Collaboration and the Value of the Dissenting Voice

Although the word collaboration can conjure up images of people working happily together, I rather think we would get closer to reality if we included a few arguments, some eye-rolling and some exasperated over-emoted sighs to round out the picture. Mostly this kind of friction happens because, as individuals, we differ from each other in culture, experience and skill.  The perspectives we hold come from those things.  And, as human beings, we can cling to them stubbornly, shutting out the possibility that there may be another way.

But, if we want to truly extract the best ideas and create the best outcomes, we must be prepared to include the likelihood that our view is not always going to be the best.  That means making room for the friction and the dissenting voices of those who look at things through a different lens and have the courage to share what they see.

Here’s a quick and entertaining example from the great comedy team of Abbott and Costello:

I don’t know about you, but at times, I have discounted the opinions of others because their logic sounded wrong or what they were saying had, in my view, no bearing on the matter at hand.  In those situations, I wonder what might have happened had I spent just a few more minutes listening and trying to understand.  Of course, there was always the possibility that what was being said was complete drivel.  But, it was equally possible there was something there of great value that was lost because I failed to take the time to really listen.

In a World where time is at a premium, I don’t suppose the behaviour I describe is unique.  So many of us spend our days striving to get to the end, or accomplish a goal and yet sacrifice the quality of what we produce by ignoring the voices that don’t seem to have a place on our personal radar screens.

I think there are lessons here regardless of whether we need to make room for the dissenting voice or we are the dissenting voice.

For instance, to make room for the dissenting voice I think it helps to:

Develop a discipline of drawing out those who may be reluctant to speak

Some people can feel overpowered by the common opinion.  In fact, they may believe their own view to be less important because it is different.  And so they stay quiet so as not to rock the boat.   Drawing them into the conversation can make it more real and provide the opportunity for a wider variety of ideas to be shared.

Provide enough time for reflection, curiosity and discussion

Of course if you make room for the dissenting voice, you also must make time for people to ask questions, explore, challenge and think about what is being said.  It may take longer but the conversation will be enriched because of it.

Give the ‘Dissenting Voice’ a place at the table

That means, when you come together to discuss some aspect of your work together, assign a virtual place for the ‘Dissenting Voice’.  Over the course of your discussion, stop from time to time, and invite people to place themselves in a perspective, they may not currently hold.  Sometimes this will give rise to a new idea that may not have otherwise surfaced.  And, It will encourage those who really do think differently to become part of the conversation.

Conversely, if you differ in experience, perspective or opinion from the rest, I think it helps to:

Find the courage to stand up and speak

While it can be nerve-wracking to stand up and share an opposing view, it can also be very liberating.  Little is accomplished by waiting until a meeting is over to voice an adverse opinion, to no one in particular.  If you want to be counted in, stand up and be counted.  It matters.

Ask questions that provoke thought

Sometimes a well-placed question can slow the momentum of a meeting long enough to allow thoughts to take a much needed detour.  Questions that begin with “what would happen if….?” Or “How might ‘X’ apply to this situation?” can spark ideas not yet explored.

Explain the relevance of your view to the subject at hand

If your view represents a big departure from the prevailing thinking, you stand a better chance of having it heard if you explain how it connects with the subject under discussion and the value it brings to realizing a successful outcome.

Abraham Lincoln has been quoted as saying, “ It is the man who does not want to express an opinion whose opinion I want”

From that I surmise that Mr. Lincoln was keen to be informed on many levels, to solve the right problems and to make good decisions more often than bad ones.

When it comes to working collaboratively, I expect that’s what we all want.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?



Filed under communication, diversity, Leadership

11 responses to “Collaboration and the Value of the Dissenting Voice

  1. Pingback: Collaboration and the Value of the Dissenting Voice | KM Insights |

  2. Well said Gwyn.

    When working with my project teams I have found that constructive collaboration not only includes the dissenting voices and diverse viewpoints but also contributes knowledge and understanding that I might miss otherwise.

    As you clearly point out “Questions that begin with “what would happen if….?” Or “How might ‘X’ apply to this situation?” can spark ideas not yet explored.” These can be the diamonds that shine through and help produce a better product (or idea) that might otherwise be missed or encountered in an adverse and otherwise less productive way.

    Equally with the boldness to “Find the courage to stand up and speak” is the leadership quality to really listen, investigate, and fully understand the point being made. Many times I have witnessed the acknowledgement of a conflicting or non conforming idea with no attempt to really comprehend what is being said and why it is being brought up. Later when it turns out to be a valid and useful idea there is no recognition it was even discussed. This does little to encourage future interaction and discussion. So with the speaker’s courage to stand up and be heard – I work to show a genuine interest, follow through and clear indication their view is as important and significant as others.

    Thanks for the engaging article.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Michael ~ You make a point worth repeating and that is, when someone has the courage to speak up it isn’t enough simply to acknowledge what s/he says, we really have to take it on board and give it, and the person who said it, the respect and attention it deserves. Thank you for sharing your own experience here. It is much appreciated.

  3. There was a time early in my life when I thought I was right and all others were wrong. That was, of course, silly. As I matured, I realized that I was right most of the time, and others were right some of the time. Again, that was silly. Now, I realize that I am wrong a lot and that I can learn a lot from others because they have so much to teach me.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      That sounds familiar, Dan 🙂 Wisdom often makes us realize how little we do know in the overall scheme of things. Kind of ironic huh?
      Thanks for that and for coming by again!

  4. as you point out great collaboration is often pretty messy. Agreement feels so comfortable and can definitely scratch that itch we all have to be want to be right. It can also create the illusion that we are simply being efficient. Entertaining and even soliciting the dissenting voice takes time and it is especially discomforting given we can’t predict how long it will take to work through the issues and concerns raised by the dissenting voice.. It both takes commitment and discipline to seek the possible chinks in the armor of your ideas and thought process. But if you are interested in being effective or even doing something remarkable is there really a choice?

    @Scott_elumn8 wrote about a related issue applying the tale of the Emperor who had no clothes to modern leadership. Here is the link if you are interested

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Susan ~ as you so accurately point out, none of this is easy. Often making room for dissenting voices can test the patience of a saint but the other points you make illustrate just why it is important. First, the term “group think” comes to mind. Without the dissenting voice, it is much easier to go happily and collectively down the wrong road. Secondly, Scott’s post brilliantly shows how not speaking up can lead to disaster.
      Thank you for that and for pointing to Scott’s post. I loved it!

  5. Pingback: Collaboration and the Value of the Dissenting Voice | Linguagem Virtual |

  6. Mt. Math

    Thanks for the stimulating article. The article and responses seem to imply that there is one right or best answer, whereas there may be several suitable solutions that require further examination. One issue a leader must be cognizant of is to ferret out all possible responses and value-added suggestions, while not allowing the discussion to be taken off the rails with a “red herring” or a participant’s pet peeve or pet “hobby horse idea/technology/project.”

    Recall the notion that some, if they have a hammer, see every problem as a nail!

    I helped found a collaborative research alliance where we bring together large groups of key stakeholders to address problems, issues and opportunities. There are no “bad ideas” however, the group prioritize what they think are the best ideas. No one is prevented from pursuing an “outlier” idea on their own; however, the short list of best ideas are then worked up by those stakeholders motivated to fund a solution to the problem/issue, or seek the opportunity, with an RFP (Request for Proposal) that is issued to relevant research providers. When the research proposals are received, the interested stakeholders may fund the best in their view while other stakeholders may fund alternative proposed solutions, or none, if they don’t belive the proposed solutions are promising.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hello again! ~ Your comment clearly illustrates the complexity of a leader’s job, especially when it comes to giving proper attention to all possible ideas without getting bogged down in ‘red herrings’, ‘hobby horses’, ‘hammers’ and ‘nails’! And of course you’re right. It would be nice to think there is one good or right answer for every problem. That would make it easier. But there isn’t, so it isn’t.
      Thank you for sharing the process you use for problem solving. It sounds like a well constructed framework that allows everyone to have input and no one to feel marginalized.

  7. Pingback: Collaboration and the Value of the Dissenting Voice | digitalNow |

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