Dealing with Dissent


I can’t quite remember what topic we were being asked to work on. Something around how can we improve the quality of HR contributions of get folk engaged or improve process…..Huddled round a flip chart, about 12 of us, HR, L&D, People People, doing that awkward thing where we are kind of blurting out thoughts in the direction of the flip, in the hope the She Who Holds The Pen will capture the bones of what we just said.

I don’t know the group at all – we have been thrown together by a happy networking accident, but everyone is smart, senior, experienced and we are all there because we want to Be Better and want organisations, folk and work generally to be better. As a bunch, we seem to be interested, well intentioned and pretty well informed.

In all honesty, I get a little itchy in these processes, when I allow or encourage myself to think about what I’m up to….My dialogue training kind of demands there be a blend of inquiry, of questions and a push for clarity of perspective, right alongside the advocacy of putting out there what you think. In essence: if I’m allowed to just say the first few things that come to mind and no-one asks me to explain more; if no one challenges it with a different perspective, or builds on it with their own view; I have a sense I’m voicing into the void – no one is really there with me. I’m only partially being listened to. Dancing by myself in many ways.

Worse still, I’m getting away with broadcasting and not being held to account for my contributions… this is where groupthink happens. Or maybe not.. because we’re not really listening to each other, so we’re not groupthinking at all, are we?

Perhaps I’m feeling mischievous.
Perhaps I’m wanting to see what happens if I throw the conversational equivalent of a few wee firecrackers at the feet of our group.
Nothing too explosive, but enough of a noise to jolt us a bit.
Maybe I want someone to dance with….
Maybe I’m just a contrary sod at times.

On the flip paper there is lots of stuff about how we need to engage staff, mechanisms to improve procedures, cut through bureaucracy, get more power (seat at the table would help btw).
In a lull, I hear myself say “we need to listen to dissenting voices in our organisations. The ones who refuse to fill in surveys. The ones who are highlighting what’s wrong, whose voices aren’t captured.”

The pen pauses over the flipchart paper, but nothing is written.
There is silence for a second. The next voice says “You don’t want to amplify negativity, though”
Lots of nodding. Still nothing on the flipchart.
I try again – saying dissent is there for a reason – you can’t possibly know if it’s a valid reason or not in the first instance – but where there is criticism and dissent, it’s worth asking about it.
More silence.
The next voice says I am inviting opening a “whole can of worms”.
I say: “Yes. I get that. I am”

Still nothing on the flipchart and now everyone is looking at me.
Well… if you will throw firecrackers.

Please let someone join me. Please? Let there be someone in this group who will see that dissent is as vital as agreement.

I try again. ( babbling a bit – haven’t thought this out well……) When I worked in Middle Management and later in various project roles, I often knew stuff my Boss didn’t about what could/ would go wrong. I plugged into a network of naysayers because it helped me anticipate stuff I’d never dream of and it really challenged me to come up with better solutions.
(bit more relaxed now, I breathe:) There is, I offer, a reason for dissent. I”m not saying we need to do stuff with all of it, but I am saying listen to it or at least acknowledge it is there, inconvenient truth as it is…If someone says they are not filling in a staff survey because it is 100 questions long and doesn’t mean anything, that information alone might be nothing much… but if we ask more and find out that actually this is widely held to be true, surely we should act?

More silence.

The original voice says that their organisation does listen to complaints and issues, there is a mechanism for picking up gripes and concerns. It’s always the same people who use it – they are consistently just unhappy. You can’t give them time.

I can see the point of view and I want to ask more…..

The lady with the flip pen writes “listen to dissent sometimes” on the board and asks if anyone else has anything else.
Someone says something and it is flipped.
We hurriedly move on to safer territory.

Later, when we feedback our discussion to the wider group, the point about dissent isn’t mentioned and I smile to myself and yet I’m a bit annoyed….

I’ve thought a little about this vignette since it happened. The weariness, defensiveness and borderline fear that seems to come alongside dealing with dissent and negativity in our people systems. How dreadfully uncomfortable we are when we are disagreed with or challenged. How unwilling we are to inquire into the source of the dissent, it’s size or relevance. How we don’t want to capture it, talk about it, dealt with it. Easier, perhaps to just dismiss it out of hand.

Inevitably, folk will have differing viewpoints. I’m curious sometimes about the mechanisms we put in place to ensure these are quietly disposed of, removed, quietened down. In my map of the world, a healthy dose of questioning and scrutiny is kind of vital. As with any health dose – too much kind of tips thing over into “unhealthy” territory… but you get the idea

I worry sometimes about our Professional thinking – if our default on dissent is “don’t amplify negativity /keep closed the worm can” true conversations and lessons learned are over before they begin. That’s kind of stifling. it’s also a bit dull and arguably slightly dangerous.

To be clear, I’m not advocating a big “bring out your gripes, let me listen to all your woes”. I’ve worked with folk who could win the lottery and still complain it wasn’t the Euro Millions, I get that some folk are most satisfied when unsatisfied, of course I do.
I’m equally not suggesting everyone starts disagreeing stubbornly and fighting….

But I also know if we had paid due attention to the rumblings in an organisation or system about the car park/ findings in the report/ behaviour of That Manager/ Uniform dissolving in the wash/ unrealistic timescale for dealing with Customer complaint, we’d have saved ourselves a ton of time, money and (in one case) unwanted media coverage.

Dissent and otherness are there for a reason, usually. What happens when we acknowledge that and take action?

18 thoughts on “Dealing with Dissent

  1. I love this, especially the flip chart lady controlling the inputs! It reminds me of a time when I was involved in rolling out a change initiative in a command and control culture. There wasn’t a lot of feedback or interaction with the workforce, so I suggested a facilitated session where teams were allowed to voice ‘Hopes and Fears’ and discuss them with management. One leader said ‘We don’t want them to talk about fears, in case the negative ones influence the positive ones’. Which does seen logical. But I pointed out that would be happening down the pub anyway without us present, and we may as well do it as an exercise we were involved in, so we could understand and respond. And we did and the exercise worked well, so they carried on doing that with new change intiatives. It was useful for me to understand the reluctance of leaders allowing an open forum (“no negativity please, we can’t handle it”) and also for the leader to understand why that process can be useful rather than damaging.

    • This is such a good example. Fear of negativity – what might happen if we hear an unpalatable truth? Will negatives affect the positives? will we get dragged down?
      and of course, your response: it’ll happen anyway, but out of earshot and no where useful…. how lucky they were that you fought that corner.
      I think your anti-dissenting strategy of embracing dissent is pretty much how I’d go about it too..

      Thank you Sarah – good food for thought

  2. Liked this a lot. We (acas) do a lot of dissent capturing as an independent trusted source of facilitation. Occasionally we also do “baggage dumping” sessions so we capture the dissent and identify with people what needs to be done to leave it behind. It’s brave for organisations to do this but valuable nonetheless.

    Two things, never underestimate catharsis, it’s a valuable experience from time to time, just the sheer act of getting something off your chest and being listened to makes us feel good. Secondly, failure to listen to the negative or perhaps the challenging stuff is ultimately short sighted. Surrounding yourself with positivity might make you and your acolytes feel great but it will bite you in the end.

    • I like the baggage dump idea. I’ve used this in a fashion in sessions where we have drawn lines in the room… what will you leave there (and who do you expect to clear it up?) and what will you take with you, going forward?

      I agree there is catharsis – and a process to contain some of those more aggrieved conversations so they don’t dominate the ongoing discourse and discussion greatly helps….(by the way, I also advocate containing rampant positivity)

      It’s useful to know how ACAS use this stuff well. Thank you

  3. Thanks for this Julie! I see this happening time after time in organisations and with individual leaders I’m working with. I often refer to one of my fav TED talks – ‘Dare to Disagree’ by Margaret Heffernan – she describes those ‘dissenters’ (not sure if that’s a real word!) as ‘critical thought partners’, and I find that frame really helpful.

  4. Great blog, excellent comments from Peter and Gillian – I wholeheartedly agree with you both. Critical thinking is still an alien concept in many quarters, as is allowing dissenters to be heard.We should never underestimate the need to be heard – often that alone will allow seeds of change, as Peter eloquently says..

    I remember years ago, being asked to deliver some training in challenging skills. The delegates told me they couldn’t possibly challenge others, because that would open the ubiquitous can of worms that they didn’t have the time to deal with. Instead, they would happily continue to ‘solve problems’, without actually knowing what the real issues were. The real issue of course, is not time – it’s not wanting to have difficult conversations.

    • I’m a little curious as to what is so scary about a worm can?
      Wriggly little things, but harmless & very very essential…

      I feel a blog post coming on….

  5. Great post, Julie. You have a wonderful knack of uncovering big issues through your everyday interactions. This is a subject I particularly fret about quite a bit.

    One of the signs of a truly grown up profession is that it’s open to the cut and thrust of dissent. Not necessarily dissent that has little or no evidence to back itself up, or that shrivels under examination. But the dissent that says “I think the way we’ve always done things, our current assumptions about how things work may just not stand up to scrutiny”.

    You only get that kind of valuable, deep insight if you’re willing to open the “can of worms” to see if there really are some worms in there, or if it’s just one worm, pretending to be representative of a much larger mass. [Too far with the analogy?]

    I often refer to medicine when looking at how a mature profession operates. One of its defining features is the level of dissent and debate that takes place. The most accessed and referenced articles in the BMJ are regularly those that criticise current practice (

    My team, at our very best, engage in the kind of robust disagreements that many people observing would find uncomfortable to participate in. We do this because the ideas that stand up to challenge are all the stronger for it.

    Perhaps, similar to what the tech commentator MG Siegler suggests, all teams should have a VP of Devil’s Advocacy in place to prevent dissent that has value from being swept under the carpet and actively encourage it (

  6. If an individual feels their voice is not being heard they will eventually stop contributing, even positively. Dissenters and critics offer an alternative point of view. Ignoring them is folly. As to the concept of giving the dissenters a voice allowing negativetivity to spread – if they can garner such support, maybe they have actually made a good point? Even if the reason for the dissent is because they can, there is an underlying reason for the mischief that is worth exploring. Ignoring or suppressing dissent and challenge is unhealthy.

  7. Great blog Julie.

    I like to think I actively encourage people to have an opinion – supportive or opposing. You can work with those. Both are much better than having a group of fence-sitters.

  8. I’m a professional dissenter, cheesed off at the stinking groupthink I’ve witnessed for too many years. I’ve taken it up at the flipchart, the plenary and the blog and believe me even the so called enlightened few on social tend to suffer the exact same reaction, seeking comfort by the nodding heads using coded language like – “you have to remember how we are still a successful company” or “those people are outliers look at the recent engagement survey” (that nobody dissenting went near)….

    Why ? – calls out the underlying lack of confidence people professionals display or try to hide at all times. The fear of tackling the ‘too difficult’ or the association that as a team you have more to learn. Worst offenders – sorry to say the learning community who’ve been programmed into a trance of appreciative learning that shuts any dissent down at its earliest as heresy – you dissent therefore you are negative therefore I will not take on your concerns.

    Anyway, enjoyed it. My words will make not one iota of difference but will return in the new year dissenting against the bullshit that too often dominates our professional landscape.

    Lots of love

    Unrepentant & proud Dissenter

    • Ah, I love the unrepentant… they are so damned interesting (and damned, presumably)

      So I’m enjoying your comments. I’m more relaxed about it – kind of expect folk to be shite at holding difference, dissent and difficulty. It annoys me, but then I remember how much work I’ve had to do to stand in the midst of a heated conversation, opinion or full on hissy fit and make some actual sense of what the hell is going on with out a) joining in b) making it worse c) leaving them to their own battle d) crying.

      my disruption is of the relentlessly curious, WTF variety. I rarely massively yell at the system any more. I poke, prod and nudge… might not be a big enough bang at times & I work with a few people who can get apoplectic on my behalf, when that is needed.

      And I still get annoyed when there is a pretence that dissent doesn’t’ exist. It just seems dumbass. But I’m often outside systems and it matters less to me… I have no pension or promotion potential that frees the opinion bank somewhat… but in the face of losing a big client contract because I’m Disagreeing? Yup. it gives me pause.
      I and others like me have to find ways to raise my disagreement, my concerns and dissent, without looking like I’m angry, fighty and against the client. The best of us find ways to make this happen. The worst? Collude and flatter.

      And coded language? sure. It exists. It keeps us believing that it’s not a total and utter arse-up. it only partly calls to the confidence of those People Professionals. I’m confident enough to call and arse up and arse up and I strive to still be polite enough to honour the work and thinking that has been undertaken so far…

      But I agree about the trance of appreciation – maybe the above even demonstrates it.

      So… what?
      Dissent and be damned. Keep going, I say. I’ll see you in Hell

  9. Pingback: Best Blogs 19 Dec 2014 | ChristopherinHR

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