Saving Your Team With Constructive Dissension

Photo by Pawel Chu on Unsplash

You may think the dissenters on your team are just a pesky, annoying liability — but in reality you should be thanking them. They may provide the additional perspective your team needs to ward off a host of group process nightmares. In fact, dissension may be the most underrated quality in organizations today.

Embrace your dissenters — and the conflict that comes along with that territory — because they can, and will, save you.

In a previous post, I delve into the serious reservations many of us have about serving on teams. Utilizing teaming is a common practice in organizations today — but one that leaves many contributors feeling frustrated. Progress on a team can be painfully slow, while team members gingerly dance around core issues in an effort to avoid “conflict”. This is where things can begin to go wrong. Of course, cohesiveness and “smooth sailing” can be positive qualities for a work group, but a bit of dissension to keep things “honest” can be highly advantageous. Dissenting opinions can actually make a team stronger.

It’s the peanut butter to the jelly — the ying to the yang.

Teams seem require a mix of opinions and some measure of “creative tension” to excel.

While conflict is often feared, it is also completely misunderstood. Many of us shy away from conflict most likely because it ultimately makes us feel uncomfortable. However, research shows that conformity does not necessarily grow authentic cooperation within teams. There are nasty by-products to “unhealthy” levels of cohesiveness. One such example is groupthink, a malady that may be the root of a number of recent organizational failures.

Unfortunately, no team is immune.

Cohesiveness is more about considered moderation. Too little and you have problems — too much, and you have a very different set of problems. While teams require a certain level of internal harmony to establish norms and values, there is always a need for an “open window ” to allow fresh ideas and the possibility of change. If that window closes completely, the team can become unhealthy — this can impact the quality of team decisions.

Many of us are programmed to avoid conflict. Here are some ideas to help your team learn to voice dissenting opinions:

  • Raise awareness. Let members know that disagreement can be  healthy and that the team encourages constructive tension. This will help set the stage and encourage more “voices” to come forward.
  • Value listening. Draft listening as a core value of the team. Ultimately, we cannot learn from dissension if our hearts and minds are not really open to the conversation.
  • Respect always rules. Constructive dissension boils down to team members offering respect to their colleagues. When this principle is ignored, any level of disagreement can quickly become an unhealthy.
  • Encourage dissenting opinions. Teach team members how to disagree diplomatically. Many individuals may want to disagree, yet are not sure how to avoid “causing trouble”. Offer ways to speak up by suggesting healthy “templates” or a “scripts” to do so.
  • Pose alternatives. If they find fault with an idea or strategy — be sure that team members attempt to offer an improved version or alternative solution. Constructive criticism is always preferred.
  • Deal with dyad issues. If two members seem to be experiencing personal conflict, ensure this does not play out during team meetings. Encourage a dialogue to resolve core issues outside of the team and contain “toxic spills” rooted in personal issues.
  • Focus on solutions, not the “win”. Ultimately, one single idea does not have to “win” — and this can help take the pressure out of collaboration.  Masters of innovation such as Pixar, combine the ideas of many contributors to formulate solutions. In this way being honest and open, won’t take sway from another team member’s work.

How does your work group or team feel about conflict? Does your team have a unique way to handle conflict effectively?

8 thoughts on “Saving Your Team With Constructive Dissension

  1. Great article!

    It all comes down to effective listening and mutual respect. This is why open communication is so important.

    If we can’t value opinions and encourage participation, then we will ultimately become just a bunch of anemic followers without any real interest in our results. Who wants their team producing mediocre results? (which is all you’ll get).


  2. Hi I’m Bob and I’m a constructive dissenter. Like Kim I had to learn to be constructive as well.Now I try to “pre-wire” any meetings by talking to others individually first to see how they react to my thoughts before bringing them up in a larger setting. It can help avoid being the “lone voice crying out in the wilderness”.

    Thanks for this article!


  3. Thanks for a great article!

    I’m a constructive dissenter, but I had to learn to be constructive! Earlier in my career I just caused conflict. It was uncomfortable amd I didn’t get why everyone thought I wanted a fight. Now I always start by expressing appreciation for common ground, introduce my dissent and then focus on a solution. If I don’t have even an idea for a solution I table it in my head until I do jave a solution. If I had only read this article 10 years ago! Oh how much angst it would havesaved us all!


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