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Challenging others in the workplace

Khurshed Dehnugara and Claire Genkai Breeze

Challenging others in the workplace

Dissenting views in an organisation should be expressed rather than suppressed say Khurshed Dehnugara and Claire Genkai Breeze, authors of The Challenger Spirit

An aspiration to foster a culture of dissent might at first appear detrimental to the health of any team or organisation.

Yet we have found that this is vital to the success of ‘Challengers’ – those organisations, teams and leaders who are determined to overturn the status quo.

The route to strong agreement is through exploring difference, not through the suppression of alternative views.

So much of our establishment leadership teaching and education encourages a search for agreement and alignment, that the idea of withholding the oil from the troubled waters seems entirely foreign.

Disturbance is surely something to be avoided for our organisations to prosper… isn’t it?

Bruce Herreld, who led strategy at IBM when it re-invented itself from mortally wounded monolith to vibrant internet pace-setter, expressed this idea succinctly at the meetings he convened: “the worse we do in here, the better we do out there”.

It placed an obligation on all those present to voice what was true for them, what was really happening in the market, what the customers were really saying, what the service was that was actually being delivered, what the competitors were doing, irrespective of whether or not it sounded good or was what people wanted to hear.

Far from marginalising dissenting voices, he sought them out and actively encouraged them to join the conversation.

Herreld understood the underlying truth that in a world that is hugely complex and fast moving, with an inter-relatedness that none of us could individually understand, it is vital that views which are diverse and disparate are heard if we are to take the next step forwards.

Diversity of views

The lowest common denominator, which enables easy agreement, might appear seductively efficient in our time-pressed lives, but it will only ever be a fragile and temporary state unless disagreement is fully expressed.

We often ask a question of the teams we work with when a difficult issue appears resolved: “Have we reached agreement or have we merely avoided disagreement?”

It no longer surprises us to discover the diversity of views that emerge; those opinions which would normally be withheld for the ‘offline’ conversations which typically derail progress.

The route to strong agreement is through exploring difference, not through the suppression of alternative views.

Those teams who recognise this and are able to live with the difficulty of it thrive; it is a source of renewal, energy and innovation.

Yet individuals and teams who are able to apply curiosity to disagreement and ask themselves the vital question ‘what is true in this?’, rather than succumbing to the desire to defend their own position, are rare.

Stronger bonds

Disagreement involves the expression of strong views, of passion, the display of real emotion; and yet paradoxically it creates stronger bonds amongst the team rather than their destruction, which we think is often our deepest fear in these situations.

These teams share some common attributes that they continuously nurture.

Foremost amongst them is an investment in the strength of their individual relationships and an obligation to confront each other when they sense that these relationships are in any way unhealthy; an unshakeable embodied belief that relationships are the foundation of all results.

They also don’t allow themselves to become paralysed by waiting for full agreement.

They find ways to continue to experiment, to nudge forward and to learn together in practical rather than theoretical terms; there is a bias for action and a willingness to work with whatever comes back without blame or rancour.

Without this characteristic a culture of dissent would make it impossible to make progress and everything would simply feel stuck in treacle.

Bob Bayman, when he was newly appointed as the shopping experience director at Diesel jeans, summed up the conundrum of disagreement neatly when he told the following story about discovering so many people in the office during the evening:

“I asked them about the work hours here when I joined. They said 'we stop work at 17:30 but you don't go home until 20:30. There are three hours of argument and debate at the end of the day. Renzo [the founder] wants the creative tension that this generates’.”

For so long the heart of team building has been to help teams get along with each other; paradoxically, we have seen in our research that successful Challengers of the status quo have learned how to fight with each other without getting stuck.

Khurshed Dehnugara and Claire Genkai Breeze are co-founders of Relume and authors of The Challenger Spirit (LID Publishing).

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