Dealing with Dissenting Voices

A recent post on Facebook drew my attention to this issue and I thought it worthy of some further exploration.

However before dealing directly with the matter at hand I want us to remind ourselves of what Omega have written before concerning criticism as it may help inform the debate.  While the value of constructive criticism has long been accepted as a positive force we also believe that criticism can always be helpful in driving improvement and creating positive change.

Loosely speaking criticism falls into three categories and they should elicit certain responses, although responses to the second and third type are similar.

  • The criticism is right, I did something wrong, I behaved badly, it was my fault – or simply I messed up. The response is obvious, put it right, change your behaviour, upskill or go for extra training.  If you still can’t do what is required reconsider whether or not you are even in the right place and if not change where you work.
  • The criticism is right, but it wasn’t me! This is harsh and unfair, but there has to be a reason that the blame has been levelled at you.  Is it a personality issue? Does the person not like you?  Have they misunderstood something?  The truth is something went wrong and it needs fixing, so take a positive stance and look for solutions rather than finger pointing or even blame evasion.  Take responsibility and own the issue and at the same time do your best to be perfect in attitude and deed.  Deal with facts that can be empirically demonstrated.  The truth always outs in the end.
  • The criticism is totally wrong. The one who is criticising has the wrong end of the stick, they have been misinformed, have made a bad judgment call or simply are malicious.  As with the second case it is not fair, it is not right and it is unacceptable.  As with the second type of criticism described above the response is to deal with empirical facts and use the truth to create the correct perception.  Ask yourself why this person is playing the blame game.  Interestingly current research suggested that good people often leave their job because of the way they are treated by the person immediately above them in their vertical, in other words it is more likely to be the supervisor or team leader than the department head or CEO.

The second and third type of criticism has to be managed by shaping and improving the perception of those around you.  A few years ago I knew somebody who was the expert in his particular field in the company he worked for.  He delivered high quality solutions on time every time without fail.  In other words he was an extremely good worker who the company would be foolish to let go.  However, he had charged relationships with those around him and especially his team leader who was incredibly frustrated with him.   His work simply wasn’t enough for her.

So I found myself in a coaching situation with him and without any information from his team leader I immediately worked out what the issue was.  During our coaching sessions he would slouch in his chair and frequently sit with his arms folded.  Furthermore he would give minimal answers and look around the room.  Yes he would always answer my questions but his input was minimal and his behaviour suggested a lack of interest and engagement.  It was also clear that his behaviour towards me wasn’t personal – we got on really well and had a good rapport – it was just the way he was, very phlegmatic and laid back.  So at the start of a coaching session I told him to sit up straight, maintain eye contact and expand his answers beyond simple headlines.  The result was a revelation.  He became a different person, more engaged, more enthusiastic and more dynamic.  He reported back to me that he increased his level of engagement with his team leader and it revolutionised their working relationship.  His excellent quality, work rate and reliability did not change, only the way he presented himself and shaped the perceptions of those around him.  We all have the power to do this.

A final note on criticism is that ideally it should always be delivered positively and politely (pleases and thank yous as well as other polite respectful phrases cost nothing).  However even if it is badly delivered it is wise to hear the message behind the words used.

So now to the matter at hand – how do we deal with dissenting voices?

Before we start though we must remember that a little bit of disagreement is healthy for an organisation.  The ability to voice our own view is vital even if it is in disagreement with the leader.  A leader surrounded by ‘Yes Men’ is a formula for disaster.  The leader may steer the ship towards the metaphorical iceberg and the ‘Yes Men’ will hold the wheel on course!

Dissenting voices are often the consequence of dissatisfaction and the key to dealing with them is to understand the root course of this dissatisfaction.  It should always start with self-examination.

Is my vision and leadership style correct and appropriate, does the dissenting voice have some validity.  Should I tweak my vision and/or the way I communicate it?  Should I increase engagement and inclusiveness?  How much should I share and how much should I expect others to give?  Am I setting the right tone and providing an example of the values and working practices that I demand of my people?

Leaders should never be untouchable in their ivory towers.  A young man who I know, who has recently found himself in a leadership position has come under a lot of criticism, but having spent time with him he has the two key qualities that matter; he is teachable and humble and while he is still very much learning the ropes, these two qualities stand him in good stead.

Next we should examine the dissenter.  Why is (s)he dissenting?  Key to this is understanding the underlying motive.  Is the person a builder or destroyer?  Are they seeking to usurp power?  Do they just want to bring you down?  The answers to these questions defines our approach to how we deal with things:

The Arguer:  This person just disagrees because they know they can.  Although it is not in the capacity of leadership I have a friend who disagrees strongly on one of my views and he likes to engage me in this just to provoke debate.  It is pointless and a waste of time, I will never convince him to my view nor me to his.  Don’t use valuable time on meaningless activities like this and focus on leading.  Hot air is empty and the chances are if the leader doesn’t take him seriously then nobody will.  Don’t indulge him and he will give up.

The Influencer: This person has the respect of many and his voice carries a great deal of weight.  He is dangerous and can use misinformation and charisma to challenge the leader and direct others away.  People can often be easily influenced, just look at the constant bombardment of fake news that we encounter on a daily basis.  People will ultimately make up their own minds, but the way forward is to communicate the truth with clarity and no ambiguity.  A sound voice that gives clear direction will minimise the disruptive power of the influencer.

The Insurrectionist:  This person is gunning for the leader.  We know the type, they do nothing but tear down, they think they can do a better job, they gather a band of followers and poison them against the leadership.  He is a thorn in the leader’s side, a threat and a challenge.  This is the most dangerous dissenter especially if equipped with charisma and popularity.  You could present an opportunity to the Insurrectionist in that you give them something to do.  Create a sink or swim situation, while secretly hoping they sink.  But what if they succeed, even for a short period of time?  They become validated.  This is an unwise move because even if they do succeed their behaviour sets a template of behaviour for others to follow and it won’t be long until another Insurrectionist threatens them.  The culture of the organisation becomes destabilised and can potentially lose everything.  The insurrectionist cannot have a future in an organisation.  If they know better encourage them to strike out on their own and they can sink or swim and understand the consequences of their own actions.

Finally I would like to finish with a relatively well known story that brings things together.  I have paraphrased it slightly and glossed over and simplified some of the details, but the point remains.

There was once a king who had come from very humble origins and who by all accounts was a very good king.  However, after he had been ruling his kingdom for a while he became complacent and forgot about how he had risen to such a position.  One day he was walking on the rooftop of his palace and surveying all that he had and he saw a beautiful naked woman relaxing.  In his mind he immediately decided he must have her.  He was the king after all, so why shouldn’t he?

He soon realised that she was married and he contrived a situation where he was able to seduce her and furthermore to protect his secret he put her husband on the front line of the next great battle he faced.  Of course the husband was killed and the king had removed the threat.

Meanwhile because the king was distracted his son had positioned himself at the palace gate and was telling the people not to disturb the king as he was no longer interested.  It would be better if they shared their problems and injustices with him.  In time the son became a confidant to many and they trusted him with their secrets.  Eventually the son decided that he would make a better king than his father and led a rebellion that very nearly succeeded.

The king wised up just in time and moved against his son and quashed the rebellion.  The king lost his son and his kingdom was irreparably damaged.  His glory and the glory of his kingdom was never the same again and his reign became a shadow of what it had been.  Later when one of his surviving sons inherited the kingdom he was able to bring it to its greatest glory, but it was a short-lived golden age and by the time of the next generation it was faded and divided.  The remaining part of the original kingdom had some periods that were better than others, but it eventually disappeared into the mists of history.

Concerning our discussion there are three key things to observe.

  • The king was in the wrong. He had become distracted and lost his way.  He had become more concerned with fulfilling his desires than leading his people.  An early mentor of mine once said ‘it is a dangerous thing to spend time walking on the rooftop instead of engaging with your people’.  Leaders need to stay focused and engaged and not lose sight of their vision and responsibility.
  • The son was in the wrong, he set himself up in opposition and for a time offered an alternative. He was no leader he was an usurper who took advantage when the king was distracted.  To use a modern phrase, when the cat is away the mice will play comes to mind.
  • The people were confused. Lack of clear leadership meant that many of the people chose the alternative as it seemed to be accessible and presented what appeared to be the better option.

Ultimately it was the king’s fault.  His failure of leadership resulted in dissention and conflict.  If he had remained focused and consistent and even gone down to the palace gate instead of spending time on his rooftop disaster could have been averted.   So do not allow dissenters to destroy what you are building, but also keep an eye on your own leadership style and approach to others.  To make sure the message gets through I repeat do not spend your time walking on the rooftop.

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