Rediscover the skill of DISSENT

NO! The Power Of Disagreement In A World That Wants To Get Along

 – Charlan Nemeth – Professor, Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley USA

Are you punishing the Dissenter in the room?

NO! Charlan Nemeth book cover.jpg

A leader’s role is done when the people in their care are capable to influence others and make decisions. They develop their people’s skills, put processes in place and create a safe space to practise decision making and are trusted to do so.

However, it’s obvious that we’re seeing more in the camp of being very focused on creating harmony, making decisions on consensus, fostering collaboration, conforming to the manager's wishes of being happy and nice and avoiding the troublemakers who break the team rules. Or, there is fear in the workplace and no one raises their voice to praise or raises their hand to dissent.

Charlan Nemeth, a Social Psychologist highlights in NO!, her recently published book, that we’ve lost our skill of making a judgement, we’ve lost our voice in a world which is expecting all of us to get along, conform to the teams’ views rather than speaking up as the lone wolf, or even being the devil’s advocate to challenge how we arrive at our decisions.

The skill which we need to dig deep to rediscover is the skill of DISSENT.

Using her 30 years of research with a specific focus on social experimentation with juries, sharing case studies including a plane crash which occurred due to no one of the crew speaking up, challenging the use of brainstorming to and propping up a famous ‘jury’ movie, we are presented with a fascinating book alerting us to the fact that we are living in a world void of dissenters.

When someone in the meeting room seeks forgiveness to play the Devil’s Advocate, we immediately tarnish the role of dissent.  We all look to the person, raising our eyebrows and think to ourselves “here they go again”!

Dissent encourages us to be challenged in our views, our long time untested assumptions, our beliefs which can be stories which we’ve made up in our head and our brain doesn’t know if it’s fact or fiction.

Dissent is a liberator. There will be so many people out there quietly rejoicing that their judgement skill will be valued and validated if leaders take note and value this skill in the workplace.

With so much work being done with mindsets and the business of coaching, we can only hope that people will find their confidence to influence others to think their way, to think differently and be more open-minded to views which can be opposite to ours.

One of the positive outcomes by valuing dissent is creating more solutions. By creating time to consider the one differing view or at least to hear what they have to offer, one additional solution may come to the table to push for a decision to be debated on which is the best solution. If the dissenter is wrong or not popular, at least it fosters growth in our thinking and help us view change differently.

We need to see Dissent or the Dissenter as being courageous.

When you review your ‘team engagement rules’ how about you consider dissent as an above the line behaviour – one which you value hearing and one which helps with constructive thinking. 

Dissenters are probably not welcome if the culture in the organisation is one of power, authority and control. When the power of the position is challenged, you are dissenting their personal status.


Consider Henry Fonda’s character in Twelve Angry Men (you may need to Google that movie – it’s an oldie!) he was never angry, whilst the other Jurors, which he was one of, were angry as they wanted a quick trial. One lone Juror (Fonda) didn’t follow the other eleven and prolonged the case while he influenced the thinking of each juror to consider their decisions whilst he defended his position. Spoiler alert – Fonda’s character was successful with the execution of his skill of dissent.

Authentic dissent is not the Devil’s Advocate ‘technique’ which we are familiar with. The Devil’s Advocate with its origin in the Catholic Church, a role assigned to someone to explore everything negative about the beatification of a saint. The role was purposely appointed to perform the role which differentiates from someone who authentically dissents because they honestly have a different, disagreeable and divergent view.

Lessons which I have taken from this informative and challenging book:

·         Listen and learn from those whom I disagree with

·         Stop and consider the views of those who don’t think like me

·         Dissent breaks the power of consensus, encouraging our own thinking to be stimulated

·         Dissent makes us more inquiring, more divergent in our thinking and more creative

·         Dissent is about speaking up

·         Permit and welcome dissent

I am now taking on board many of the recommendations of Professor Charlan Nemeth - for my own professional development, for my clients and in particular for my children - as they grow in their thinking while at school, I hope that I can help them be a rebel rather than a follower. 

“As a leader, the hope is that you will better manage group processes and will have techniques at your fingertips to keep the discussion open, avoiding premature closure on decisions. Just as important, that you will learn to welcome dissent and not just tolerate it, having come to understand that it has value even when it is wrong.” Charlan Nemeth