As a consultant working from the outside of organizations I have the pleasure of viewing things from a larger picture, a less entangled place. I’m not in the system so I can see the value of those challenging the system (which is my job as a consultant).
Typically when I work on organization development projects teasing out deep vision, building strategy from the wisdom of the masses, while developing teams and leaders, I often work to support the wisdom of descent. In my and many others experience, indeed overarching in development theory and practice, the wisdom, innovation, and refinement (ultimately: greater success) that dissonance brings is invaluable.
Considering this, it’s interesting that while running a project this fall I became very frustrated with a member on my team for ironically doing what I typically support and praise: questions and challenge. As the project continued and I continued working with this person I noticed a myriad of feelings and thoughts towards team dissonance and challenge.
Sometimes I appreciated it greatly, for his insights we helpful in refining the process and practice we were building. Other times, when his ideas didn’t seem to add value, I successfully (and sometimes unsuccessfully) redirected the disagreement with ease, gained consensus and moved forward. Other times I felt completely frustrated with the disagreement and wanted to say what I never thought I would as a manager, “because I said so and I’m in charge.”
Through the experience I thought a lot about my assumptions around dissonance, disagreement, challenge, and the skillful act of “perturbing the system,” as we say in the development world. It is true that disagreement is essential to any healthy system or relationship (note Lincoln’s Team of Rivals); however, all challenge and no agreement causes the system to fall apart and the process breaks down.
Dissonance, disagreement and challenge, in an organizational context requires great skill and awareness. If the individual is unconscious of the impact and is unskillful in their action, things fall apart fast. Considering my experience on this project, the amount of times this individual’s disagreements caused refinement compared to the times when his disagreements caused breakdown were unbalanced and frustrating for me and the rest of the team – the conversation most often ended in standstill.
A few essential things are necessary for healthy, strategic dissent: a well developed, emotionally aware leader that appreciates the fruit of challenge, a well developed team steeped in refined communication practice, and a well developed dissenter. It takes great awareness in the leader, team, and dissenter to know when the balance between dissonance and resonance tips too far towards dissonance.
As much as I appreciated the refinement that the dissenter in my team created, and the personal challenge and learning of managing this person, I ultimately choose not to bring him on forward on another phase of the project – it was simply too much challenge: dissonance to breakdown.
Each moment is different, each team is different, and each leader and manager is different. It takes great skill and awareness to know where the line rests and moves beyond dissonance towards breakdown and momentary failure. The line between essential challenge leading to innovation and breakdown is very thin.
An essential practice for every team and leader is to engage in challenging conversations and practice skillful moments of dissent. One simple question I like to ask after proposing a new practice or idea to a team I am managing is “who disagrees and what can we do better here?” Practices like these and many others opens the system allowing the disagreement to become a conscious and valued part of the conversation ensuring greater innovation and success for everyone.
Kris Nelson | Krama Consulting & Development, Inc. | kramaconsulting.com