Why Your Organization Needs Creative Rebels with Dissenting Opinions

The best decisions are made after hearing a range of viewpoints.

More than a few leaders likely cringe at the thought of “rebels with dissenting opinions” in their organization.

CEOs, executive directors, and managers are responsible for keeping their company, nonprofit, or department on track and productive. That’s often understood as a need to “control” the people within their purview. However, that control can be stifling both to people and organizational growth.

Some leaders attempt to control their organization by trying to keep the peace. This approach comes from the belief that a well-functioning team is harmonious. But what is harmony? Everyone in agreement, with no one rocking the boat?

What’s wrong with that? Let’s all get along!

The Danger of the Quest for Quick Agreement

Everyone agreeing without conflict, often means that either the leader or the dominant personalities get their way.

Those who speak often and at length are likely influential. While they may have great ideas when influential people propose an initiative there can be the expectation for everyone else to get on board.

Those who want harmony may not speak up even if they disagree. They hold the false belief that offering a difference of opinion will create discord and detract from the group’s cohesion. Those quiet “peacekeepers” might also believe that it doesn’t matter if they express their thoughts, even if they oppose what’s presented.

It’s my experience that it does matter when ideas come only from a few and others stay silent. Their silence is taken for agreement but it often isn’t, and we only find that out through private comments or even sabotaging behavior.

Silent group members are not peacekeepers. Their passivity enables the dominant personalities.

Organizations that don’t encourage the expression of diverse opinions or dissent will not thrive. At best, they maintain the status quo and grow stale. At worst the desire to “get along” keeps people passive, resulting in poor decisions and sometimes even disaster.

A few years ago I discovered In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business.

The book begins with a story that demonstrates the danger of going with the “majority opinion.”

When the crew of an airplane found themselves in the air with a crisis, they quickly took on the challenge together. However, not a single crew member pointed out a secondary issue that would have kept the plane in the air long enough for them to solve the primary malfunction.

Were crew members so committed to “working together” that not one of them struck out on their own to think independently? Did they view a divergent approach as not being a good team player?

Are You Comfortable Expressing an Opposing View?

How often have you gone against the grain? How often have you come up with an alternative path but were too afraid to share it with your colleagues?

If so, what held you back? Fear that it wasn’t a good idea and you’d be ridiculed? Fear that you’d be seen as a troublemaker? A lack of assertiveness skills that kept you quiet?

The Best College Classes for Learning Include Different Viewpoints

I listened to the February 17, 2022 episode of Preet Bharara’s Stay Tuned Podcast. It was part two of his interview with the President of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger.

In the conversation Preet said to Bollinger, “Staying with the issue of diversity, you said something interesting — that the best classes are ones in which people have different points of view, divergent points of view that they’re comfortable sharing and everyone gets smarter.”

Preet went on to lament the fact that universities don’t seem to care about ideological diversity and pointed out that racial diversity doesn’t assure diversity of thought.

Some Organizations Have a Low Tolerance for Disagreement

I’m part of a community that works on social issues. Its members consider themselves to be peaceful people.

It’s my observation that many in the community believe that being peaceful means we shouldn’t have disagreements, at least not more than minor ones.

We make decisions together as a group and when the discussion gets the least bit heated, many get upset and want the heated aspect to end.

Sometimes there is aggressive behavior. To my mind, it’s the aggression that is problematic, not the differing opinions.

When things get “heated” we often stop for a few moments of silence. That’s a nice practice for any group. But what often happens is that instead of helping folks to better manage their emotions, that time of silence can subdue the conversation and damp down the disagreement.

The overall discomfort makes us prone to avoidance. The community does not encourage a range of perspectives and we often don’t process through our differing opinions. We miss the opportunity to get more comfortable with strong feelings and dissent. As a result, we don’t become more effective at resolving conflicts.

When we don’t take time to have a full discussion we can be left feeling confused. I believe it’s a lack of clarity about the issue that’s often underneath strong disagreements and that if we took the time to sort through and clarify the topic, much of the disagreement would melt away.

Divergent Viewpoints are Essential

Different points of view don’t simply make things more interesting. An organization cannot make its best decisions without thinking creatively and generating new ideas.

This is About Equity and Equality

An organization that is healthy will welcome all points of view.

Soliciting and welcoming different perspectives and opinions is one of the ways a group shows its commitment to equity and equality.

That doesn’t mean the group has to make decisions by consensus.

A group might use consensus, but welcoming divergent views and considering nonconformist ideas can happen even within a solid hierarchy.

Some frown upon hierarchies, but it's my experience that in and of themselves hierarchies are not a bad thing. That structure can work quite efficiently and happily for people at all levels if those in leadership roles are confident and compassionate. Hierarchies are a problem when those with power are insecure, and consequently, feel the need to throw their weight around.

A Recent Example of the Harmful Resistance to a New Idea

While the medical profession is lauded for its advances it is also known for its resistance to new theories. Historically, medical researchers who disprove old theories or make groundbreaking discoveries are mistrusted by their peers, considered quacks, and often become outcasts.

We witnessed this phenomenon during the COVID-19 pandemic, though luckily it was only months and not years before the acceptance of the true means of transmission.

This excellent article was published on April 6, 2022, and was added here on that day as an update:

From the excellent article Why the WHO took two years to say COVID is airborne,” published April 6, 2022 was added here as an update:

“…even in the middle of the fast-moving epidemic, the WHO dismissed field epidemiology reports as proof of airborne transmission because the evidence was not definitive, something that is difficult to achieve quickly during an outbreak.”

When the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control hesitantly accepted the aerosol theory of COVID’s spread that replaced the droplet theory, those organizations quietly revised their websites without an official announcement.

God forbid they admit they were wrong or slow to accept valid research!

They could have taken advantage of the opportunity to promote the power of science and presented it as a huge discovery that advanced research related to other diseases. But instead, they kept it hush-hush and change their website surreptitiously.

That lack of fanfare was disrespectful to the team of researchers who uncovered the truth and was also a disservice to an already fearful and confused public. I bet some of you reading this still think you are safe indoors without a mask as long as you keep a distance of 6 feet. Unfortunately, you aren’t. Aerosol particles are much smaller than droplets and will travel throughout a room and hang in the air for hours after people have left.

Dr. Tufecki’s May 2021 op-ed above refers to the discoveries about COVID:

“The scientific wrangling, resistance and controversy that prevented a change in guidance stem from a century of mistaken assumptions whose roots go back to the origins of germ theory of disease in the 19th century.

Until germ theory became established, many people believed that deadly diseases were caused by miasma — stinking fumes from organic or rotting material.

But clear evidence doesn’t easily overturn tradition or overcome entrenched feelings and egos. John Snow, the first epidemiologist, showed that a contaminated well was responsible for a 1854 cholera epidemic. Many scientists wouldn’t believe him for 12 years. (long after his death)

Similarly, when Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis realized the importance of washing hands to protect patients, he lost his job and was widely condemned by colleagues…doctors continued to kill their patients through cross-contamination for decades, despite clear evidence…

My most recent find that expresses the necessity of hearing a wide range of perspectives is The Art of Insubordination published in February of 2022.

I wasn’t sure about the title but soon realized this book was right up my alley. Here’s the book’s description:

“For ideas to evolve and for societies to progress, we desperately need rebels to challenge conventional wisdom and improve on it. Unfortunately, most of us fear nonconformists, perceiving them as disloyal, reckless, destructive, or just plain weird. Because most would-be rebels lack the strength and skills to overcome hostile audiences, principled insubordination remains an underleveraged asset in the workplace and public square.

Based on cutting-edge research, The Art of Insubordination is the essential guidebook for anyone seeking to be heard, make change, and rebel against an unhealthy, stagnant status quo. — The Art of Insubordination

It was the book I’d been waiting for my entire life — a nonconformist’s dream come true. Every leader should own it and every employee or organization member should study it cover-to-cover.

It not only gives readers permission to speak up but explains to them and to leaders why they should and how it benefits organizations.

Without the views of non-conformists, there will not likely be innovation.

Best part of the book? Author Todd Kashdan’s dedication to his daughters.

To my daughters Raven Chloe and Violet. My hope is you are empowered to rebel against every norm, rule and authority figure…
To my three daughters Raven Chloe and Violet. My hope is you are empowered to rebel against every norm, rule, order, and authority figure that warrants insubordination, and you live life on your own terms.

A Word of Caution — Some Divergent Opinions Are Simply a Display of Dominance

There is a disingenuous version of the divergent perspective or dissenting opinion that was pointed out by the brilliant writer Rebecca Solnit when she posted this astute observation on Facebook. A few of her key points:

“…responding to a statement of fact, belief, or ideas with “yes but” is very often not actually an information exchange in any useful sense but a sort of primate dominance display…

There are useful forms of dissent, and meaningful ways to bring more information to the conversation…but too often ‘yes but’ is attempting to undermine or discredit the speaker or the cause and demonstrate superior command of the situation.

…these yes but rebuttals often repeat what everyone already knows, or the speaker doesn’t really grasp the subject, distorts what was just stated, or otherwise jumped in without really listening first…

It is lazy animosity that doesn’t know itself as such, and one of the many habits of mind of the supposedly progressive that serves no purpose but self-aggrandizement at the expense of the whole and the possibilities…”

Rebecca Solnit, Facebook, March 11, 2022.

If leaders learn to identify these self-aggrandizing performances, they can help others recognize them for what they are and tactfully shut them down.

The Value of Principled Insubordination

The key takeaway is that “principled insubordination” is when a free-thinker not only challenges an organization’s conventional ways —but offers effective alternatives that result in significant improvements in the organization.

Those who color inside the lines but never stir things up or shake the table, won’t likely change the world.

Don’t hide your light or your wild ideas under a bushel!

  • Speak up and share that new concept you’ve been holding onto.
  • Rehearse a tactful way to tell your supervisor that you might have figured out a better way to set up the office that allows for collaboration but also privacy when needed.
  • Share that preposterous fundraising approach at the next board meeting.

Decision-Making is an Acquired Skill

Whether you are making a decision as an individual, as part of a group by consensus, or solely as the leader at the top, decision-making is a complex skill.

Cut loose your inner rebel and see what comes up. Hold a creative brainstorming session with others and write down all ideas, no matter how crazy or silly. Then the decision-makers can sift through the ideas, narrow down the options to examine or find the solid gem to pursue.

Learn more about hearing a range of opinions and how to use the True Choice Decision-Making Process.

Christine coaches aspiring rebels how to be more assertive and regular folks how to develop decision-making skills.

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