4 Things Great Leaders Do In the Face of Dissent

03/21/2017 02:35 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2017

Risk-taking and innovation don't happen when people are discouraged from questioning the norm.

Credit: Getty Images

Gaining buy-in for new initiatives is crucial to the success of any organization and the responsibility of every CEO.

That's not the same as achieving universal agreement, however. If you're a leader, you'll have to become adept at responding to dissenters and reestablishing harmony among your workforce. That requires keeping an open mind, listening to honest feedback, reconciling diverse points of view, and, finally, synthesizing all those inputs so you can make decisions and policies and stand firmly behind them when dissent arises.

You can't make everyone happy, but rather than fear or stifle dissent, every CEO (or business leader) should adopt a few fundamentals for handling it in a constructive, credible way.

Don't try to hide

Dissent over unpopular decisions, no matter how necessary and logical they may be for your business, can escalate into a full-on revolt if not confronted directly. The last thing a leader should do is seek refuge in the corner office and refuse to engage.

We've heard about members of Congress cancelling town hall meetings because, they say, their constituents' anger is out of control and intractable. Now, in addition to fielding disagreements over policy, those Congresspeople are being criticized for avoiding open dialog with voters.

It isn't fun to face off with a dissenting employee or customer, let alone take questions from an angry mob, but sometimes that's what leadership looks like. CEOs need to rise above the noise. More than that, we all need to recognize the value in hearing from people who disagree with us and not feel threatened.

Embrace a culture of openness

Companies need to be clear that dissent is okay among their ranks. Company cultures grounded in transparency and openness can hold up just fine to differences of opinion and, in fact, are much richer for it. Risk-taking and innovation don't happen when people are discouraged from questioning the norm. At my company, we answer anonymous questions, even contentious ones, at every all-hands meeting and firmly believe that a diversity of thoughts is necessary for a successful marketplace.

But strong cultures are also built on respect and civility, and leaders need to make it clear that, while dissent is welcome, it shouldn't be expressed in a hostile, aggressive manner. As a leader, you should be an active participant in these conversations, listening closely to what people have to say and maintaining a civil dialog.

Remember your position

CEOs need to model appropriate ways to voice dissent. That's partly why it was a big deal when a video surfaced of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick yelling at a driver for his company. Maybe the driver was angry and rude too, but Kalanick is the leader of a multibillion-dollar organization and it was unseemly for him to berate a subordinate.

When confronted with an angry employee, partner, or customer, leaders need to stop, listen, and think before reacting. They need to be prepared to respond to dissent by explaining why decisions were made and also demonstrate they understand why those decisions might meet with resistance. Rather than come up with answers in the heat of the moment, I work with my internal communications team to develop clear talking points before rolling out a new initiative that may spark disagreement.

Develop empathy

You'll never be able to learn from disagreements if you don't try to see the other side's perspective. In Kalanick's example, he comes across as making excuses and blaming the driver before, literally, slamming the door on him. This was a missed opportunity for Kalanick to show empathy.

As CEO, people will come to you with opinions, problems, and complaints. You won't always agree with them either, but you need to develop humility and empathy so you understand where they're coming from, at the very least. You should never become so removed from your employees' or customers' reality that you appear dismissive of them.

We can only be successful if our teams unite behind our ideas and decisions, and we can only do that if we put ourselves in other people's shoes and work hard to communicate the thinking behind our actions.

Indeed, great leadership depends on accepting differences of opinion with grace, finding common ground, and resolving conflicts fairly and respectfully.

This article originally appeared on Inc.com.

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