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Expect Dissent

January 18, 2017

I read a great article in Harvard Business Review recently that talked about the importance of airing dissenting opinions. ["True Leaders Believe Dissent is an Obligation", Bill Taylor, January 12, 2017].

In the article, Taylor makes the case for practically demanding staff voice dissent. It's an excellent article for numerous reasons. For new managers, especially those in healthcare IT, it's a must-read.

 

Having All The Answers

New managers often think the way to shore up their new role and exert their authority is to be seen as having all the answers. Nothing could be further from the truth. While a new manager may have insights and information to share, they do not have all the answers. No one does. The world is complex and dynamic, especially in healthcare IT, and to assume you have all the answers is to set yourself and your team up to fail.

 As a manager, what you do have is the ability to see the big picture, to have information that others may not have, or to lead the team through analytical discussions. Those are useful functions of a manager -  to provide perspective, share information, and facilitate a collaborative discussion. If you're not doing that, you're not yet doing your job fully.

 

Saving Face

Many new managers are worried about being contradicted in public. They try to "save face." Here's a not-so-secret tip - by not positioning yourself as having all the answers, you are less likely to be embarrassed by contradiction. Moreover, if you are facilitating discussion, you are developing your facilitation and negotiation skills, which help everyone save face. Saving face is nothing more than always allowing people to retain their dignity. It's not coddling, it's not accepting wrong answers or soft pedaling around tough issues. It's about allowing people to leave a conversation having been heard and respected. Here's an example.

 

The team is discussing the possible root cause of a problem. Alicia says something that sounds off-base and inadvertently criticizes John. John jumps in with a criticism intended to help him save face ("That's ridiculous, the problem couldn't possibly be the change I made."). As a leader, how do you manage this? You might say something like "Let's focus on the potential sources of the problem for now. Remember, problems like this are usually traced back to process issues, which we can fix if we can identify them. So, Alicia, let's note that you believe the root cause was a configuration file change. John, what's your perspective on that possibility or do you have a different theory?"

 

You've supported both Alicia and John, you've supported raising a potentially difficult topic and you've allowed everyone to 'save face' without avoiding the issues. While your style might be different, this is one approach to supporting discussion. By keeping the tone neutral and supporting all inputs, you can surface more honest discussion. If you don't, those problems will go underground and they are guaranteed to resurface at some point in the future.

 

But dissent is more often about disagreeing with leaders than peers. Are your front line staff encouraged to disagree with you or your Director, Vice President or CEO? If you're a Director, are your direct reports (usually managers) comfortable disagreeing with the VP or CEO? If the answer is no, you are at risk of missing vital information early in the problem cycle. This becomes a larger organizational issue (read the HBR article) and is not always one you can address directly. You can, however, foster dissent within your circle of influence.

 

Leading, Not Controlling

For new managers, it can be challenging to find the line between leading and controlling. Leading the team through a difficult discussion certainly requires maintaining control of the overall environment, but it doesn't mean you maintain total control. Referring to the example above, you are not allowing Alicia and John to get into a personal battle (that's one form of control you're exerting), you're guiding the discussion back to the root cause topic (another form of control), but you're keeping the topic itself wide open (this is the part you are not controlling, but guiding). Maintaining civility and a positive environment is the type of control you should exert - and that is leadership. When your team knows that you won't allow conversation to get personal, accusatory, insulting or bullying, they're more inclined to speak up. When they know that their input will be respected and discussed, they're more inclined to speak up. And, speaking up always surfaces important information.

 

Expect Dissent

As the HBR article mentions and as my experience confirms, you need to specifically set the expectation with your team that you want dissent - and then you have to accept that sometimes it feels uncomfortable. I repeatedly tell my team that not only do I want them to speak up, I expect them to speak up,  especially when they disagree - and they do. In a meeting recently, one of my team (a manager) took exception to a statement I made. He laid out his views clearly and professionally. I listened to his perspective then turned to the team and asked what they thought. Some useful discussion ensued and I changed my mind based on that discussion. Later, that manager came to me a bit concerned that he'd been disrespectful in the meeting because he clearly directly disagreed with a statement I'd made. I told him I was very happy he'd spoken up because I had not had all the information and he brought to light some very important new details. I reinforced that I not only appreciated, but expected, exactly that kind of dialog. His response tells you that people are often uncomfortable with this model, and it is a bit uncomfortable at times, but discomfort should never be the reason to avoid direct, open and honest dialog.

 

I also tell all my new hires that not only do I expect them to speak up and speak out. I tell them that they will not get fired for speaking up (assuming it's done professionally), but they could  get fired for not speaking up. I also tell them that I never want to hear them say "Yeah, I saw that coming from a mile away, I was just waiting for it to crash!" If they don't speak up, take proactive action to avoid problems  and work collaboratively to address issues that are popping up, they're not going to be a good fit on my team.

 

When I look back at people I have terminated for cause, it has always been those people who passively sat back silently watching the crash knowing they could have taken steps to prevent it.

 

Dissent creates better decisions, stronger organizations and reduces risk. Expect dissent. Reward dissent. Get comfortable with dissent. You will build a stronger organization by doing so.

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