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Real Conversations: Encouraging Honest Dialogue in the Workplace

“Do you feel comfortable challenging peers and leaders about their assumptions, plans and approaches?”

We ask all of our leadership development program participants this question to help them measure improvement in their ability to raise a dissenting opinion and feel safe to do so. While we almost always see positive reactions to this question, many other organizations are not so fortunate. In fact, the fear of speaking up to provide a diverse viewpoint is very common.

In a recent Harvard Business Review blog post entitled Why Work Is Lonely, Gianpiero Petriglieri asserts that people at all levels of an organization engage in a phenomenon known as “violent politeness,” which prevents them from raising a dissenting voice in order to maintain harmony among the group. After all, speaking up in the workplace, pointing out the flaws of someone’s idea, or questioning a proposed strategy all come with an associated risk.

Real Conversations: Encouraging Honest Dialogue in the Workplace

Most people, he argues, are highly attuned to this risk — often reluctant to voice their true opinions and squashing their internal dissent, they end up feeling lonely and isolated.

While Petriglieri presents a well-written summary of a problem that is all too common in corporate America, he fails to offer any actionable advice on ways an organization can encourage real discussion and dialogue among employees.

It’s easy to think that leadership teams and work groups would welcome a “devil’s advocate” as part of any discussion, but many times that view is not presented as a true dissenting opinion – rather it is a way for the group to reaffirm the decisions and direction of its leader.

What can organizational leaders do to foster a culture where leaders at all levels feel safe in going against the grain, challenging each other, and still maintain (or even improve) relationships?

Setting the Stage

An organization must first “set the stage” for employees to provide dissenting opinions. While this can be accomplished in a variety of ways, forming peer advisory groups is one of the most effective at changing behaviors and culture in relatively short order.

Peer group meetings encourage honest and open dialogue among participants, and help them develop the skills needed to tactfully and respectfully challenge each other. Not just for employees in the same pay grade, these group meetings (when properly facilitated) can include managers and subordinates on a level playing field.

Going First

Senior leaders within an organization should lead by example–-easily said, but not as easily accomplished. The benefits of having a senior team that manages conflict, engages in genuine dialogue, and challenges each other will cascade further into the organization as employees see that it is safe to do so.  Senior executives who show up authentically can help create a culture that supports discussion and consideration of dissenting views.

Leveraging Unbiased Perspective

A skilled third-party facilitator can help an organization take great strides towards creating a culture that welcomes open, honest discussion at all levels. Leading the peer advisory sessions, the group facilitator can provide unbiased feedback to participants to help them see their own blind spots.

This outside voice can also help resolve conflicts, keep discussions moving productively towards a resolution, and offer perspectives that the group may not have considered.

These ideas are just a few ways to influence open, authentic dialogue within an organization and improve interpersonal relationships at the same time. How are you encouraging honest dialogue in the workplace? How are you encouraging your people to challenge their peers and leaders about their assumptions, plans, and approaches?

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  1. Bob Schoultz

    March 17, 2014 at 9:19 am

    Nice piece John – the leader fosters dissenting opinions by encouraging them and rewarding them. When people see that dissenting opinions make no impact, they often quit offering them. There is a spectrum of decision making styles, beginning with, at one end of the spectrum, decide and inform, and at the other end, no action until consensus is reached. In the middle you have Consultative 1 – decide and get input to see if there are any major objections, Consultative 2 – get input and then decide, and finally voting in which the leader gives up his/her veto but agrees to go with what the vote yields. Obviously the circumstances, the urgency and importance of the issue being decided will often determine which decision making style is appropriate. But if a leader’s style has consistently been Decide and inform, or Consultative 1, it will be hard to get people to believe him/her when they say they want dissenting opinions! thanks Bob

  2. John Ruzicka

    March 17, 2014 at 11:24 am

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Bob. Indeed, the situation will dictate how much a leader is willing to solicit input from others. Great thoughts on the urgency / importance of the issue. Thanks!


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