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Forging with dissent

Do you remember the scene in Animal House when Stork redirects the band during the parade? Under the direction of Marion Wormer, he takes the baton from the conductor, makes a hard left, and marches the band into a dead-end ally. When the band gets to the end, Stork quickly escapes the compacting instruments and band against the brick wall. If you listen closely, you will hear the distinct sounds of horns crinkling while playing their final chord.

I routinely use this scene when there is radio silence on a proposal or decision to address a problem. It reminds me to promote teams to present alternative views and perspectives. As a team member, I also cannot escape responsibility for a decision made if I remain silent. Silence is a sign of conformance, and I must display active participation. Creating a platform of respectful objection must be designed not to hinder progress but instead align the collective's actions.

I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. - Abraham Lincoln

For the last decade, I have echoed a phrase that a former colleague dropped during a high-stakes decision-making process. The meeting had a silent tone of limited challenges after the highest-ranking individual made a radical proposal to address the problem facing the team. As the room sat in silence and individuals sat timidly and dreading to challenge the conjectured solution, the leader laid out their rule. They calmly established the expectation that we are obligated to dissent.

The same phrase was referenced in a McKinsey article to frame this organizational characteristic. Within the attributes of this phrase, most leaders desire that their teams gracefully and enthusiastically challenge direction. Individuals want to be amongst a team that sincerely engages with proactive intent to solve problems versus simply taking a position to redirect. This healthy debate of molding a concept enables it to be resilient and the team to become more accountable for the results. It's the follower that privatizes a position and selfishly conserves it to themselves that disrupts the fluidity of the team’s progress.

Senior leaders can take steps to set conditions for robust discussion and problem-solving, but individuals and teams themselves must also have the right mindsets and skills for contributory dissent to work well. In particular, they must embrace the obligation to dissent, actively make space to analyze ideas that are different from their own, and then find ways to either iterate on others’ ideas or respectfully agree to disagree. - Ben Fletcher, Chris Hartley, Rupe Hoskin, and Dana Maor -

This dissent is not a form of objection, instead is it a blistering catalyst that enhances a homogeneous concept and reduces the potential for failure. The dissent is not in the form of vocal hypothetical rarities that are supported with no data science or below a level of risk that the team will accept. This dissent is a building component and not a hindering component. It is a leveraging tool to forge the team’s activities in the right direction while maintaining velocity through this enhanced collaboration.

The challenge that all leaders face is that they must establish a path to create dissent. Be the one within the band that challenges the direction of Stork with grace. Strive to be the leader that recognizes the courage that it takes to raise doubt with data and information. Develop an organization that builds on each other’s ideas with challenges founded on well-intent. Be the leader that promotes this dissent by celebrating the value that it brings to the organization.


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