Why you should not avoid dissent – but seek it out

25 February 2015 -


Quashing or ignoring contrary viewpoints may be a convenient reflex – but the best leaders know that challenges lead to better products

Fleur Bothwick OBE

I often question whether the word "manager" has a long-term future in our business vocabulary. When I looked it up online, the three words that popped up were "handling, direction, or control". For me, the word conjures up the image of someone who operates in a fairly traditional, even old-fashioned way, with little need for emotional engagement. I think of a person who directs a process rather than leads people.

To my mind, the future of management styles is more about inclusive leadership – with our managers acting as spearheads, bringing others with them. These are individuals who are comfortable with their own frame of reference and are keen to encourage others to be themselves and their management style accordingly reflects this. They are people who value different perspectives to their own, who are naturally open-minded and inquisitive, and who welcome – even encourage – dissent. 

Then the real art of inclusive leadership is to be able to manage one’s diverse team through this dissent. The key is to embrace and act upon challenges to improve quality – and gain the competitive advantage of a productive and high-performing team. We are often complacent about how well our teams perform, when in fact they could be a lot stronger. It’s too easy to think that a team is performing well when everyone agrees on a decision. We pat ourselves on the back for collaborating well and agree that we have come up with the best solution. This is often a myth. If two executives always agree, one of them is unnecessary.

There is a double whammy: most homogeneous teams believe that they are more effective than diverse teams. This is a fallacy. The opposite is true. We have recently shared some research from two professors in the US that shows diverse groups offer higher performance and accuracy. The study reveals that homogenous teams overvalue their contribution and have a false sense of confidence when compared to the actual accuracy rate of their performance. We have also conducted some global research internally in one of our service lines that shows that more diverse teams are more profitable. Please note that I am talking about diverse teams, not all-female teams or teams led by women.

There has also been a lot of research about the impact of "groupthink" on decisions and how unconscious bias is present in all decision-making. Before you make that big decision – the great Harvard Business Review paper by Professor Daniel Kahneman – talks about how heavily chief executives rely on the judgement of their teams. We all know that bias can’t be eradicated – indeed, we are hardwired to have it. But everyone of us should be conscious of our own particular bias and how it could impact on our decision. Don’t always just look at the outcome; look to the process that led to your team’s recommendation.

And never mistake the feel for what is real. A smooth and easy team experience doesn’t necessarily mean that you are getting the best results. If you and your team are too confident in a decision, it may be because you haven’t unearthed enough opinions. Has everyone had a voice? Bringing diversity to your team and managing it inclusively makes for more effective teams, better outputs and more engaged people. Diversity and dissent can and will have a direct impact on the three Rs – retention, reputation and revenue.

Fleur Bothwick OBE is director of diversity and inclusive leadership for EMEIA at EY (formerly Ernst & Young LLP). She has 25 years’ experience in HR management and is a CMI Companion.

Powered by Professional Manager