Encourage Dissent – But Establish the Relationship and Context First

How many times have you heard someone say, “I welcome pushback – I want people to be honest,” or “I don’t want a bunch of heads nodding in agreement around this table – we need to challenge each other!”

Yet many leaders who espouse such beliefs don’t appear to abide by them in practice. They are either put off or perhaps even threatened by the first subordinate or colleague who challenges them. Either through their own body language or actual response, they can inadvertently and instantaneously change the atmosphere in the conversation or meeting.  And the results can be detrimental to the most critical component of any team – the concept of trust.

In coaching, we often use the world “intentional”.   By this we mean that every leader must be intentional about his or her actions. In this case, it can be the message they send to their subordinates and the way in which they communicate that message. The initial outcome of a harsh word or eye-roll – or worse – by a leader that is challenged by his subordinates, can lead to changed behavior on the part of the team members. That change is often nuanced and perhaps even undetected by the leader – especially if she or he gets private feedback from a participant in the meeting that provides encouragement or agreement of the leader’s behavior.

The consequences are far-reaching for a leader and his or her team – for an atmosphere of honest and open communication can be easily transformed into one of introspection, silent assent, or, even worse, fear.

A CEO, president or even a department head who gets input divergent from his or her opinions might confuse the signals from direct reports, especially in open meetings. What is positioned as honest and unvarnished opinion by the sender might be interpreted as a sort of derailment by the receiver. And those who disagree can be prematurely labeled as “derailers” – and sometimes they can be figuratively “executed” before their value is understood.

And there may be reasons why.   Part of executive coaching is to help you understand your own personality, style and learning and to appreciate the styles of others.  For instance, some are more direct in their styles and want to “own” the meeting and its outcomes; others more collaborative.   Still others like to keep “calm waters” in their meetings. Some just want to keep questioning everything.

Team coaching can help groups of people with different styles to come together as teams. Only by accepting each other for who they are and understanding different styles, can a disparate group of individuals come together as a true team. And only then can the leader know that he or she is a leader who inspires free exchange in an open session.

The best way to forge teamwork is to build trust in the basics of communication first. Like anything, you start with baby steps and learn the basic blocking and tackling of communications and the dynamics of your own team – at that point you’ll be ready for the divergent opinion that your team needs to create better results in the competitive workplace of today.

And then, your words, actions and beliefs will align for the powerful and honest input each of us needs as leaders.