The Lost Art of Constructive Dissent

I n 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan,” Captain Miller (played by Tom Hanks) coaches his squad on the proper way to complain:

Private Jackson: Sir… I have an opinion on this matter.

Captain Miller: Well, by all means, share it with the squad.

Private Jackson: Well, from my way of thinking, sir, this entire mission is a serious misallocation of valuable military resources.

Captain Miller: Yeah. Go on.

Private Jackson: Well, it seems to me, sir, that God gave me a special gift, made me a fine instrument of warfare.

Captain Miller: Reiben, pay attention. Now, this is the way to gripe. Continue, Jackson.

Private Jackson: Well, what I mean by that, sir, is… if you was to put me and this here sniper rifle anywhere up to and including one mile of Adolf Hitler with a clear line of sight, sir… pack your bags, fellas, war’s over. Amen.

From there, Miller goes on to clarify the chain of command as it relates to griping:

“I don’t gripe to you, Reiben. I’m a captain. There’s a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don’t gripe to you. I don’t gripe in front of you.”

Finally, Captain Miller completes the lesson with an example of how he would communicate dissent with his commanding office:

Private Reiben: I’m sorry, sir, but uh… let’s say you weren’t a captain, or maybe I was a major. What would you say then?

Captain Miller: Well, in that case… I’d say, “This is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir, worthy of my best efforts, sir. Moreover… I feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan and am willing to lay down my life and the lives of my men – especially you, Reiben – to ease her suffering.”

Miller’s tongue-in-cheek response reinforces his message and shows his team the way. It is one of many great scenes in the movie and provides a powerful demonstration of leadership, the effective use of the complaint, and the art of “managing up.”

There will always be disagreement.  It is simply the nature of being a human among other humans.  To expect otherwise is unrealistic and will lead to certain frustration.  For the savvy professional, there is opportunity here.  Why?  Because we have become ineffective at disagreeing.  Dissent has turned into whining and rather than logically articulating counter points, many choose to “go nuclear” by attacking with the biggest weapon they have.  Unfortunately, this usually involves an expletive or name calling.

Why not?  We watch political debates devolve into name calling.  Our press focuses on the negative energy in sound bites and stories.  We laugh at YouTube videos that show someone going “ballistic” on another person and “winning” through tirade.

The problem in these lapses in civility is that they not only undermine the situation and the process of finding a better solution, they undermine the person.  Underlying aggressive argumentation is an inability to cope.  We can’t handle people that disagree with us.  We don’t want to try.  It is easier to dislike them.  It is easier to tear them down.  It is easier to call them names.

Underlying aggressive argumentation is an inability to cope.  We can’t handle people that disagree with us. 

It is one thing to disagree with a stranger on the street and then walk away to never see them again.  We do this all the time in our cars – the ultimate platform for the caveman response to indignity.  But what happens in the workplace?  What happens in our relationships?  Without the ability to constructively disagree with another person, we cannot resolve our differences.  We fume.  We pout.  We plot.  Perhaps we were wrong and won’t admit it.  Perhaps our opponent is more articulate or faster on her feet.  Perhaps we are so clearly “right” that it is below us to even argue our point.  Maybe it’s just safer to say nothing.

As leaders, one of the greatest gifts we can give our team is a safe environment to disagree.  We are taught that dissent brings new ideas, fresh perspectives, and helps us step outside of potentially narrow thinking.  Are you seeing this in your work environment?  Do you have people step up in a meeting and tell you that your idea will not work?  Why is dissent such a dangerous thing?  Because we don’t do it well.

Many people would say that it is simply common sense to think before you speak or consider the audience when making a point.  But so often, emotion gets the better of us and we assault rather than constructively disagree.  My believe is that many people don’t know how to engage in constructive dissent.  This is not only an unfortunate situation for the individual, it is devastating for the organization.  If your team cannot provide constructive disagreement, it not only hurts relationships and morale; the organization loses a powerful catalyst for change and improvement.  Great ideas are lost in moments that devolve into emotional assaults because we become too concerned about winning and lose sight of the opportunities in disagreement.

So often, emotion gets the better of us and we assault rather than constructively disagree. 

Whether you are formally a leader in your organization or a contributing team member, your best interests are served when you, your peers, and your team disagree in a civil and constructive fashion.  Here are a few points to consider when facing a confrontation:

  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
  • When you feel emotional, step back and ask yourself: “What do I gain by sharing what I’m thinking in this moment?”
  • Consider why you disagree.  Is it selfish motivation or do you have a legitimate concern?  Understand your own motives.  Sincerity trumps emotion.
  • What is your objective?  What is the ideal result?  Channel your inner chess player and think a few moves ahead.  Is your current path taking you there?
  • Read your audience.  Again, read your audience.  Have you lost them?  Are they digging in?  If so, then pull back and take another tack.  Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
  • Where is the win for all concerned?  Look for a mutual win and you’ll feel the tone of the conversation shift.
  • Assume good intent.  If you can’t assume good intent on the part of the other person, you need to consider your own motivations and if you are in the right place.  If you can find the good intent, then you might find a point on the path where you can meet.

Most of all, quit whining and get constructive!  Screaming impotence in the wilderness does not help you or anyone on your team.  Find the calm place within and disagree constructively.  You, and everyone around you, will be much happier and much more successful.

Click below if you want to see the segment from Saving Private Ryan referenced above.  Classic!


pingbacks / trackbacks

Leave a Comment


Your Cart Is Empty

No products in the cart.