The Role of Dissent

I wrote this as one of our weekly journal entries that we send to Nico and Emily.  I was looking through them and decided I’d share some.  While untimely, it’s worth showing the evolution of the trip.  This one was written on February 24th.

One of the hardest things to do is to give constructive feedback, to “disagree without being disagreeable”.  I’ve always struggled to do this well - the giving and the receiving - because I tend to be stubborn and straightforward. I think our biogas group did a pretty good job overall with providing a good environment this week as we worked on the various projects, but one thing I especially struggled with was giving feedback on people’s writing. I’ve never really perfected that.

When done poorly, the end goal - making a project, an idea, someone’s writing better - is wildly missed.  When done properly, both sides leave the exchange having learned something and the end goal is achieved.

I think that the best leaders seek constructive feedback instead of waiting for it.  They actively bring in dissent.  I read somewhere that a general required all his subordinates to submit a memo listing three reasons why a plan was good and three reasons why it was bad.  Lincoln was famous for constructing a team that debated within itself.  I’m a big proponent of the idea that the best ideas should always win, but that requires having everyone check their egos at the door.

One thing I believe teams are often missing - to an extent, ours as well - is active, responsible dissent.  I’m not super concerned with bruised egos: someone can say something harsh and the wound will mend in time.  I do, however, think that when we fail to provide that active dissent, the best ideas might not bubble to the surface because of group think.  If we don’t bring our best to what we do, why bother?

I guess that’s why sometimes I take on the role of the contrarian and in the process, hopefully I become better at giving and receiving feedback.  I hated when my dad would do that to me when I was younger and caught the political bug in 2008.  He would play the stereotype of the stupid Republican and force me to debate him.  When I was able to brush that aside, he played the smart conservative.  Every time I would lose my head, he would tell me that if I wanted to get involved in this game, I would need to beat even the best dissent or adopt the ideas that I thought were good into my own playbook.

As someone who’s interested in leadership, it’s something that I think about a lot.  How do we foster active, responsible dissent? How do we redirect misguided feedback into something more positive? Am I shielding my own bad ideas from feedback that would make them better?