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Human Resources
Mar 1, 2017

Is Managing Dissent A Required Modern-Day Leadership Quality?

Sponsored Content provided by Dave Hoff - Chief Operating Officer and Executive VP of Leadership Development, EASI Consult

You can’t pick up a newspaper or turn on the television news without being bombarded by polarized points of view on a host of subjects: climate change, immigration, universal healthcare and fracking, to name just a few. 

For the most part, everyone has an opinion on issues. The challenge is, if the opinions are diametrically different, are they ever reconcilable?  If so, (i.e. we can arrive at a compromise solution all can support), how do we do that?

In his recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, “True Leaders Believe Dissent Is an Obligation,” writer Bill Taylor cites recent issues in the news regarding ethics problems at both Volkswagen and Wells Fargo. In both cases, senior managers in these organizations established an environment, or a climate, where inappropriate behavior and decisions were condoned. Two CEOs lost their jobs as a result.

I feel sure the issues in question were discussed during meetings, and people in those meetings did not question the appropriateness of those decisions. You know there had to be people in the meeting room who knew the decisions being made were wrong, and yet the organization continued forward. 


Several years ago , while an employee at Anheuser-Busch (ABs), we held annual communications meetings. There was a presentation on the company’s performance and planned activities for the coming year.  The floor was then opened for questions. Anyone could ask whatever question they wanted, but employees only ever ventured into “safe” or “informational” queries. 

A few years later, when I was working in ABs international division, we were in China conducting a similar communications meeting.  At the end of the formal presentation, the floor was again open for questions.  The questions were fast, furious and far-reaching. One thing that came up was posed by an hourly worker, who asked about the ability to purchase shares of company stock. 

That question led to a big project, in which the company made stock available to all international employees. It had been available domestically for many years. Why did two divisions of the same company, conducting the same annual meetings, have two very different sets of behavior?

In his HBR article, Taylor said, “very few people have the guts to dissent, very few people become fearless, because very few leaders emphasize and celebrate their obligation to do so.” He goes on to cite leadership expert and former MIT professor Edgar Schein. Schein, who has spent many years studying the qualities that great leaders have, says it takes a special kind of humility to welcome dissent. And leaders with that kind of humble approach, Schein goes on to say, are few and far between. 

What happens to those people who have strong opinions when they show up for work at your company? Are they any less passionate when they are on the clock? I don’t think so.   

Some environments and organizations give off a certain strong vibe - your opinion is not welcome here.  So, naturally, some people may keep their opinions to themselves. Others might have a more passive-aggressive way of responding.  

I recently read a book called “Indispensable” by Gautam Mukunda. Mukunda looked at a number of leaders and asked whether it was the leader or the situation – independent of the person – that made the difference.

He cited, as a negative example, Sunbeam’s CEO Al Dunlap.  Dunlap entered the organization and achieved what appeared to be short-term positive results. It turned out he used questionable accounting practices, intimidated some mangers into getting what he wanted done and fired others who would not comply. 

So, what is a leader’s obligation to encourage dissent? There are numerous studies that support the idea that teams and organizations produce far better results when different points of view or opinions are heard and incorporated into the final solution. 

That might be easier said than done for some. So, how do you do that effectively? 

Here are some tips:

  1. Clearly define the problem. Defining a situation and describing the boundaries can provide clarity.
  2. Engage in active listening, where you have to restate what others have just said
  3. Encourage differing opinions. Invite contrary views to the one already stated.
  4. Allow all opinions to be heard. Note: You may need to set a time limit on input.
  5. Develop a set of criteria by which to evaluate solutions.  This can connect back to the first tip  when defining the problem.
  6. Invite people to create a hybrid solution using various pieces of input. This can create coalitions - that otherwise would not be formed -around an issue.
  7. Create a team of diverse thinkers. Ensure people with different points of view are part of the group implementing the solution.
  8. Set an expectation of commitment. Require everyone on that solution team to commit to making the solution successful.
  9. Conduct a post-project evaluation to determine how well the solution addressed the problem and how it could be improved going forward.
In a world that seems to be moving toward extremes, leaders need to possess skills that invite and promote dissent as a way to achieving a better overall solution, which could lead to a more successful company where employees – who feel their insights are valued - are more productive and loyal than they might otherwise be.

EASI•Consult® works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. EASI•Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about EASI•Consult, visit, email [email protected] or call (800) 922-EASI.

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