demonstrators sitting holding signs 'Black Lives Matter'

The power of dissent is in the process, not the decision

Your ability to voice disagreement with a colleague in business is a critical process many usually avoid - until a decision hits the fan.

In the real world, disagreeing openly with others – for most people – is uncomfortable and difficult - that probably explains why it’s rare.

In this article:

The power of the minority in a majority world

You don't have to be in business long to see people who dissent from the majority opinion are usually maligned by those whose identity is drawn from ‘always supporting the majority opinion’. Such an approach can quickly become institutionalised with staff praised and rewarded for their team thinking approach, and it’s not long until consensus (agreement) becomes more important than a good decision.

So why should this matter?

In business, our advantage is in our group's ability to think through a problem and come up with an appropriately competitive solution.

Be careful who influences you

People influence us differently depending upon whether they’re from a recognised majority and have consensus on an issue or, whether they’re in the minority voice and dissenting. And how groups are influenced affects the quality of our own thinking.

Once upon a time during a slow news day in the 1990s

Years ago when I was first teaching law, I vividly recall one of the tabloid newspapers repeating the same story every time when then, Justice Kirby of the High Court, issued a legal opinion that disagreed with the other six High Court Judges. The resulting headline would read, ‘The Great Dissenter is at it again…’ but sadly, that was the extent of the argument it put forth - the majority opinion must always be right, and therefore to dissent with a different opinion must be wrong.

Case closed.

I never understood why having an informed but different opinion was considered wrong. Perhaps the journalists’ reasoning had been cut short by the editor, but my understanding of such reasoning still eludes me today.

What if the mutineers are actually right?

Many leaders tacitly acknowledge the benefits of allowing different opinions to be aired by an individual, but there remains a sense that the institution may suffer harm as a result.

It's not easy to hold a minority position because it's human nature to think ‘safety and truth are always in the majority thus dissenting thinking must be wrong. To question this approach usually brings with it concerns about ridicule, rejection, and finding yourself marginalised along with your thinking.

Consensus creates one focus –– the group –– and causes us to miss the obvious

The insidious aspect of consensus is, regardless of whether we come to agree with the majority, it does shape the way we think. Consensus positions can overwhelm our own better judgment, even when those positions are wrong. We start to view the world only from the majority default perspective - the victor is always right - because history is written by the victors.

When teams look to decisions to promote consensus, at best we don't see alternative options; at worst we allowed ourselves to be bullied into silence by an overriding expectation to put a team approach ahead of a good decision. On balance, we make poor decisions and think less creatively when we accept the majority perspective.

When we’re exposed to dissent, our thinking doesn't narrow as it does when only exposed to consensus. Drew Browne

Does it matter if the mutineers are wrong?

Dissent broadens our thinking and has value even when its view is incorrect.

The value of dissent is not in its correctness but in its ability to trigger two primary results;

  • break the habitual cycle of team thinking, where the loudest is the smartest, and
  • force people to think more independently when consensus is challenged.

In short, it forces us to find our own reasons for our own thinking about an issue, not just adopt the position.

And it’s hard work.

In the presence of dissent, we think:

  • more openly in multiple directions
  • review more information and options
  • work harder to verify if we if fact do agree with another or just lazily adopted a group assessment
  • are forced by circumstances to consider multiple problem-solving strategies, and
  • think more divergently and creatively
An outsider can help teams more accurately perceive themselves, thus having 'outsider status' is intrinsic to being able to see the bigger picture – the forest from the trees.

The devastation of silence — on a small business

When a dissenter doesn't speak up, the group suffers - in lost opportunities. When a group operating from a narrow scope is compelled to make quick decisions, it can make some very bad decisions indeed.

The cancer of silence — in a large business

In many corporate meetings, I've watched intelligent colleagues remain strangely silent about their objections when the majority will is strong; even when I would rightly expect they have a different opinion due to their age, their experience, culture or their unique insights into an issue.

What good decision thinking looks like?

A good process usually leads to good decisions. The problem is when we neglect to examine the process and simply look to the result itself.

Good decision thinking forces us to:

  • collect facts and information from all sides of the issue
  • think in multiple directions, and then
  • consider all the pros and cons

Poor decision thinking is usually:

  • singular in direction and focused on a very narrow scope
  • avoids ideas and people holding alternative ways of interpreting the facts
  • only looks for facts to support preconceived ideas and preferences, and
  • places undue weight upon what’s always been done before (preparing for the Kodak moment, perhaps).

The great value of dissent is in the process it forces, not just the outcome. If I’m forced by a dissenting opinion to better consider all options - whether by deliberate process or out of enlightened self-interest - I'm likely to make a better decision.

The last word

What's the value of normalising dissenting opinions in decision-making? Simple.

This means I'm far less interested in who won the argument than in the quality of the decision reached.

Postscript

Perhaps conflict is essential in the maintenance of a community* since it forces people to pay attention to one another.

* Lewis Coser The Function of Social Conflict 1976

Drew Browne Modern Small Business thought-provocateur
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