Episode: How to Handle Dissent and Disagreement in Your Organization
Michael Hyatt: Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.
Megan Hyatt Miller: And I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.
Michael: And this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work and succeed at life. Today we’re going to be talking about a topic I think a lot of people experience in their organizations, particularly if you’re a leader or a business owner. But we don’t really talk about it, and I’m concerned about the way we frame it. I want to talk about handling dissent and disagreement in your organization.
So, Megan, when you think about dissent or disagreement, how does that make you feel? What do you think about that?
Megan: The first thing I thought of when you just said that was necessary evil. That’s the first thing that came to my mind. I’m kind of kidding. But seriously though, it can be a real challenge as a leader to deal with this. I hope I’m never without the challenge of it, because the alternative is to basically be flying blind in the world, and that feels like a very dangerous prospect.
Michael: Yes, I think that’s right. So I’m going to tell a quick story, and I’ve changed some of the particulars just to protect the identity of the people who were involved, because we would never want to betray a confidence. But the principles are still the same.
So last week, I was on the phone with one of our coaching clients. She runs a nonprofit in Northern California. She and her board had made the decision they were going to move that organization out of California for a variety of reasons. I mean, it was everything from the fires they had experienced to the cost of labor to what she considered to be onerous lockdowns in the state to the income taxes. It was a whole list of things.
She had made a proposal to her board, a very compelling proposal, of a vision for moving that organization to another state. She got buy-in. Everybody was pretty enthusiastic, although the organization had been in the state for about 20 years, with the exception of one board member who dissented. So in other words, it was a unanimous vote to move the organization to another state with the exception of this one person.
She didn’t think too much about it. She thought it was still an overwhelming majority. She had like 20 people, large board, big board. About 19 people had voted for it; one person had voted against. In large organizations, particularly large nonprofits, that’s a pretty good sign. Until she had an executive committee meeting about a month later. The person who dissented was part of the executive committee. As she was telling it to me, she was giving the executive committee an update on where things stood, because she had made some progress on the move since the board meeting.
Well, this dissenting member spoke up. He said, “I’m sorry, but I just have to object. I’m not sure what I need to do. I voted against this. I have good reasons. But nobody from this board, not the CEO, not any of my fellow board members have called me to find out why I posed this and why I stood against it, and I feel strongly about this, and I’m incredibly frustrated.” Then he went on to say, “I’m not sure if I should resign from the board or what. I just don’t know where to go with this.”
Because it was at the end of this executive committee meeting, and this was pretty explosive, and she could tell there was a lot of emotion, she said, “Let’s just talk about it offline.” She had not had the conversation with him yet, but she said to me privately, “I find myself really resenting this guy. I don’t know why he can’t get on board.”
I said to her, “Let me ask you a question. I just want to kind of back up. How do you view dissent? I mean, in general. What’s your basic posture toward dissent?” She said, “I don’t know. I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about it.” I think she didn’t have the same view you have, Megan. She didn’t see it as a necessary evil. She just said, “I just think it’s kind of something you have to crush.”
Megan: Wow. That’s a word for it.
Michael: I think that that’s pretty much how most leaders I know, unless they have a lot of maturity, view dissent. It’s an obstacle to crush, something to work around. It’s the opposition. If you’re not careful, not only do you frame this as a problem you want to make go away, but you have to get rid of the people who are voicing the dissent. They’re a problem.
Now what I want to argue in this episode is that dissent is a gift. Here’s why. As a leader, you can’t know everything. There is nothing worse than an overly-confident leader. Pride goes before a fall. Right? You can’t possibly know everything. You can’t possibly see everything. What if that person who is dissenting has something… They see something that for whatever reason you missed, that if you were to pursue your current course of action, you would fall headlong into something that would damage or destroy your organization?
This is a different way to frame it. That person who’s dissenting is taking the courageous step, because it’s never easy to dissent… Right? I mean, unless you’re born disagreeable. It’s difficult to find the courage to disagree with the leader and especially to be sort of the odd person out with your peers. I think as leaders, we have to somehow find a place of respect where we can respect that person and what it has cost them to come forth with that dissenting opinion.
Megan: Dad, I agree with you, but I feel like you are painting this with really shiny paint and making it look glossier and prettier than it actually feels in real life. In principle, absolutely. Right? In principle, unless you’re a narcissist, you can probably see the validity of this argument. We can acknowledge it feels hard, but we need it in our life, even if it’s not happening as part of your culture. However, sometimes this can go sideways. Sometimes we can even make it go sideways in how it gets handled.
I thought I would tell a story myself. When I was on maternity leave, when Naomi was born, I had an extended maternity leave actually because of her special needs. Our chief sales officer, Chad Cannon, was in charge of a handful of things in my absence I was normally in charge of. One of the things he was overseeing at that point was marketing, in addition to sales. He came up with this really cool new strategy, pre-COVID, to have our team speaking on live stages, promoting products and things like that.
It was awesome, except I didn’t think it was awesome when I came back. I thought we didn’t have the bandwidth to do it. I had a handful of objections. Instead of dissenting from him… This is a little bit of reversal because I’m his boss. But instead of doing that privately and just saying, “Hey, I have a couple of concerns,” I did it publicly. And I did it publicly in a way that undermined his leadership.
I didn’t back his leadership. This is like leadership fail 101. I’m facepalming right now. You guys can’t see me, but I’m doing it. Because this is one of the biggest fails you can make when you’re dissenting. There’s a right way to do this, and there’s a wrong way to do this. And I did it in all the wrong ways. I had to go back around and apologize to him. I had to rebuild some trust. If you’ve ever had the experience of your boss publicly undermining you in front of your peers, that’s a real hard thing to come back from. To his credit, he did a great job of it. He was super gracious, as he always is, but it was a major fail on my part.
I think one of the things to take away from this, sort of the realistic view of this, is that if you dissent publicly in a scenario where that could be humiliating for someone, or that could undermine their leadership or their credibility or their position in some way, it can really go sideways fast. That’s what I did in my situation with Chad. Had I gone to him privately, we might have discovered that I was right, or maybe I would’ve come around to his position, which is ultimately where we ended up. But we’ll never know, because in a way I blew it up before we even started.
Michael: Well, I think there are two things here. There are like parallel tracks. There’s a message to the person who’s trying to lead, but they have a dissenter on their team. So that’s one message. Then there’s a message to the person who doesn’t agree with the direction of the organization. How can they dissent in a way that’s respectful…
Megan: Right. Where it’s productive.
Michael: …and helpful and has the best chance of being heard? Right?
Megan: Yeah. Absolutely.
Michael: So let’s talk about the first one first, and then we’ll come back to the second one, because it takes two to tango, and both of these are important. For a healthy culture, we have to learn to sort of welcome dissent and use it to our benefit, but on the other hand, we have to teach people how to dissent in a way that gives them the best chance of being heard and keeps them from being branded as sort of a disagreeable, negative person who just can’t get on board.
Okay. So let’s talk about you as the leader. The thing I want to say to you as the leader… And Megan, you again be the proxy, because if this is too Pollyanna, then tell me.
Megan: I’ll tell you. I will dissent.
Michael: But I think it takes an enormous amount of self-awareness to do this. In these meetings, when I have somebody dissenting, then I’m just like anybody else. I might get defensive. I might try to resort…this is the worst…to power, rather than influence, and just say, “It’s my way or the highway. I’m making the decision, and you guys need to buck up.” I don’t think I’d ever say that, but I can certainly imply that. You can feel that in a leader when they’re resorting to pure power, and they really don’t have an argument. Right?
I think as a leader, what you have to do is you have to lean into it, you have to talk less and listen more, and you have to ask questions. By the way, this is what the lady who ran the nonprofit did. She reported back after she had the call. She had the call with the dissenting board member, and all she did was listen, ask questions, and take notes.
Now I want you to listen to me, because this is so helpful. What happened was it diffused the anger, because the person who was the dissenter felt like for the first time he was being heard. She had enough self-awareness as a leader to not only ask the question but to ask the second question and to repeat to him what she heard him saying so he knew she got it.
Megan: Man, that is kind of a master class in how to do this. I’ve had so many of these meetings. Fortunately, I am blessed with direct reports and an executive team who dissent on the regular. They’re not afraid to tell me they don’t agree, which I’ve come to be very grateful for.
Michael: I know how you feel, by the way.
Megan: I bet you do. But one of the things I have noticed is even after all this time, I still have to have a little conversation in my head. When someone disagrees with me in a meeting or in a conversation, I feel it in my body. I’m putting my hand right now like right on my collarbone, and that’s where I feel it in my body. I get tight, kind of like angry and afraid at the same time. That’s the emotion I feel. It gets kind of tight, and I sort of feel my face get hot. I think partly because I feel maybe a little embarrassed, maybe kind of called out.
I have to use that consciously as the trigger for the conversation in my head, which just says something like, “Take a breath. Slow it down. Just listen to what they have to say. You’re not threatened. You’re fine. They’re fine. They’re actually here to help.”
Sometimes I have to really repeat that in my head multiple times and try to breathe and not have my face match what’s happening in my body, because that would be really discouraging to people. They would know right now, “She doesn’t like this.” The truth is, I don’t like it when people dissent. I need it, but I don’t like it. So I have to try to make my body and my body language look different than how I feel while my body is catching up with what I know I want, which is to be open, to be soft to that. All those things.
Michael: Well, what you just said shows extraordinary emotional intelligence.
Megan: Well, it’s hard won.
Michael: Yeah. We’ve all had to learn it, and you don’t learn it, you’re kind of destined to repeat it, and you go through a lot of people.
Michael: People who are strong leaders, people who are creative, people who are brilliant problem solvers are going to dissent.
Michael: Right? To put it sort of in the government kind of language, you don’t want a cabinet full of people who just agree with everything you say.
Michael: That’s like the worst thing you could have happen. We all know that. We say it theoretically, but practically it’s kind of what we want. I want people to go along and agree with me and pat me on the back and think how wonderful I am and just implement my ideas. I’m saying this not with a sense of false humility, but I think I have a pretty good track record. I think probably half of my ideas are crap. Right? Maybe more. If somebody didn’t call me out on that or challenge that, and if we implement all that stuff, our company would be broke. So you can’t resent it. You have to welcome it.
The other thing is, I think when people feel heard, and they go through that process, after a few minutes then everybody gets on the same side of the table, and it’s just a problem to solve. In this particular case, the story I told about the woman leading the nonprofit, she had a vision. She did what I talk about in my book The Vision-Driven Leader. She had a vision script. So that wasn’t the problem.
But what she was experiencing was sort of the next step, which is alignment around the vision. If you’re not getting alignment around the vision… First off, the first thing to ask yourself…Have I made clear the vision? In other words, is it written down? Have I made it clear? The reason there’s misalignment is there’s not shared vision. This is an opportunity to see those places where there’s not shared vision, where you need additional clarity. That’s all it is.
Look, I know it gets invested with all kinds of emotion, but if you can take a step backward and go, “No. This is going to make this better,” because if you can fold in that board member’s perspective, then it’s going to be a better decision.
Megan: It doesn’t mean, by the way, that you ultimately agree with them or cower to them.
Michael: That’s right.
Megan: It just means you’re willing to hear it, you’re willing to answer it, you’re willing to speak to it. Honor it, really. I think that’s what it takes ultimately to move from that dissent to a place of alignment. You’re not going to get there by force. You can’t get to alignment by brute force.
Michael: Well, the other thing I would say too that’s important here is a concept I learned from Ilene Muething, who’s coached me and coached you, at Gap International. That is the distinction between agreement and alignment. Agreement, it’s great if you can get it, but it’s not a prerequisite for alignment. If you have strong relationships, if you hear people out, if they have a chance to speak their mind, generally speaking…I have 100 percent track record on this…they will align with you even if they don’t agree with the decision.
They can say, “Okay. That’s not the decision I would make, but look, I’ve given my best arguments. You’ve listened to me carefully. It’s clear you understand it. Yes, I will align.” Sometimes I’ve had to ask people that. I’ve had to say, “Look, I get that you don’t agree with this decision. Do you feel like you’ve been heard?”
“Do you feel like I understand your argument?”
“Are you willing to align with this decision even though it’s not the decision you would make?”
What that looks like is that when we go out to execute, there’s no hesitation. They’re not tentative. They have my back. Okay. But it doesn’t happen just by muscling it through. I can’t just demand as the CEO of the company. Thankfully, I’m not the CEO anymore; you are. But I can’t just say, “Hey, I’m the CEO of the company. I demand alignment.” No. Alignment is something that has to be created, and it’s best when you don’t have to resort to power to do it.
Okay. Let’s talk about the other side of it, and that is the counsel you’d give to the person who is dissenting, because there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about this. So, Megan, why don’t you take the lead here?
Megan: Yeah. Well, I’ve seen this done really well, and I’ve seen it not done really well. The people who didn’t do it really well aren’t here anymore. I’m just kidding.
Michael: Sort of.
Megan: Sort of. No, but seriously, there are ways to do this that are effective and professional, and there are ways that are going to ultimately undermine your cause. So a couple of things. I think if you have the opportunity to dissent in private, first of all, that is a great way to do it.
If you disagree with a decision your boss is making or is considering, or someone you have that relationship with, if you’re able to talk with them about it privately, you’re not going to activate that same physical, emotional response I talked about earlier, where your boss is kind of trying to talk himself off the ledge for a minute so he can really hear what you have to say because they’re not publicly embarrassed. They don’t feel threatened, hopefully. But they’re really in an easier place of listening so the threshold to be heard is lower in that situation.
Now sometimes that’s not possible. Right? Sometimes you are in a meeting, the time to speak is now, or it’s in a public channel, in Slack, or an email thread, or something like that where you have to say what needs to be said in front of someone else.
Michael: Or the leader is invited to debate or dissent.
Megan: Right. Exactly.
Michael: Or you’ve created a culture like in our culture. I’m never surprised when somebody pushes back on me in public, and I never take it personally. You mentioned Chad earlier, and if he’s listening to this, he can get a good laugh out of it. But I always expect Chad to push back. Part of that is I think that’s the way Chad processes. He kind of wants to find out what you’re made of and how much you believe your argument. So he pushes back on that. Frankly, I love that. I’ve tried to get you to do that to me. I love a good argument.
Megan: I know. You always want to fight on this podcast. I think that story about Chad, or that example of Chad, is a great one, because I think what it speaks to is as you’re thinking about how to dissent in a way that’s going to be helpful, you need to consider the relationship you have.
So if you have a super-high trust, close relationship with someone, you have a lot more latitude. You could probably do it publicly. You could probably do it maybe even a little sarcastically sometimes, or just in a way that’s less formal, without so much respect baked in, and it would be fine. The relationship can handle that. It’s kind of the relationship you have.
However, if let’s say you’re in a leadership team meeting, or you’re in an all-company meeting, and you’re like five levels down from the CEO, and you don’t have a relationship with that person, and you publicly put your hand up and you’re sarcastic or you’re flippant or dishonoring in some way, that’s not going to go well.
Megan: Now you’ve created an us-versus-them kind of moment, and the person’s dignity and reputation is on the line. You want to avoid that. One of the things that most leaders don’t like is being publicly embarrassed. So you have to find a way to dissent in a way that doesn’t embarrass.
One of the things you can do is you can honor the intention. You could say something like, “So and so, I can really see the validity of this path you’re suggesting. I wondered if you would be willing to consider though this other thing might be worth looking at, because I think it could be a real problem we haven’t looked maybe as deeply as we could at it. What do you think?”
You’re coming from a place of humility. “Hey, I’m for you, and I’m not sure you see this. So because I’m for you and I’m for this company, I want to risk saying something that’s vulnerable, but I want to do it in a way that’s honoring and is in a way that’s not about me versus you or me trying to catch you doing something wrong so I can embarrass you publicly.”
Michael: That’s really good. I think that what you didn’t say but what you’re demonstrating is that you’re basically trying to understand what the boss wants, but you’re showing him an alternative strategy for getting it.
Michael: But this is how you sell anybody on anything, and that is help them get what they want. If I can help you get what you want and avoid the pitfalls… Right? So I don’t want you to step in it, so to speak. I don’t want you to make a misstep and risk yourself, risk your reputation, risk the organization.
But I think what you said, Megan, was so powerful. I want them to know that I’m for them. I might even be for the destination. It’s just that I see a problem with how you’re proposing we get there, and I’m doing my best to look out for you because that’s what you pay me to do.
Megan: Right. Well, here’s the thing. You can say almost anything to someone if they know you’re for them and you care about them. If you’re always thinking about, “How do I do this with honor and dignity?” then you can say hard things to people. I’m not advocating people cutting corners on the truth and not saying what needs to be said, because we are living in a time when a lot of hard things need to be said to a lot of people, especially leaders. And that’s okay.
It’s okay to say hard things, to kind of be direct, but you can do it in a way that has honor and preserves the dignity of the other person. Not only is that just morally the right way to handle it; it also results in far more productive conversations and movement in the direction potentially of what you’re bringing up than if you just tick everybody off by dehumanizing them publicly.
Michael: This is why social media doesn’t work. It’s like the worst example of this. It’s called social media, but there’s hardly anything social about it. You’re not in relationship with most of these people, and that’s why people can drive by, say whatever they want, and just fade back under a cloak of anonymity.
You can’t do that in real life. Right? Because we have relationships with these people. So don’t let social media or what you see on TV sort of be your guide and inadvertently or unconsciously try to replicate that. That you’re going to speak truth to power. You can speak truth and be respectful.
Megan: Right. It’s very possible. Don’t kid yourself that if you’re going to do it in writing that gives you more latitude. It doesn’t. It doesn’t matter if you stand up in an all-hands meeting or in an executive team meeting or if you write a letter to the CEO of your company or to the board or something else. It doesn’t matter. However you do it, it has to be with honor and preserving people’s dignity. Again, you can say almost anything if you do that. But we have lost that as a culture, as a standard, and it’s really sad to see what’s happening because of it.
Michael: I just want to say, and this is probably too big of a statement, too much of a blanket statement, but I would say that usually, when you resort to writing rather than speaking face to face, it’s because of fear. You’re being a chicken. If you can’t walk into the person’s office or call them on the phone and have that conversation, you need to do some self-assessment, because there’s something about putting it in black and white that makes it irretractable once you’ve launched it.
It’s subject to their interpretation, to the mood they’re in when they read it. You can’t read the room or try to assess where they’re at. You miss all the nuance. And particularly, it’s really challenging in this pandemic world of Zoom. You can miss the emotion because all you’re seeing is, you’re getting the sound and you’re getting the sight, and even that’s two dimensional. I think we have to be really cautious in this environment. Still do it, but just be aware of the limitations of the environment we find ourselves in today.
Megan: One thing I will say is if you’re in a large organization and you don’t have a relationship maybe with the leaders at the top of the organization…that’s where you feel the dissent is needed…sometimes the power differential is big enough that you either can’t access those people or you don’t have a relationship with them, and writing might be the best. So I don’t think it’s never that writing can’t be okay.
I think we have to be conscious that for some organizations that may be your only outlet or your best outlet. But if there’s any chance, and if you can kind of gin up the courage to do it, even if the CEO or the boss doesn’t know you, if you can go and sit down with that person, I’m going to tell you, if they’re a good leader at all, their respect for you will go exponentially up because they know it took courage to come and have that conversation.
Michael: One of the things I would say, Megan, too is that if you do have to resort to writing, and if you’re communicating with a level of leadership above the level to which you report, don’t blindside your supervisor.
Megan: Yeah. Gosh. So true.
Michael: The last thing you want is for his or her boss to call him or her in and say, “Well, I got this little nastygram from this person who reports to you.” That’s not going to go well.
Michael: Before you launch out in dissent, we just want to encourage you. This is a broad disclaimer. There are all kinds of cultures out there in companies. You have to be able to read the room and know how much dissent the organization you’re a part of can metabolize without getting indigestion.
So we would just encourage you to move the ball forward, and certainly if you’re a leader, you have to create an environment that’s safe for dissent, because, again, I want to say, dissent is a gift. But if you’re the dissenter, then you have to be aware of the environment you’re in. Maybe push it a little bit. But we don’t want you to get yourself fired.
Megan: That’s important to say. By the way, just a thought as you were talking, the way you create a culture where people feel free to dissent is you put that distance between the stimulus and the response, that physical, emotional reaction you have and how you treat people. If people feel punished on the other side of dissenting, if they get shut out of things, if they get kind of passive-aggressively targeted in some way, that’s not going to continue to happen.
Michael: That’s right.
Megan: This is not one of those things that you can so much teach as show. I mean, you can teach it, but I think it only matters to the extent that you live it out and you encourage it with your behavior as the leader. Because however you respond, particularly nonverbally, is whatever people will think is the standard. Right?
Michael: That’s right.
Megan: So if they think you didn’t like that, that you got mad, that maybe created a story about that, that’s going to be a problem. So you need to publicly praise people when they do it, when they do it well, and really make space for it.
Michael: And people will test you in the small things before they get to the big things. Where you really need the dissent is in the big things where there’s a lot at stake. But don’t be surprised if you’re in an organization where this hasn’t been the norm that they test you in the little things. You know, I hate this as a leader, but you’re always on. You’re always modeling. People are always creating a story based on your behavior, so make sure it’s a good one.
Megan: That’s right.
Michael: Okay. Well, Meg, thanks for this conversation. I love talking about dissent and disagreement. Guys, thank you for listening. I hope this has been helpful, but until next week, lead to win.