Why you should foster a culture that welcomes dissent

Why you should foster a culture that welcomes dissent

Creative leaders are independent thinkers: curious, non-conforming, and rebellious. They practice brutal, non-hierarchical honesty. They act in the face of risk because their fear of not succeeding exceeds their fear of failing. But creative leaders don’t stop at introducing originality into the world. They create cultures that unleash originality in others, and that can only be done within a culture that welcomes dissent.


The Obligation to dissent

Your organization might prefer consensus and harmony.  In creative settings where the stakes are high, it is imperative to stimulate debate and criticism to improve the quality of ideas. Dissenting for the sake of dissenting is not useful, but when it is authentic, it stimulates thought. The secret to success is sincerity. Obligation to dissent is critical.  Everyone with a critical opinion should always speak up about it.  Dissenting opinions are useful even when they are wrong, as they clarify and embolden everyone’s thinking.


How can you build a strong culture of dissent that truly welcomes difference of opinion, critique and challenge? The Cherokee tribe of Native Americans advise to not judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes. The American comic writer Jack Handey offered an addendum: “Before you criticize people, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you’re a mile away and you have their shoes.”


It starts with whom you surround yourself with and listen to. Be sure to constantly increase the diversity in your organization when hiring talent. When actively gathering advice from people who aren’t your friends, bring different insights to the table and challenge you to fix mistakes and pursue innovations.

culture of dissent
Creative leaders create cultures that unleash originality in others, and that can only be done within a culture that welcomes dissent. Click To Tweet

A culture of dissent in the workplace

Radical transparency stimulates this openness to criticism.  The idea is to collect and share feedback in front of the entire organization, role model receptivity to feedback, and–most importantly–take concerted action in response. Employees are willing to give feedback and challenge the leadership if their input is heard. Watch how this will lead to improvement or, at the very least, clarification.

A discussion benefits when it is led by the ideology of “strong opinions, weakly held”, so “argue like you’re right and listen like you’re wrong.” A culture of dissent is defined by the ability of people to have thoughtful disagreement to find out what’s true. It leads to standards that are stress-tested over time: people have to either operate by them, or disagree and fight for better ones.

Democratic decision-making – one person, one vote – is dumb when there isn’t a shared level of believability. Within a meritocracy, decisions are based on consensus, or by trusting the individuals with the highest experience level on the topic at hand.  However, when resolving disagreements, there is one tool that is more powerful than all: science. Create a cycle of hypotheses and design of low-cost experiments to gather conclusive data. Initiate a culture of dissent by first agreeing on unshakable science-proven truths, upon which to build ideas designed from logic, experience, intuition, and spirited conversations.

To discover how to foster your own culture of dissent, apply to join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.