Is It Safe To Speak? – An Unconventional Way To Encourage Healthy Debate

How can leaders make good, informed decisions when so many employees are reluctant to share dissenting opinions?


Think you’re creating a work environment where employees feel comfortable speaking up?  Think again…

Organizational leaders like to believe that they’re fostering constructive debate within their teams.  The reality, however, is that many employees clam up rather than voice what may be unpopular or dissenting opinions.  A study from training company VitalSmarts found that only 1 percent of employees felt extremely confident voicing concerns in the workplace at the most crucial moments.

In some organizations, it’s a sense of futility that drives this self-censorship.  Employees see that management never takes action on, nor seriously considers, staff feedback – so people stop giving it.

But fear also plays into the equation, with employees worrying how the boss might react (or retaliate) when someone challenges his or her thinking.

Smart leaders try and defuse that fear, be it by touting their “open door” policies, encouraging employees to speak up during meetings, or commending staff for raising thorny issues.

But no matter how deft and diplomatic business leaders are, there’s no getting around one simple fact:  they can be intimidating, simply by virtue of the perch they inhabit.  That has important implications for the entire employee experience, as well as for how leaders can best foster candid, constructive debate within their teams.

Traditional tactics for encouraging dialogue – open door policies, etc. – need to be complemented by more unconventional approaches.  To mitigate employees’ inherent fears about speaking up and breaking with the party line, business leaders must demonstrate, in a strikingly credible way, that they really want to hear dissenting opinions.

One effective strategy for accomplishing that?  Appoint a “Chief Contrarian” to your team.

No, this isn’t an add to staff for which you’ll need to find new funding.  Rather, it’s a new type of C-level role that your existing staff can be asked to assume on a rotating basis.

The Chief Contrarian’s job is to set aside their personal views and instead play devil’s advocate for the team:  questioning assumptions, pointing out objections, highlighting risks and airing dissenting opinions.

By explicitly and publicly designating someone to play this role, you can help ensure that different and perhaps even controversial perspectives are brought to the table.  With a Chief Contrarian installed, the message is no longer “I invite alternative views,” but rather, “it’s your assignment to provide them.”  That goes a long way in neutralizing the workplace sensitivities that frequently inhibit open dialogue.


“Corporate history is littered with examples of strong-willed leaders who – in sometimes unintended ways – suppressed open debate and made disastrous decisions as a result.”


Business leaders benefit by ensuring that opposing viewpoints are revealed and considered when making important decisions.  This helps guard against groupthink, which can trigger missteps that disappoint (or, worse, antagonize) customers, employees and other constituencies the business serves.

Employees benefit, too, because the Chief Contrarian role forces them to think objectively about other viewpoints – a skill which can help them make better decisions and more persuasive business cases in the future.

So, the next time you convene your staff to discuss a new product idea, a change in business policies, or any other significant topic, remember these four steps:

1. Wait for the team to assemble.  The entire team should witness you designating a Chief Contrarian, so the selected individual will be comfortable speaking freely, without having to worry about peer reaction.  The public designation also sends a clear signal to the entire group that you’re serious about soliciting alternative viewpoints.

2. Appoint the Chief Contrarian.  Explain the Chief Contrarian role and the reasoning behind it, then appoint someone to the position for that particular meeting (or for a specified period of time).  Reinforce that it remains everybody’s job to speak up and engage in constructive debate.  The Chief Contrarian is meant to serve as a catalyst for open dialogue, not a replacement for it.

3. Give the Contrarian some air cover.  Make sure the Chief Contrarian is speaking up and that their arguments are not being summarily dismissed by others. Prod your team to think through the Contrarian’s remarks, and create a safe environment where others will feel comfortable supporting the Contrarian view, if that’s where their opinion really lies.

4. Seek closure.  Candid, constructive debate is healthy – but don’t let it paralyze your team.  At some point, if no consensus is apparent, you need to bring the discussion to closure.  Make the best, most informed decision you can, taking into account all of the perspectives you heard.

Corporate history is littered with examples of strong-willed leaders who – in sometimes unintended ways – suppressed open debate and made disastrous decisions as a result.

Guard against that outcome by installing a Chief Contrarian on your team — because when you signal to others that it’s safe to speak up, you’ll be paving the way for smarter, more informed decisions that will set you up for success.

[A version of this article originally appeared on]


Jon Picoult is the founder of customer experience advisory firm Watermark Consulting.  As a consultant and a speaker, he’s worked with the CEOs and executive teams of some of the world’s top brands.  Follow Jon on Twitter or Subscribe to his monthly eNewsletter.

Sign up for our WaterRemarks newsletter:

Customer experience and leadership tips delivered directly to your inbox!
(View latest edition)

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.