Feature Story

CEOs: Foster Dissent Before It’s Too Late

Kate O'Keeffe, senior director at Cisco Hyper Innovation Learning Lab , Scott Tannenbaum, President, The Group for Organizational Effectiveness

Companies that fail to cultivate multiple ideas and perspectives can’t navigate today’s technology-driven disruptions.

Scott Tannenbaum has seen up close how hard it is for employees to disagree with their CEO—and the damage that results.

Tannenbaum, who is president at The Group for Organizational Effectiveness, worked with a CEO client whose direct reports would occasionally give him one-on-one feedback. He noticed, however, that they weren’t being as candid with him in group settings. This CEO hit the problem head-on, asking team members individually about why they felt uncomfortable speaking up, then expressing his expectations of them in a team meeting.

Scott Tannenbaum, President, The Group for Organizational Effectiveness Scott Tannenbaum, President, The Group for Organizational Effectiveness

“To his credit, he recognized that he wasn’t getting enough feedback and he knew something had to change,” Tannenbaum says. “There are leaders who don’t recognize how their power influences people—simply allowing dissent is insufficient, because there’s a power differential. Teams need to be taught that if they have a dissenting opinion that it’s okay to speak up.”

Technology is roiling the business world with waves of change. The iPhone and Facebook didn’t exist 15 years ago; from blockchain to connected sensors to early AI, potentially disruptive technologies are coming faster than ever. And in times of constant change, experts say relying on HiPPOs (the Highest Paid Person’s Opinions) just isn’t going to cut it.

Creating a corporate culture that encourages dissent starts at the top. It can be uncomfortable, experts concede, but it’s a quality that great leaders hone and an essential ingredient for truly successful businesses.

Why Dissent Works (and Why It’s Hard)

Healthy disagreement and friction between ideas is a critical driver for innovation, says Kate O’Keeffe, senior director at Cisco Hyper Innovation Learning Lab (CHILL).

“You need diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and viewpoints when you’re problemsolving,” she says. “If you think about some of the great breakthrough innovations, they’ve happened because someone has been able to express a conflicting viewpoint."

Conversely, she notes, “the inability to express these thoughts is a massive barrier to innovation.”

Kate O'Keeffe, senior director at Cisco Hyper Innovation Learning Lab

Kate O'Keeffe, senior director at Cisco Hyper Innovation Learning Lab

CHILL brings together diverse companies to collaborate on new ideas and build prototypes. Most recently, Airbus, Caterpillar, DHL, and Cisco’s supply chain business spent two days in a living lab environment to brainstorm and develop solutions, which the lab then prototyped and tested live with end-users.

“We bring in between 40 and 60 end users whose job is to resolve dissent and bring forth answers in real-time,” O’Keeffe says.

“Encouraging dissent is a muscle that people need to build, in order to create these prototypes quickly and get them in the hands of users,” she notes.

The value of dissent is well-researched. According to the Journal of Business Communication, organizations that foster upward dissent earn more-engaged employees.

It’s also an exercise in adaptability. “It’s impossible to sustain success when you’re repeatedly doing the same thing, which is why it’s important for businesses to adapt. Dissent encourages that,” Tannenbaum says.

So if its value is clear, why don’t executives welcome differing opinions?

At the root of the problem are fears coupled with a blinding sense of comfort, says Linda Henman, president of Henman Performance Group.

“Opening yourself up for criticism is an ego thing. No one wants to hear that maybe an idea would work better another way because that implies that you were wrong in the first place. Many executives don't like to hear or admit that,” she says.It’s impossible to sustain success when you’re repeatedly doing the same thing, which is why it’s important for businesses to adapt. Dissent encourages that.A more subtle reason, according to Tannenbaum, is what he calls “the isolation effect.” As people climb the corporate ladder, they tend to receive less feedback, and seek it even more infrequently.

“Think about how people become executives: Ultimately, they make more good decisions than bad ones,” he says. “They develop a sense of infallibility and stop receiving feedback from others. There’s less of an awareness, because they think they know the answers and start believing that their input is the most valuable.”

Other executives, he says, have developed a blind spot. They think they’re encouraging and supporting dissent within the organization, but there’s a disconnect and they find they’re not getting the feedback from employees that they’re expecting.

“I think there’s a difference between people who don’t do this because they’re uncomfortable with it, and those who are open to input but they’re just not getting any from their team,” he says.

“Most people fall into the lack-of-awareness category—they just need the right tools to make it happen.”

5 Tools for Encouraging Dissent

To create a corporate culture that invites, promotes, and benefits from dissent, executives need to make a conscious shift in their mindset and proactively address underlying issues, the experts say.

Clarify negotiables and non-negotiables. Businesses always have things that aren’t up for discussion because boards have already made decisions, Tannenbaum says. When a leader isn’t clear about what’s negotiable and what isn’t, employees interpret the dismissal of their views as stonewalling—that leadership isn’t interested in their opinions.

“A leader needs to clarify that we’re not stepping into X marketplace because it’s been decided by the board, so let’s not go down this path. Instead, let me hear your thoughts about Y,” Tannenbaum says.

Develop psychological safety. Psychological safety is the feeling within teams where you’re comfortable being genuine, speaking up, and being yourself, Tannenbaum says. Teams with higher levels of psychological safety are better performers, he adds.

“The key in developing this is for leaders to admit publicly when you don’t know something or could have done something better,” he says. “Seeing a leader do this makes them feel more secure in sharing their dissenting opinion.”

If that sounds too soft-and-squishy to a hard-line manager, odds are she isn’t doing this for her team, and fewer ideas are likely to surface as a result.

Promote examples. Employees need to feel comfortable expressing their opinions, and one way to encourage that is to highlight past examples of employees doing the same, Tannenbaum says. This sends the signal to the rest of the organization that dissent is valued and encouraged.

“You want to share success stories like, ‘We got this breakthrough in our software’s latest release because Joe disagreed with one of its components. We made some changes and as a result, this great thing happened,’” he says.

Examine your own actions and reactions. Do you value people who get along with others and create a positive work environment? Employees pick up on these subtle messaging cues, which hint that the organization values compliance over dissent, O’Keeffe says.

“We can create these unconscious biases that say we need to agree with colleagues when instead we need to be encouraging people to speak up,” she says.

These cues are present in body language and tone of voice, too, Tannenbaum adds.

“You may not have realized that you just rolled your eyes at an employee’s remark, or that you interrupted someone before they finished their thought. They perceive both of these as you not wanting to hear their opinion,” he says. “They’ll shut down.”

Instead, take a deliberate approach to encouraging and dealing with dissent. Junior team members, in particular, are the most reluctant to speak, Tannenbaum says. “Specifically seek out their opinions. The most important thing is how you handle something you don’t particularly agree with,” he adds. “It’s not about who’s right, it’s about what’s right.”

Appoint a dissenter. One of Henman’s clients, a CEO, appointed his compliance officer as his dissenter. The compliance officer reports directly to him; it’s her job to play devil’s advocate with all decisions the company makes.

“You need to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you—in finance, in marketing, and in critical thinking,” she says. “Invite someone to dissent before any major or minor decisions; invite someone to shoot holes in your idea. Only then can you truly make a more informed decision.”

Encouraging a culture of dissent can be uncomfortable and isn’t a change that happens instantly, Henman says. “It comes down to leadership. No one else can influence this type of cultural change,” she says.

“In the end, it’s the pattern of behavior over time that matters,” Tannenbaum adds. “Anyone can be good for a day, but it’s the days, weeks, and months after that really matter.”