Dissent Is Inevitable. How Can we Make it Constructive?

Disagreement from within the ranks can be a great resource for a leader. A functional organization allows people to voice disagreement, debate the issues, and then commit. Disagreement lets you know that the people you lead trust you enough to be honest with you about how they’re feeling. When engaged in properly, disagreement can offer teachable moments to leaders and followers alike.

The Cost of Dissent

That isn’t to say that conflict with those we lead isn’t without a price. As a leader, it can be stressful to deal with objections and challenges from those we lead.

To be perfectly candid, I’ve found myself struggling to mitigate not only stress but fear in these situations. This fear can be multivariate in nature. I can be afraid that I don’t have the right answers or that I’ll say something that isn’t strictly aligned with the organization. I can worry I’ll get stuck in a position where I’m defending a position I don’t agree with personally but have no power to change.

Additionally, It’s hard not to take disagreement or challenge personally. As leaders, we aren’t just representing ourselves. We are representing an organization. A good leader cares deeply about the organization and the people they lead, so tension between an employee and the organization can feel like a personal failure. A challenge to the organization can feel like a personal referendum on their job performance, especially when someone is criticizing work that you have done personally.

Mitigating the Cost of Dissent

There are a lot of strategies to mitigate the pain of disagreement. Many of them don’t come naturally to most people. They take effort, practice, and sometimes repeated failure. Here are some strategies I’ve found particularly helpful.

1. Evaluate what is important.

You might be discussing a policy or performance issue. Whatever the disagreement, take a moment to decide which is more important: the issue at hand or the relationship with the employee. You will probably have to burn some social capital if the conversation turns crucial. It might be good to wait for a good time to resolve the lack of alignment. Or it might be a critical issue that justifies prioritizing policy over the relationship.

2. Show curiosity.

Disagreement is an opportunity to learn. See if the person in front of you has something to teach you by investigating their point of view.

3. Assess the importance of the discussion by asking for information.

Ask the other person how important the issue at hand is to them. Some communication styles don’t effectively transmit the gravity of an issue. Laidback people might lead you to think that the issue at hand is no big deal while inside, they are in great turmoil. Intense people might lead you to believe that the disagreement is a dealbreaker for them while they are really just satisfying intellectual curiosity.

4. Seek to understand intent.

Employees can have different motivations for questioning a leader. Sometimes, people question authority as a method to protest something they don’t like. (I expect this kind of behavior from my teenage children; I don’t expect it from a highly compensated employee.) But I can’t discern clearly an individual’s intent if I don’t ask. As a leader, it’s on me to clarify intent. An employee could be asking about details of a specific decision I made simply because they are seeking to understand it better.

5. Share expectations about what you can and can’t change.

Not all leaders or managers have the power to make wholesale changes to the organization they’re working within. We all have constraints. Exposing those you are leading to the concerns and constraints you are managing is an educational gift.

Most employees will struggle to understand the impact of policy and benefits on the organization. They’re going to see things from their point of view first and expect that the organization is a monolith that can withstand any amount of change with resilience. Hopefully, sharing the constraints and financial realities of the organization with an employee will invite them into a different view of the issues.

6. Feel the freedom to defer in public and discuss in private.

No one enjoys feeling like they are being evaluated publicly. If a topic is brought up in public, I think it’s okay to say you’d like to discuss it at a later time. Expecting that every leader will be ready and able to extemporaneously expound upon some finer point of an organization’s policy isn’t exactly reasonable. I accept that my manager might want to talk about the issue at a later time when they’ve had time to think, research, and respond.

7. Assume everyone is rational and reasonable.

Sometimes, I’m confronted with dissent I don’t understand or appreciate. My natural reaction, in this case, is to get defensive and frustrated.

When this happens, I go through a thought exercise. I ask myself, “What would have to be true to make the behavior I’m observing rational and reasonable?” This question allows me to get into a mindset where I can believe the best about the dissenting party. Unless the other person can specifically and forcibly move me from believing the best about them, it’s in everyone’s best interest that I do so.


An absence of disagreement and challenge isn’t necessarily a sign of alignment and peace. It could be a sign of a lack of trust. A sure way to know that there’s alignment within a team is by inviting discussion and debate. Hearing people out and considering different options is good. Exposing them to the concerns and constraints you are managing is an educational gift.

Disagreement and challenge can lead to more robust performance and team unity. Leaders should expect this and be able to respond to it appropriately. Followers should be aware that disagreement and challenge cost them much less than their leader and act with compassion.

What’s your experience been of dealing with dissent? What has worked for you? What hasn’t?