The Art of Respectful Dissent

MAY 15, 2019

How Tactful Questioning Elevates Decision-Making

(Originally appeared in the May 15th, 2019 'Across the Board' publication, a Board Director, Board Advisor, C-Level, and Business Newsletter reaching 25,500+ exceptional business leaders in over 65 countries with articles focused on leadership, strategy, and governance topics - sign up here)

All too often today, varying viewpoints, beliefs, or opinions on any topic can lead to confrontation. I don't just mean heated discussions, but true personal divides and ill feelings towards another person - possibly even bodily harm! This was not always the case. In our not-so-distant past, discussions touching on politics, sports, religion, etc., even when in stark contrast, were understood to simply be a difference of opinion... and that was it. End of discussion. Everyone was entitled to their own opinion(s) and this didn't harm relationships or neighborly bonds. Today is quite different as this is not so much the case anymore. It seems that emotional intelligence and mindfulness have taken a nosedive. As I wrote in my book, we live in times where "the topic of who you voted for or what flavor ice cream you prefer can result in supermarket fist fights."

There has been unintended, yet unsurprising fallout from this absence of conversational decency - a lack of deep and meaningful conversation due to fear of inciting a negative or polarizing response. This truly is a shame as I believe it has sterilized many of today's important discussion topics and exacerbated group think, the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity or individual responsibility.

There is, however, an entity that cannot afford to avoid conversations of any type or fall into group think mentality. It could prove disastrous to the organizations they serve. I am referencing the Board of Directors. Tough conversations and complex decisions need to be the first areas tackled by a Board, minus the group think and personal emotion. This leads us to the art of respectful dissent. Great Board Directors and business leaders have mastered this concept and elevated their Boards, and subsequently elevated the organizations they serve.

First of all, let's define respectful dissent. It is obviously a combination of the following definitions:
Feeling or showing deference and respect
The expression or holding of opinions at variance with those previously, commonly, or officially held

So, combining these words alludes to a state of diplomatically and tactfully stating your alternative case for the common good of the group. For some, it is an oxymoron to hold a different opinion and remain respectful as these concepts don't seem to go hand in hand (as mentioned, potentially a sign of our times). As a strategy for accomplishing a respectful approach to an alternate opinion, I personally take the route of my dissent in 'question'format, not 'statement' format. In other words, by formulating your dissent into a question, it can assist in disarming a situation by allowing for a proposal to be explained and defended in a non-confrontational way. It also has the uncanny ability to drive the conversation to a mutual and solution-based discussion. Conversely, an alternate 'statement' to a proposal immediately sets you on an opposite side or viewpoint to the proposer. A proposer with low emotional intelligence (EQ) or undeveloped mindfulness will immediately view this as a challenge to their authority or experience, taking the discussion down a rabbit hole.

In the boardroom, respectful dissent does have a limiter attached to it that needs to be recognized. That limiter for the respectful dissenter is to understand that once you have made your point or position known, you still align by the final outcome or vote - regardless of whether or not it goes in your favor. This Board decorum is extremely important in the need to show a common and agreed stance to the CEO and the entire organization.


An interesting formal implementation of respectful dissent can be seen within the Israeli forces' Directorate of Military Intelligence, as documented in William Kaplan's book, Why Dissent Matters: Because Some People See Things the Rest of Us Miss. This dissent concept is known as 'The Tenth Man.' The Tenth Man is a designated devil’s advocate - if there are 10 people in a room and nine agree, the role and duty of the final tenth person is to purposely and deliberately disagree as well as point out potential and perceived flaws in the decision the overall group has reached. "This approach was important because it allowed for the consideration of a number of possible intentions[...], including those deemed less probable than others.” In essence, The Tenth Man’s job in a current decision is threefold:

  • Challenge conventional wisdom
  • Look at things creatively, independently, and from a fresh perspective
  • Engage actively with and to reconsider the status quo
The Tenth Man “[es] for information and arguments that contradict theses constructed by the intelligence community’s various production and analysis departments. One anomaly is sufficient to refute a thesis, or at least to warrant a re-examination.” 

Additionally, The Tenth Man focuses on topics that have not, but perhaps should, receive attention, thus providing an outlet for those typically lacking the authority to escalate a believed risk that might not otherwise be considered at levels above them.

Importantly, the duty of The Tenth Man is to investigate alternative assumptions and worst-case scenarios without fear of repercussions or damage to their career.

So, let's for a moment rename this concept to 'The Tenth Person' to be more inclusive and also correlate the approach to modern Board operations, or any leadership capacity. Are your team members, coworkers, or fellow Board Members versed in respectful dissent? Have you witnessed scenarios where simple pushback on a proposal has led to confrontation? Do you wish you or others could voice concerns or alternate viewpoints without repercussions to your career or personal relationships? It is in the interest of every organization to reverse the current downward trajectory of conversational decency as it is a starting point for elevated camaraderie and innovation.
As a leader, have you fostered an environment of respectful dissent?
Reach out directly to Mark A. Pfister to help form and implement your Board's ideal strategic model with his 'Board Build - Strategic Planning & Structuring Engagement' offering, or 'Building an Effective Board For Your Company' National Speaking Tour topic.