for playful exploration.

To achieve a state of “graceful play,” senior leaders must carefully manage group dynamics during debates. Rather than lead with their own opinions, for instance, which might immediately carry outsize weight in the group and stifle discussion, senior leaders can hold back and let others lead the discussion. They can lean in to show genuine curiosity or to explicitly recognise when a dissenting view has changed their thinking. But by letting other, more junior voices carry the agenda and work through ideas, however imperfect, senior leaders can establish a climate of psychological safety—and garner more respect from colleagues long term.10

Leaders will also need to be aware of cultural differences that may crop up during debates. For example, many Australians speak candidly and are happy to address issues squarely. By contrast, the concept of “face” is so important in many Asian cultures that a more circumspect approach is taken. And the Pacific and Maori cultures emphasize displays of both strength and respect.11 These differences in debate dynamics really matter. They can be a great source of hybrid vigour,12 if sensitively managed, or a source of conflict and disenfranchisement if not. To approach these differences in a positive way, senior leaders could undertake a mapping exercise that identifies the different styles of the cultures present, thereby providing validation and enabling pragmatic measures to integrate them.

Choreographing debate

Beyond just managing debate dynamics, business leaders must take a hand in choreographing the debate and, specifically, in helping to design collective-thinking processes so people know how best to play their part. Business leaders may adopt a structured approach to brainstorming, for instance, or plan strategic off-site schedules that combine deliberate thinking with “distracted” thinking—taking time to engage in a social activity, for instance—to take advantage of employees’ deep-thinking processes.

To create a sustainable structure for debate, business leaders will need to consider questions relating to team structure and rules of engagement: What does success look like when it comes to contributory dissent? What topics and behaviors are out of bounds? Who will lead the discussion, and how will comments be captured? Who has the final say on decisions, or which decisions can be delegated, and to whom? (For a more comprehensive explanation, see sidebar “How deliberate choices by the leader can optimise a decision-making process.”)

Having these parameters in place can free up the team to think more creatively about the issue at hand. Establishing such protocols can also make it easier to raise dissenting opinions. At one company, people are asked to call out their underlying values or potential biases when expressing a dissenting view. During meetings of the promotion committee, for instance, a statement like “I think we are making the wrong decision” would be rephrased as “I am someone who values experience over collaboration, and this decision would risk losing too much institutional knowledge.”

How individuals and teams can engage and dissent

As we’ve shared, senior leaders can take steps to set conditions for robust discussion and problem-solving, but individuals and teams themselves must also have the right mindsets and skills for contributory dissent to work well (see sidebar “How teams and individuals can dissent effectively”). In particular, they must embrace the obligation to dissent, actively make space to analyse ideas that are different from their own, and then find ways to either iterate on others’ ideas or respectfully agree to disagree.

Embrace the obligation to dissent

Individuals and teams need to exhibit a certain amount of humility and confidence in order to speak truth to power with respect; they must be sure for themselves that doing so is the right thing to do. To build this confidence, individuals and teams should remember that the very act of dissent can be valuable, even if the contribution itself isn’t 100 percent baked. Others can react or build on the dissenting view—which, in itself, can be a satisfying process for a dissenter. If the ultimate decision isn’t what they proposed, they still helped shape it by offering and testing a worthy possibility.

Make space to analyse different views

Individuals and teams may need time to determine their positions on an issue. During this period, it’s important to be (and seen to be) open-minded and respectful of others’ views. That means asking lots of questions, gathering information, assessing others’ motivations, and acknowledging their views before syndicating alternatives of your own. Much of this fact gathering can be done one-on-one, in a nonconfrontational way, in offline conversations rather than in a tension-filled meeting room. In these conversations, individuals could start by reaffirming a shared commitment to finding a solution to the issue at hand, their respect for the decision-making process and the group, and areas of broad agreement. They could also signal their possible intention to dissent and seek permission to do so rather than confronting people head-on. People will find it harder to refuse that permission, and will be less likely to get defensive, when approached with statements like “This is a great discussion, and I love the vision of where we are headed, but would it be OK for us to explore some alternatives for how to get there?”

Agree to iterate …

Individuals and teams that decide to offer dissenting views should agree to iterate on other solutions, rather than digging in. Their dissenting opinions should be cogent, persuasive, and open-minded—but dissenters shouldn’t expect to change hearts and minds on the first try. They should plant seeds gently and bide their time; they might even see their idea come back as someone else’s. The critical skill required here is active, open listening: dissenters should listen carefully for others’ additive insights and find ways to build on them. In their contributory dissent, individuals and teams can take a moment to summarize what others have said and then use statements like “Can I offer another take?” and then allow the momentum of the conversation to take over.

… or agree to disagree

But what happens if, after all the considered and tactful input, the dissenter still believes a decision is heading in the wrong direction? In our experience, withholding assent then becomes a legitimate option: people shouldn’t agree if they don’t agree. This is where all the careful, respectful groundwork the dissenter has done can pay dividends. In fact, a dissenting view gains even more power when an individual can say something like, “I still believe in my alternate solution, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this process, and I respect that you have the final say.” In this case, the dissenter is supporting the leader while flagging that the open debate hasn’t convinced them to change their initial view.

Of course, withholding assent should be a relatively rare action, taken only after an individual or team has shown that they can accommodate other views and have aligned with the consensus when they believe it’s right to do so. Think of US Supreme Court associate justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who joined the consensus view on many decisions but who is especially celebrated for the positive changes that arose from her highly influential dissenting opinions on issues such as gender equity, human rights, and religious freedom.

Contributory dissent can help strengthen employee engagement, unlock hidden insights, and help organisations solve tough challenges. But putting it into practice takes courage and humility, and it won’t just happen by accident. Leaders need to be intentional about welcoming challenges to their plans and opinions, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so. They need to establish cultures and structures where respectful debate can occur and where individuals and teams feel free to bring innovative—and often better—alternative solutions to the table.

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