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Managing Dissenting Leaders in Business

Six steps for managing dissenting leaders in business PLUS hints about how to manage the broader team during times of discord

Running a business can feel like steering a ship through stormy waters, especially when there are clashing opinions and dissenting voices among the leaders. While differences in viewpoints can be healthy and foster creativity, if not managed appropriately, they can lead to inefficiencies, morale issues, and stagnation.

Here’s how you can effectively manage dissenting leaders and keep your business on track.

1. Open the Lines of Communication

  • Listen Actively: If you've read my blog before, you've probably heard this one in the past. It's a good first step in any conflict management. Before attempting to quell dissent, understand its roots. Listen to dissenting opinions without interrupting, and ask questions to clarify points of contention.

  • Encourage Open Dialogue: Regularly scheduled meetings where team members can voice concerns and provide feedback can help in preempting and addressing disagreements before they get out of control or roll down to mid-level management.

2. Recognize the Value of Dissent

  • Dissent is an Asset: When everyone agrees without critical thought, it can lead to poor decisions. Different opinions can bring fresh perspectives, innovation, and prevent groupthink. Encourage leaders to view disagreements as an opportunity for growth rather than as a threat. And, of course, make sure the team is comfortable and trustful enough to get past being married to their own ideas or having "be right". (see team-building blog posts if you need tips on this!)

3. Establish Clear Decision-Making Protocols

  • Decision-making Framework: Have a predefined method for how decisions will be made, whether it’s by majority vote, consensus, or a decision by the founder or CEO.

  • Transparency: Whatever the decision-making process, it should be transparent and known to all involved. This prevents feelings of sidelining and helps dissenting voices understand the rationale behind final choices.

  • Respectfully Decline: Realize and communicate that different ideas are valuable even when they are not the final path forward. Ideas can be heard, feedback received, and a final decision made based on the totality of information. Some ideas will not be implemented, but they still lead the team to think critically and make a conscious, informed decision.

4. Foster a Culture of Respect

  • Disagree without Being Disagreeable: Encourage leaders to express their views professionally, avoiding personal attacks or defensiveness.

  • Educate on Conflict Resolution: Consider training sessions on conflict resolution, emphasizing the importance of active listening, empathy, and constructive feedback.

  • Demonstrate This Skill At All Levels: Even if you will have the final say, make sure you take the time to communicate respectfully. You hired your team because you felt they were good at what they do; make sure you are respectful of their expertise and contribution.

5. Realign with the Company’s Vision

  • Refocus on the Mission: When disagreements arise, remind everyone of the company’s core mission and values. Often, recentering the conversation around these guiding principles can provide clarity.

  • Shared Goals: Regularly revisit and emphasize the shared goals of the business. This can act as common ground, even when leaders have different ideas about how to reach them.

6. Be Ready to Make Tough Choices

  • Decisive Leadership: At times, for the sake of the business, a leader may need to make a final decision, even if it’s unpopular. In many cases, no decision will please all parties (usually this is the case). When that happens, the reasons for the decision should be communicated clearly. The leadership team and their reports must understand that they are entitled to disagree, but they must fall in line.

  • Lead With Empathy: Acknowledge when a team will be inconvenienced for the sake of a higher objective. When explaining the decision, be sure those teams know you recognize they will be challenged by the direction you've chosen, and don't forget to thank them for their support. Practice the guidelines above, but don't be afraid to draw a line in the sand.

Be Sure To Support Individual Contributors Amidst Leadership Discord

When disagreements arise among the leadership, individual contributors in the organization can be directly or indirectly impacted. It's important to be cognizant of those impacts and the stress it may cause them to be aware of discord versus the distrust it may cause when they feel they don't really know what's going on. The right approach strikes a balance, ensuring that while individual contributors are shielded from potential disruptions of leadership disagreements, they still feel informed, valued, and empowered.

Here’s how to ensure productivity and morale are maintained during times of discord:

  • Shield From Unnecessary Turbulence: It's often wise to keep the intricacies of leadership disagreements within the LT. Exposing the entire team to every contention can cause undue stress and decrease productivity. Choose carefully what to share to maintain team morale and focus.

  • Transparent Communication: While specific disputes might be kept within the LT, it’s still crucial to provide broader updates about the company's direction. Assure the team that despite discussions or debates at the leadership level, the company’s mission remains consistent, and their roles are pivotal to its success.

  • Maintain Daily Operations: Ensure that the day-to-day activities continue seamlessly, offering individual contributors a sense of stability even if higher-level discussions are ongoing.

  • Encourage Feedback: While the details of disagreements might be restricted, always have channels open for team members to share their general concerns or perspectives. They can provide valuable insights and sometimes even broader solutions that leadership might not have considered.

Managing dissenting leaders and ensuring the well-being of individual contributors amidst such discord is a challenge that requires both tact and decisiveness. By embracing open communication, fostering a culture of respect, and realigning with the company’s core values, small businesses can navigate through these challenges and emerge stronger and more united.


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