Constructive Dissent [Suster]

In recent weeks, I found myself coming back to this post by Mark Suster:

Lead, Follow or get the F#@k Out of the Way

Suster often takes an extreme position on matters, and this one is no different. His advice for what you should do when you disagree with the direction that your company is taking is — quit.

I’m not sure that I’m all the way there with him. To me, the most useful part of this piece is the way that he so accurately describes an organizational challenge that many of us have faced — unconstructive dissent:

Dissent is fine. Dissent actually makes groups stronger. I love being challenged because it forces me to think harder about what my convictions are. I love when people come with ideas that conflict with my world view because the conflict either ends up giving me more confidence in my convictions or helps me to evolve. Sometimes it even causes me to consider revolution.

But dissenters need ideas of their own. Dissenters need facts and logic. Dissenters need to be willing to roll up their sleeves and help do the work. Dissenters need to be willing to have their own necks on the chopping block and admit that they were wrong in the end.

Dissenters don’t get to be “back benchers.” They don’t get to yell from the peanut gallery but never own results or the consequences of decisions. Dissenters don’t get to second guess but never lead.

Throughout life I’ve realized that many people are back benchers. “That will never work” is their motto. They like to criticize but they don’t have strong ideas of their own. They “know” what’s wrong but they never do anything about it. They never lead. Yet they don’t follow.

From my perspective, I don’t assign blame to those who have expressed unconstructive dissent by default.

Constructive dissent is not something that comes naturally to many of us, myself included. If you were never taught or never experienced what constructive dissent looks like, it’s not unreasonable that we’ll default to the unconstructive form.

Constructive dissent must be taught. And Peter Senge in his seminal book The 5th Discipline gave us a quick cheat-sheet that can jump-start our efforts:

I’d advocate for patience in dealing with unconstructive dissent, but not endless patience. Unconstructive dissent is debilitating and demotivating, not just to the person expressing it, but more importantly to everyone around them. Once someone was given the benefit of the doubt, was given the feedback that they must change their ways, was given the tools to do so and the time to do so — and still no change. Then, it may be time to part ways…

Constructive Dissent [Suster]

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