Obligation to dissent is essential to successful transformations
My time at McKinsey instilled several professional values in me that I still carry to this day. My favorite one is the “obligation to dissent”. In simple terms, it means that anyone working with me has an obligation to speak up if they disagree with something. It is not that they are welcome to do so; they are expected to do so. It’s part of their jobs. Candidly expressing an opinion is also critical for successful transformations.
Transformations are messy, and oftentimes you are figuring out “how to build the plane while flying it”. You might have a clear vision of where you want to go, but getting there is not a linear process. A rather large team will be working on multiple workstreams, and the absolute worst thing for them to do is to disengage and hold back from sharing their experiences, knowledge, and perspectives. I’ve been in more than one company where the discourse was: “I know this is not the right thing to do, but I was told so and I am doing it; when it fails, management will decide what to do next”.
You can’t afford that kind of indifferent behavior from your team. You invite people into transformation teams (Transformation Office or workstreams) precisely because you want them to contribute fully to the effort. You want leaders who will step up and openly express why they believe the proposed approach doesn’t work, and what to do instead, before it is too late. You want them to criticize each others’ solutions to come up with even better ones. You want them to poke holes in the strategy before customers do.
How do you foster the obligation to dissent in your teams?
There are a few best practices to follow to embed this value in your team:
Model the expected behavior. This is obvious, but nonetheless critical. Remind people in meetings that you expect to be challenged the same way you will challenge them. Also, if you are serious about building this value, when challenged, you should never dismiss or ignore a comment without properly addressing it first, nor lose your temper when getting bad news. Doing any of these will demonstrate to your team that you are just doing lip service.
Be clear about your expectations. Your team will likely need time to understand and adjust to what you want. Discuss it openly and affirm your expectations. Encourage them to adopt this value within their teams as well. Share this same expectation with candidates during interviews; not everyone is comfortable with this kind of environment, and you are much better off by hiring people who will fit in.
Encourage the less vocal members of the team to participate. Obligation to dissent has nothing to do with introversion or extroversion. If you have someone in your team who won’t stop talking, you have a completely different problem altogether. Your aim is to bring the best ideas out of all the team members regardless of position or level, including the more quiet ones. You should explicitly ask for their contributions before making a final decision.
Recognize people when they demonstrate the value. Whenever you spot a good example of “obligation to dissent”, acknowledge it on the spot, and explain why it was done well. This will offer a real-time learning opportunity for everyone in the meeting. You can also start your meetings by asking participants to share recent examples of employees demonstrating that value.
Ensure that the discussions are about ideas, not individuals. Alas, we are fallible human beings. A few individuals within your company will likely see “obligation to dissent” as a license to openly criticize other employees or efforts. Address those situations immediately, redirect the conversation to the issue at hand, and teach people about constructive conflict.
Resist the urge to curb conflict as it arises. When teams observe this value, it is not uncommon for discussions to get animated. People will inevitably have different opinions about various topics, and it is your responsibility to help surface those opinions so as to enrich the debate. Resist the urge to jump in to avoid conflicts; instead, encourage leaders to talk to each other while they are making their arguments. Let their debate of ideas and perspectives flourish.
Building the “obligation to dissent” value within your organization will take time and effort, but I guarantee you will never again want to work without it. It is almost magical to witness a team’s synergy when everyone contributes their opinion. You’ll also prevent resources wasted in dead ends that could have been anticipated if everyone had just spoken their minds.