BCG: It’s Important to Disagree at Work

Recently, MIT Sloan Management Review conducted a survey of more than 6,000 tech industry employees, finding that almost a fifth of them do not speak up at all to their managers. Nearly every working person has had an experience of disagreeing with somebody in the workplace, but being too afraid to say something about it, especially when it involves senior leadership. Even if companies do not deliberately suppress honest feedback, few intentionally foster an environment where people are comfortable with the idea of open—and productive—dissent.

Workplaces that do not build a culture where healthy and honest debate is not only permitted but welcomed tend to find themselves operating on incomplete or inaccurate information, which is compounded as the information travels toward the top of the org chart. Additionally, employees who do not feel comfortable speaking up at work are less engaged and more likely to leave their current employer, a problem few businesses can afford in the midst of “the great resignation” and “quiet quitting.” Excluding those who think differently can eventually create a consensus-driven culture, without the benefit of regular challenges that strengthen ideas.

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Companies that do not encourage productive disagreement are also at risk of falling victim to “decision spin,” where situations requiring decisive action simply bounce around the company, from meeting to meeting, as everyone attempts to avoid the perceived dangers of being wrong. These risks can be mitigated by building a culture where people can safely disagree, using simple rules of thumb to ensure debate remains healthy and productive.

The process begins with a top-down incorporation of the power of debate into value statements, and the way executives interact with others, with leaders highlighting and repeating the values of “truth seeking” and “debate” as priorities when undertaking major initiatives. Leaders must be willing to openly admit to mistakes and publicly change their minds when presented with better evidence. Lastly, leaders must incorporate the value of productive disagreement into the organization’s ways of working, establishing debate-friendly rules of engagement for meetings and employing digital tools to help gather feedback, highlight silent majorities, stimulate creative thinking, and encourage inclusive conversations.

While culture changes are often a non-trivial effort, businesses operate on the combined strength of their people, and those that suppress healthy dissent are missing out on the ability to draw on additional strengths that may not be immediately visible within their organizations.