Encouraging Disruptive Voices

Several years ago, I was doing a three-month check-in with a new employee. I had been working closely with him, and he had already shown great initiative and ability to help us in a variety of new and unexpected ways. As a result, the feedback on his performance was glowing. Thus, he was a little surprised when I told him there was one issue I had.

He visibly braced himself for what he perceived would be negative feedback. However, what I said surprised him: “We need you to do a better job of telling us when you disagree with something. We need you to speak up and use your voice more when you have an opinion or see something that’s wrong.” Upon hearing this, he noticeably relaxed as the feedback wasn’t actually hard to hear. In fact, it was a positive and affirming message – it was as if I was saying to him, “You matter and your opinions matter.”

One of the things I expect from our employees is for them to have a voice – and use it! When they see something that seems wrong or confusing, I want them to be confident enough to say something about it. When they have a different way of looking at a problem or opportunity, I want them to share their thoughts, even if it’s counter to my own thinking. I encourage them to use their voices because I’ve learned that the willingness of employees to be disruptive is crucial to our success as an organization. Without dissenting voices, there would be more mistakes and we wouldn’t be nearly as innovative.

Without dissenting voices, there would be more mistakes and we wouldn’t be nearly as innovative.

Most days I am moving fast – going from one task or project to the next and making multiple decisions on a variety of different initiatives. Sometimes I forget something or am simply considering things from a different perspective. And sometimes I’m just wrong! These are times when I need to be able to rely on those around me and trust that they are willing to call me out and challenge my thinking and decisions.

In practice, these interactions are not conflictual but more matter of fact. It may sound like “Hold on Randy, have you thought about . . . ?” Sometimes hearing a new perspective ultimately changes my decision, and sometimes not. When it doesn’t, I still value that the person cared enough to ask questions, raise a point for consideration, or directly challenge my thinking.

Some managers may think of disruptive voices as negative and irritating because they are normally associated with being uncooperative and divisive. After all, most of us are taught from a young age to be polite, never interrupt people, and not question our elders. Obviously, there are some situations where being disruptive isn’t a good thing, but I don’t believe this to be true for all situations

Time and again, I have seen how disruptive voices help our organization. Here are a few things I value about disruptive voices:

  • They help foster innovation
  • They prevent mistakes
  • They bring forth new ideas
  • They can turn good ideas into great ones

These are valuable and clear benefits for encouraging disruptive voices. No one would argue against fostering innovation and preventing mistakes, yet it is all to common for organizations to unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) silence the voices of employees. Here are two signs your organization doesn’t encourage disruptive voices:

1. People “walk on eggshells.”

Is the general feeling in the workplace one of nervousness and worry? Are staff reluctant to give feedback, offer ideas, and share opinions out of fear?

One thing I’ve learned is that disruptive voices are silenced in a culture of fear. When employees are worried about making the slightest mistake or voicing disagreement for fear of punishment, disruptive voices will not flourish. To counter this, organizations need to first establish a culture that is void of fear – one that is built on a foundation of relationships and trust.

Organizations need to first establish a culture that is void of fear – one that is built on a foundation of relationships and trust.

2. There are a lot of “yes-people.”

Do managers seek out opinions of those they know will affirm their way of thinking to the exclusion of others who are more likely to be disruptive?

Some managers really dislike being told no – after all, they are “the boss” now. For a variety of reasons, disruptive voices make these types of managers feel insecure. On the other hand, organizations that capitalize on disruptive voices have leaders who want their thinking to be challenged. These leaders have learned to embrace dissent which results in their employees feeling more confident to voice opinions and disagreements.

Organizations benefit on multiple levels when employees speak up and use their voices. In these workplaces, many bad decisions have been avoided because an employee wasn’t afraid to say “I think that’s a bad idea” and new ideas were generated because they felt emboldened to say “I’ve got an idea.”


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Randy Grieser, Author, Speaker

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