Leadership

The Importance of Dissent in Group Work

By Brit MeredithJune 22, 2016

Today’s workforce is all about teamwork, group work, and collaboration. With such strong emphasis on working in groups and being a team player, it can be difficult to voice dissent or disagreements with the direction a project is taking – no one wants to rock the boat, be perceived as out of step with the group, be labeled ‘difficult,’ or become disliked.

However, voicing dissent can be crucial to a group’s overall success. It can keep the project on course and yield creative and unique results. After all, the purpose of any group is to come up with the best solution for the current project – not just an adequate or mediocre solution.

Keeping Quiet is Easy and Safe – It’s Also Ineffective

Anyone who has ever worked as a member of a group or team (which is pretty much everyone in today’s workforce) knows how easy it can be to keep quiet and not voice concerns or disagreements with the direction a project is taking. Keeping quiet is easy and it’s safe – you don’t risk drawing anyone’s ire, you don’t lengthen an already interminably long meeting, and you don’t make yourself an easy target (the person other group members can blame for blunders and failures to meet deadlines).

Avoiding Groupthink and the Abilene Paradox

But taking the easy way out and keeping silent can have negative consequences for groups, such as groupthink. Groupthink occurs when group members automatically and unthinkingly agree with and advocate for existing ideas and opinions – it is the death of creative thinking and can quickly lead to mediocrity.

The Abilene Paradox is an offshoot and intensification of groupthink named and described by Jerry B. Harvey in his book The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management. Essentially, a group commits to a course of action that everyone claims to support but all secretly disagree with.

The result is that a course of action is executed that has mediocre or negative results. The group members all knew the course of action was wrong (it didn’t meet set criteria, it was inefficient, it was ineffectual, etc.), but all of them failed to voice their dissent. (Harvey illustrates this exact situation in the story of the Abilene Paradox – provided below.)

The Story of the Abilene Paradox

On a hot summer afternoon in Coleman, Texas a family sits playing dominoes on the porch. Suddenly the father-in-law suggests they drive to Abilene (53 miles away) for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband has misgivings about such a long drive in the heat, but doesn’t want to seem at odds with the rest of the group, so he chimes in with “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law immediately replies, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

The family piles into the car and they drive to Abilene. The drive is hot, long, and uncomfortable. The food at the restaurant is terrible. They arrive back in Coleman hours later, exhausted and unhappy.

Back on the porch, one of them says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it.” The mother-in-law replies that she would rather have stayed home, but agreed to the trip because the other three seemed to want to go so badly. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife replies, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law says that he only suggested the trip because he was worried that the others might be bored.

After these revelations, the family sits silently reflecting on how they together decided to a take a trip that none of them wanted to go on. Instead of quietly enjoying the afternoon, they went on a terrible trip that no one actually wanted to take

Dissent and Disagreement are an Integral Part of Group Work

Many think of dissent and disagreement as being antithetical to group work – people mistakenly believe that disagreement is the same as discord or negative relationships among group members. That’s not the case.

Group work is about each member bringing their own unique approach to a situation or project – each member brings something different to the table and by necessity that means there will be differences. These differences and disagreements in approach are vital to crafting a creative solution that far surpasses any single individual’s ideas – that’s why it’s essential not to confuse dissent and disagreement with discord and failure to successfully work together. Ultimately, dissent and disagreement are integral to successful group work.

The Importance of Voicing Dissent

Clearly, voicing dissent and disagreement is important – it’s an essential part of any group work- but how you do it is as equally important. As a member of a group, you have to be conscious of how your actions and behaviors affect your coworkers. So, when you voice dissent – which you should – be sure that you do it in a way that is respectful of the efforts of the group, but also highlights the problems at hand. Here are a few tips on how to successfully voice dissent:

  1.  State the facts and share the knowledge you have. Briefly outline the purpose and objectives of the project and show how the current proposed course of action fails to address those needs.
  2.  Maintain professionalism. Be objective and politic in your critiques – it’s not necessary to step on anyone’s toes or make them feel badly about proposals they’ve made.
  3.  Speak only for yourself. Don’t presume to speak for others – even if you suspect or know that some of the other group members agree with you.
  4.  Keep it about the needs of the project and the group. The group is dedicated to its present project, so keep it about that project – don’t bring up other work matters or past projects that are unrelated to the present needs and objectives.
  5.  It’s not about winning, but about making the best contribution. You always want to look good at work, but this is not the moment to showboat – keep it about making the project as successful as possible.
  6.  Don’t put-down or denigrate your coworkers’ thoughts and opinions. Don’t attack your coworkers’ ideas – by extension your attacking the person. Instead, talk about ways that alterations to those ideas could be beneficial. If parts of the original proposal can’t be retained in what you’re proposing, see if you can’t make the spirit of your proposal sync with your coworkers’ proposals.

The Bottom Line

Dissent is not an aberration or a failure to successfully work together. Dissent is absolutely necessary to the success of any group – it prevents dissatisfying or disastrous outcomes and it elevates the groups’ results from mediocre to outstanding.

However, you must be professional and politic in how you disagree with your group mates, and your disagreements should always be about the overall success of the project – not your personal beliefs or your desire to see another coworker’s plan aborted.

Overall, voicing dissent (appropriately) is about creating a group dynamic that allows for the uninhibited exchange of ideas and opinions – the results of which enhance everyone’s contributions and, in turn,  the final outcome of your group project.

Brit Meredith

Brit Meredith

Writer

About the Author

Brit Meredith has a master's degree in Technical Communication and works as a writer and editor.

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