How to dissent gracefully & live to dissent another day


dissentMission statements are all the rage in startups and have been for many years. Every venture wants to change the world, or as Steve Jobs put it, “Put a dent in the universe.”

But according to the article in The Wall Street Journal there’s a downside to having an extremely strong and magnetic company mission that attracts and motivates employees. When You Fear Your Company Has Forgotten Its Principles, subtitled It could feel like you’re risking your job when you speak up, but there are ways to express dissent so that someone hears your concerns.

According to author Sue Shellenberger, ” … intense pursuit of a mission can foster groupthink and resistance to change.” She believes that companies need dissenters to combat these negative outcomes of a very strong mission. Whether or not you agree with this supposition, Sue Shellenberger has some good advice on how to dissent gracefully – and keep your job.

However, she profiles several people who gave up fighting the power of the corporate mission and quit to form their own companies, which tends to dilute her argument. If you are interested in these stories by all means read the full article, but I’m just going to extract the valuable advice how to dissent without losing your way:


  • Weigh the long-term consequences of keeping quiet against the risks of speaking up.
  • Volunteer for internal roles that confer the right to disagree, such as a committee on culture.
  • Seek out potential allies who will challenge your thinking.
  • Suggest solutions rather than just pointing out problems.
  • Frame suggestions as good for the entire company.
  • Acknowledge the limitations of your idea rather than arguing too hard.
  • Avoid judging or attacking those who disagree.
  • Earn others’ respect for your suggestions by performing well in your day-to-day work.

While you may need to think about the potential damage to your reputation and relationships there are even more tips on dissenting without being seen as an antagonist to the company who instead of being listened to, needs to be shown the door. This advice is worthwhile, be your venture a startup or a mature company.

  • Be careful not to argue too passionately for the changes you want
  • Show respect for others’ viewpoints
  • Acknowledge the flaws in your argument to show you’ve thought it through carefully.
  • Be open about your concerns. People who complain in secret are more likely to make enemies and be seen as disloyal.
  • Frame your proposals as benefiting the entire company, its employees and customers rather than just yourself

My belief is that you want a healthy level of dissent in your venture. “Yes people” will follow the leader right down the garden path to bankruptcy. Reasonable people will tend to disagree occasionally and that’s ok. An acquaintance of mine had a rubric with his wife about issues that they disagreed upon: whomever felt that the issue was of significantly more importance to them would get the deciding vote. Over time this tends to even itself out. Whether this is workable in a startup is another question. But a strong culture is built on strong values and guiding principles, not slogans disguised as missions. So when push comes to shove my advice is to revert back to those values and test people’s positions against the company’s guiding principles. Whichever faction’s position has the best values/position fit should prevail. You do have a written list of your company’s values or guiding principles, don’t you? If not you may want to take a look at my post Your company’s guiding principles.


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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