Decent dissent: how to avoid groupthink in the boardroom

Many firms claim to have a culture of openness, yet baulk when employees offer critical feedback. Constructive dissent is healthy, so what should they do to elicit it?

Dissent In The Boardroom

“Feel free to object” is an invitation that Joanna Swash is fond of issuing. The group CEO of Moneypenny, a firm providing virtual receptionist services, has got into the habit of saying this towards the end of every internal meeting. 

She is acutely aware that her position in the hierarchy may make some colleagues reluctant to share their views in an open forum, especially when these don’t align with hers. Swash reveals that she’ll “sometimes find people wondering: ‘What does she want me to say?’” 

Ironically, that’s the kind of response she really doesn’t want. It’s symbolic of the excessive deference she’s been trying hard to remove from her business.

An enterprise must make space for different perspectives if it’s to avoid the well-documented risks of groupthink. Inviting constructive criticism of a proposed course of action can spark a healthy debate, which can in turn generate new and better ideas.

Such adaptability and innovation have become crucial in the C-suite, such is the pace of change that firms are experiencing in many sectors. According to global research published by PwC in January, 39% of CEOs think they’ll need to transform their businesses within the next decade to ensure their continued viability. Among the UK-based respondents, 10% believe that they’ll need to complete their transformations inside three years.

But the prevailing culture concerning dissent may be discouraging innovation. Although well over half (56%) of CEOs polled by PwC believe that leaders in their firms “often and usually encourage constructive dissent and debate”, two-thirds of employees say otherwise. There may be some simple explanations for this difference.

Creating a safe space for employees to speak openly

If they’re ever to engage in a constructive debate, people need to feel psychologically safe – that is, have no fear of repercussions for speaking their minds.

Gervase Bushe is professor of leadership and organisation development at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. He says that psychological safety starts to apply in an organisation only when all members of it acknowledge that not everyone will experience a situation in the same way.

Leaders must instead be curious about others’ experiences

“Lots of managers have been taught to say ‘we’ when they’re talking about the group. For instance, they might say: ‘We have this new challenge that we are excited to accept,’” says Bushe, who explains that such language, rather than creating a sense of belonging, risks invalidating the experiences of those being spoken for. Crucially, it also discourages discussion, as it implies that everyone in the team has got the same goals and already agreed how best to achieve them.

Leaders must instead be curious about others’ experiences, he says. This entails actively encouraging employees to share any concerns they may have about a plan rather than silently acquiescing to a course of action they consider flawed. Bushe adds that businesses tend to make better decisions when they seek input from all levels of the hierarchy.

Swash agrees, noting that “the bigger topic here is trust. Front-line workers are some of the most widely trusted members of the organisation. If they are trusted by our clients, we as leaders need to trust what they’re thinking too.”

How does constructive dissent play out?

Constructive dissent looks a lot like collaboration. It’s something that tech startup Storyblok practises during the product development process. Members of different departments vote on their preferred potential features and then attend a meeting to explain their reasons. 

Swash notes that some attendees will inevitably be keener than others to share their thoughts. 

“Quieter people won’t elbow colleagues out the way to make their point,” she says, recommending that anyone chairing such meetings should work methodically around the table to give each person the same opportunities to speak.

When you’re canvassing several opinions, it can be hard to arrive at a consensus, but this is where the collaborative leader needs to become decisive. Bushe suggests setting a deadline on the debate. He says: “People will appreciate it if you tell them: ‘If we can’t reach an agreement by 2pm tomorrow, I’m going to make the call.’”

Dissent shouldn’t be a dirty word

While many business leaders claim to receive constructive dissent gladly, their actions sometimes contradict their words. If they observe such a disconnect, employees may become cautious about overstepping boundaries.

Framing disagreement as dissent would immediately set it up as a conflict

At Storyblok, any employee is welcome to request a meeting with members of the senior team at any time, according to its co-founder and chief technology officer, Alexander Feiglstorfer. But he accepts that not everyone would ever feel confident enough to do so, noting: “Some people will always think: ‘I wouldn’t want to waste their time.’”

To counter such reticence, the firm divides its workforce into randomly assigned pairs of people once a week for “virtual coffee chats”, Feiglstorfer says. ​​Where a member of staff might normally interact with their line manager or close colleagues, such an arrangement “gives them the opportunity to speak with all kinds of people”.

For leaders who are struggling to create a safe space for debate, the solution might lie in simply changing the language they use, as Bushe explains. “If I have a different way of thinking about something, framing that as ‘dissent’ would immediately set it up as a sort of conflict,” he says, suggesting that it would be more constructive to describe the airing of a divergent opinion as “making a contribution”. 

Not everything is up for debate

Bushe notes that there are occasions where a debate may not be appropriate. In times of crisis, for instance, leaders will need to focus on firefighting rather than holding group discussions. This makes it all the more important to build a culture in which people know that their opinions will be valued and, under normal circumstances, sought by their employer. They are more likely to trust the occasional quick decision if it’s made in the context of an organisation that values considered debate wherever that’s feasible. “That’s a climate you can’t fake over time,” he says.

Swash agrees, adding that there are very few situations in which leaders should not encourage an open discussion. “I don’t think you could say that you run an open, trusting company if you also tell employees that they’re banned from talking about this or that,” she says.

Ultimately, a business must give each employee a voice if it’s to reap the benefits of a fully engaged workforce. Dissent, it would seem, is the only non-negotiable.