• October 30, 2023

Why embracing dissent is essential for a diverse work environment?

Why embracing dissent is essential for a diverse work environment?

Embracing dissent is vital for fostering diversity in the workplace. This article explores the significance of dissent in organizations.

Dissent is unsettling. Human mind is wired to view agreement more favourably than disagreement. Especially, within the boundaries of an organisation, being in agreement with one’s bosses is critical to career growth. Businesses have gone to great lengths in designing selection methods that find perfect “culture fits” extending even to personality traits.

It’s not just the points of view, but the very being of an employee that must align with the organisation. Language used for behaviours of agreement versus expression of dissent is very telling of our attitude towards both. Agreement is usually seen as “being aligned”, act of “team work”, expression of “we”, whereas dissent is branded as propagating “negativity” or “not a team player”.

As the diversity and inclusion movement gains momentum, it is imperative that there is a serious dialogue on how organisations need to calibrate their approach to different mindsets, ways of doing things, or simply, dissent.

What is dissent?

Let’s start with the obvious argument against dissent, i.e., businesses need to conduct business, and that cannot happen in an environment of internal chaos with everyone thinking in a different direction. This is where we have to clearly discern what is dissent and what it is not.

If the workforce is disgruntled, not seeming inclined to cooperate with managers, there are likely to be deeper problems of leadership style and communication, work conditions, office environment, career advancement and compensation. Dissent shouldn’t be confused with general employee dissonance, though it often is.

When we say dissent, we mean expression of credible alternate ideas, pointing at risky flaws in plans or execution that may disagree with the popular team opinion and especially with the leader’s directives. A dissenting point of view is often seen as challenging the leader’s competence and knowledge, and therefore a threat to the leader’s position.

Dissenters are more often than not branded as “trouble-makers” or people who need to be “handled with velvet gloves”, by the management. However, very little of this is true, and such phrases serve to discredit dissenters and therefore their opinions. Our argument is that, far from being a disaffected person, dissenters are usually among the more committed and competent employees.

They look out for the company and choose risking their career growth in becoming a dissenter. Further, dissent is not mere disagreement. It is the ability to logically present a sound alternative or point out a gap. This can be done only by a person competent in his or her job. There are enough organisational case studies that have shown the significant business risk of muting dissenting perspectives.

The future of dissent within organisations

This brings us to the second part of the problem – i.e., what is the future of dissent within organisations, in view of the diversity mandate, especially when dissent has hardly had a past or present, in a manner of speaking. It’s one of the least discussed topics in management.

Organisations are more likely to suffer from the problem of group-think, than from dissent. While dissent is not necessarily an outcome of demographic diversity, it can be expected that organisations will experience a greater influx of people with diverse life-experiences and therefore ways of thinking.

Currently, organisations are completely ill-equipped to manage, and even less harness, the power of dissent. There are role models among organisational leaders, but they are far and few. Ray Dalio’s system of idea meritocracy implemented in asset management firm Bridgewater and Ricardo “Maverick” Semler’s organisational practices in Semco are notable mentions.

Dissent lacks any significant body of work, organisational literature or best practices and there is a need for researchers and practitioners to build frameworks in this area. Organisations need to develop processes and practices to invite, duly consider and celebrate dissenting perspectives for key decisions. Like everything else, change needs to start with leaders.

One way is to include “comfort with dissent” as a leadership competency and provide executive coaching support to develop this quality in existing leaders. On the other hand, for new leaders this can form a part of leadership potential assessment. It will also be equally important to change the narrative around dissent and remove the negative perceptions it is shrouded in.

Finally, as we have reiterated in our book, “Diversity Beyond Tokenism, Why Being Politically Correct Doesn’t Help Anyone”, the pursuit of diversity and inclusion will need to go beyond just the moral imperatives of societal justice. Making diversity work in organisations, requires the highest level of problem solving, a key part of which is to make space for conversations on hitherto ignored aspects like dissent.

This article is the first in a four-part series based on the book, Diversity Beyond Tokenism – Why Being Politically Correct Doesn’t Help Anyone, by Swati Jena and TN Hari. 

Swati Jena is the founder of WriteFor, school of applied writing.

Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication. 

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