ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.
Are you a non-conformist, someone happy to challenge the status quo, ruffle a few feathers, stir the pot? If so, this episode is for you. We’re going to teach you how to keep doing all of that without annoying other people as much as you might do right now. But this episode is also for everyone out there who’s reluctant to stand apart from the crowd or cause trouble.
Those of us who want to disagree with colleagues and bosses or family and friends sometimes, but aren’t exactly sure how to speak up and make our case, or even if we want to risk the consequences. It’s also for managers who need to do a better job of wrangling both types of people to get the best from the gadflies and the go-alongs.
Here to help us is Todd Kashdan, a professor of psychology and director of the Well-Being Lab at George Mason University. He’s the author of the book, The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively. Hi Todd.
TODD KASHDAN: Thanks so much for having me.
ALISON BEARD: Insubordination is a big word with a lot of negative connotations. Why do you see it as a good thing?
TODD KASHDAN: We all live in these hierarchies. Some of them are power-based, some of them are social status based, and the idea of insubordination is that you are, to some degree, speaking outside of churn in terms of where you are in that hierarchy, what rung you are that you’re willing to speak up against people that are potentially higher than yourself. And there’s a lot of research to show that just the presence of someone that dissents from the majority or popular sentiments in a room increases the intelligence and decision-making of that group.
ALISON BEARD: And why does some people gravitate toward dissent while others don’t? I can assume it’s both nature and nurture, but you definitely see the personalities who are always willing to do it and the personalities who really shy away from it.
TODD KASHDAN: Well, in terms of principled insubordination or principled rebels, one of the misnomers that’s really important to correct is we think it’s the people that are disengaged from the group. So if you really don’t like the people on your soccer team, if you don’t get along with the people in your workplace, you assume that those are the people that are going to fold their arms and disagree with what the committee says or what the group decides is a direction to go.
But there’s great research by Dominic Packer at Lehigh University that shows that what often leads to principled dissent is someone that strongly identifies with the group and that care so much about the health and longevity of the group, that they’re willing to risk social capital to say something. And the other element that really predicts whether something will actually express their view is that they believe that the benefits of speaking outweigh the costs of saying nothing and staying silent and sticking with the herd.
ALISON BEARD: Okay, so let’s take one step back. What do you define as principled insubordination versus unprincipled?
TODD KASHDAN: I have this equation where you get these multiple elements in there. So you’re talking about deviance from popular sentiments or the orthodoxy of the group, and that could be in the workplace, at a school, in your neighborhood with your friends.
Then there’s an element of are you contributing to the welfare of the group, versus this is just self-focused and self-absorbed? And the other element that’s there is that is this authentic? Are you doing this because this is core to your values and what the utopian more ideal world you imagine being? Or are you doing this for likability and status points? And you put those elements together and you get someone that’s willing to disagree and speak out against dysfunctional norms, beliefs, or ideas.
ALISON BEARD: In my experience, particularly in the workplace, people who dissent or challenge or provoke, they are still punished for it in some way even when it’s coming from a principled position. How do you get around that? Not being seen as a team player and not being seen as promotable to management?
TODD KASHDAN: Right. The notion that you’re going to be rejected and socially persecuted is really highly probable. The real question to be asking yourself if you’re thinking about disagreeing with the direction or the ideas that a group is taking that you’re a part of is, “Do I care about the contribution of what this group can accomplish more so than I care about my momentary psychological welfare?” Because what we tend to find is in the intermediate aftermath of saying something, people are reluctant to be around that person and there is some rejection and negative evaluation. But in the longer term, you find people will thank you and appreciate that you said what they’ve been wanting to say for years and then slowly… I call it the sleeper effect. Is that you find that you have more allies than you think because most people’s preferences are not publicly represented and they only express them in private to their close friends and family.
ALISON BEARD: Is it important to know that people are on your side before you decide to dissent?
TODD KASHDAN: Yeah. If you’re thinking about what are the most effective strategies to dissent against a dysfunctional idea that’s taking hold in a group, the best way to go is to collect allies beforehand. And even a better strategy is to talk to people privately, one-on-one, people who you think will be opponents to your perspective.
Now, there’s even a way of doing this. Is that when you’re talking to someone that you think will disagree with your perspective, to ask them, “What do you think is potentially a cost of the direction that we’re going? Here’s an idea that I have and I’m wondering how I can get your thoughts and criticisms ahead of time before I speak to the group so I can potentially have some traction.” And the beauty of this strategy is it’s not public facing. Because they are criticizing you in private, they are essentially a co-collaborator on whatever you bring up to the group.
And there’s a psychological tie to who you are and what you’re going to say when you speak to that group. And you’re also showing a little bit of respect and dignity towards them that you would take them to the side and spend your time, that they are so valuable that you would acknowledge them before speaking to the group. And this is the way that you could potentially bring your greatest adversaries onto your side. Even if they don’t vote for you, they might be willing to reduce the length of the runway for your idea to get a hearing so that people are at least willing to consider what you have to say.
ALISON BEARD: Are there other specific tactics that you recommend for people who want to dissent more?
TODD KASHDAN: Oh, there’s so many strategies. One thing that’s really important about an idea is if you are in the minority in terms of numbers or demographics, there aren’t a lot of people that look like you or think like you in a group, what you want to do is demonstrate that you have group loyalty before you reveal your counter idea to what the group is doing.
And so this is when you have to resist humility and say, “I’ve been part of this group for 17 years and you’ve seen me at functions. You’ve seen me at after hours working here. You’ve seen that my car is one of the first people that parks and gets the building in the office place. You’ve seen is that I have constantly volunteered for positions. So please know that I’ve been very serious before the idea of speaking out about the direction that the way the group is going. It’s because I care.”
So you don’t just want to say you care, you really want to offer behavioral evidence that you are an in-group member or that you care about the group. And this is when all of those acts of services offer an opportunity to have currency to spend at this moment where you get to do something that is against the will of the group at this moment.
ALISON BEARD: So you’re not just the person who’s always grumbling in the corner. As you said initially, you need to be part of the group caring about the group and emphasizing that.
TODD KASHDAN: Yeah. And even more important to that is you need the evidence to prove that to people. You want to have, before you speak, people’s defenses to drop. You want the least threatening message possible. So the first one is to show, “I am a caring, loyal member of this group.”
And the second part of that is you want to induce people’s curiosity as opposed to a threat radar. And the way of doing this is to speak about what’s possible, have a vision of an alternative way where the group can prosper and make a bigger difference even if there are a short-term painful cost to it. So when you’re talking about shutting down a particular product that people were excited about, that’s going to cause a lot of short-term friction. And in order to gain less defensiveness from other people, is to point out what you’re imagining would happen with those resources being spent elsewhere.
ALISON BEARD: I think in a lot of corporations though, just the idea of dissent is that it’s creating friction that creates inefficiency, which is anathema successful organizations. So how do you address that?
TODD KASHDAN: Well, what you want to do is really focus on exactly what obstacles, inefficiencies, and problems are going to happen. With this idea of being raised, you’re basically doing an audit of all the negative things. You’re anticipating exactly what people are going to say. Yes, this is going to take more time. Yes, this will be costly in the short term. Yes, this conversation alone is making the speed for us to make decisions slower, but is it more important for us to make better decisions and have more information so that we actually do better in the long run compared to the short level of excitement and cohesion around this idea right now? So while inefficient, there’s a stimulation of ideas that happens when we allow and embrace dissent when it occurs.
ALISON BEARD: Now, I’ve sort of jumped ahead and accepted your premise that we should all try to dissent more. And definitely we know that the bold innovators who really make a difference in the world are the ones who do that. They drop out of school, they disagree with bosses, they fight the status quo. I’m thinking of tech CEOs. I’m also thinking of civil rights leaders like John Lewis. But for those of us doing everyday jobs who don’t naturally want to rebel, who might work in cultures where rebellion is discouraged, why should we try to start doing it more?
TODD KASHDAN: Well, there’s two reasons. One is the thing that is the architectural framework of a well-lived life is a sense of mission, a sense of purpose in life, a feeling that you contributed to something bigger than yourself. This is exactly how you do it, where you are a unique idiosyncratic element of a workplace or a group, and that you are not an interchangeable part with everyone else. It is your unique perspective. Nobody who has ever walked the earth has read the same books as you, conversed with the same people as you, had the same negative and positive life events as you, the same childhood history as you of friendships, failures, errors and mistakes. All of that brings a perspective that is unique and is at that these moments that you get to share that uniqueness and it makes you more fulfilled as a person, even if it’s stressful. And it’s what makes a group stronger, even if you don’t get credit for it.
I really want to emphasize is that if you do disagree, you might not get credit, but there’s a sense of empowerment, agency and meaning of realizing that you spent your finite amount of energy and time on this earth, in this workplace, offering something that is unique and valuable, even if it’s just recognizing is that the ideas that are being displayed and the ways that people are doing things is inefficient or it’s not working and it’s about time someone says something. It is the best way of being a good group member even if it involves some pain.
ALISON BEARD: So if you don’t get credit, you might not be successful and you might be punished, you should still do it?
TODD KASHDAN: Well, there’s some boundary conditions. If it ends up being you’re living paycheck to paycheck, and if it ends up being that there’s no plan B in terms of if there’s no other job that you could have and that you are on the fringes, a marginalized member of society, you don’t have the same opportunities. In this case, what I would argue is, it’s like the question you raised before about is it important to get allies? Try to find someone who has good social stature in the group, who is willing to amplify your voice because you know that if it comes from them, it’s more likely to get a hearing. It’s more likely to be considered, people are more likely to be curious, and they’re more likely to really spend time working with the idea and make it clear that they are the co-creator of whatever idea or contribution this is.
ALISON BEARD: And what’s your advice for the people who are seen as pot stirers? They’re always provoking, they’re always challenging. Is it that they need to better pick their battles? They need to use better tactics?
TODD KASHDAN: We have people that identify as being a nonconformist, a maverick, a rebel. And so, one of the strategies is to really discern what is the subjective evidence to support my plan or idea? And what is the objective evidence? Thinking in terms of evidence is a good way to get better at being a non-conformist. And so if it’s always your opinion, and it’s always your preference to offer an idea that is counterintuitive to what the group is saying, you’re not going to be as persuasive as saying, “If you look at the numbers, enrollment at this school has declined precipitously over the past five years. Now we have tried X, Y, and Z strategies. What if we considered an experiment of another approach that myself and this other person has been thinking about?”
So in this case, you’re offering an invitation. You’re providing objective evidence of how there has been failings over the past few years, even if people haven’t been acknowledging it sufficiently. And you’re also acknowledging is that you are not the only person involved with this. So this can’t be just an attack on you as the individual, that you have a small or large coalition that’s involved behind this cause and you just happened to be the representative person who’s willing to speak on their behalf. Those are all strategies.
ALISON BEARD: Okay, so we’ve talked about the individual contributor who is either up for rebelling and needs to sort of rein themselves in. And we’ve talked about the person who might be reluctant to and should have a little bit more courage. If I’m a manager or a team leader, what do I risk and what do I gain by trying to foster more dissent and even insubordination?
TODD KASHDAN: So this is the mantra that I hold. We unlock the benefits of diversity by allowing and permitting and embracing dissent. So there’s a lot of conversation about diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging. We are adequate at bringing diverse talent into the room. We are horrible at an organizational level across the board, not just the United States, but elsewhere in terms of ensuring that they get a voice and that they do speak, that they are heard sufficiently compared to people who are part of the majority.
If you are looking for better decision making, if you are looking for creative ideas, we know that the greatest predictor of creative ideas is the number of ideas generated in the first place. And the quickest way to get a larger pool of ideas is having a wider variety of voices and perspectives that happen there, even if they’re wrong.
And one of the cool things as a leader to know is that even when those people are wrong, they open the portals to, “We’re allowed to ask questions, we’re allowed to consider weird things, and we’re allowed to acknowledge that the approaches we’ve used in the past might have been sufficient or adequate, but let’s go for more utopian ideals.”
And so if you’re looking for truly renovating and improving the nature of a group, it’s worthwhile to explicitly say, “Before we have this meeting, I want you to know that I appreciate and want to bring in voices that aren’t heard often, voices that are on the fringe. I want to allow the room… As opposed to the same people taking most of the airtime and eating up most of the clock when we’re having conversations.” Having that as the value system ahead of time, that we’re choosing critical thinking and autonomy as more important values than cohesion, might not lead to a positive social encounter or a really enjoyable meeting, but better ideas and better decisions.
ALISON BEARD: But you’re also as a boss saying, “I want you to challenge me. I want you to tell me I’m wrong.” So if you encourage a lot of that and people do disagree and make different arguments, and then you choose one direction over the other, how do you then almost quash the dessent so that everyone’s moving in the same direction?
TODD KASHDAN: The key is to think of this in stages. So you want to have a generative phase where you’re collecting more ideas from more people and getting more perspectives in the room. And then you have the selection stage where you’re deciding which ideas do we put more effort and energy behind to start testing and working with. And when the leader decides not to choose an idea, there’s been so much conversation at this point that you were to provide a narrative of why one idea was chosen over another one. So you’re validating the development of ideas and you’re validating the selection for ideas so that it’s not just about what’s going to be decided at this moment. This is a process that we’re going to continue further. I want you to do the same thing again and bring those ideas into the pool for the second, third, fourth, and for the remainder of our lives as a group.
I think the important part is to clarify what are the core values of the organization and what are going to be the rules of engagement of having discourse and productive disagreements in a group.
ALISON BEARD: Have you seen people and teams learn to do this even in corporate cultures that really emphasize consensus and even kindness as so many of them now do, HBR included?
TODD KASHDAN: Yeah, I mean, if you want, I’ll give you a very provocative example of something I was a part of. For anyone that’s not a football fan, which you don’t need to be, American football, the Green Bay Packers, local citizens are allowed to be shareholders in the organization. And so they had a shareholder meeting, and during this meeting there was a guy who stood up and said they were against the idea of the Green Bay Packers supporting LGBTQ communities. They didn’t like the gay pride flag being anywhere near any apparel or any setting that involved the Green Bay Packers and said, “This is against my value system.”
Now here’s the thing. This comment, of course, reeks of homophobia, and it’s sort of not the thing you typically hear in 2023 in a conversation. And what I would argue is this kind of dissent while very uncomfortable to hear, would you prefer biases and prejudices to be revealed publicly or would you want those votes that those people have as stakeholders and shareholders to be done without any part of the discussion? Because while you might disagree with everything this person says, which I do, it does introduce and liberate people to have a different related conversation, which is what things outside of football should this team and organization be focusing on?
Because there are so many issues that are problematic in society, and the question is, what is going to be our decision-making process for which causes we’re going to focus on and which ones we’re not going to focus on? And in this way, you can have a much richer, more important conversation of what should a football team be focusing on and how do we make those decisions?
And they ended up having a pretty big argument about gay rights, homophobia, marginalized communities. And it ended up leading to a really nice discussion of here is going to be a decision-making set of guidelines, and it developed a systematic approach. And before that, it was whoever had the loudest voice won.
ALISON BEARD: Are there generational differences in either a willingness to be insubordinate or to tolerate insubordination?
TODD KASHDAN: I think if you look at the value priorities and the preferences in the workplace, you see different problem areas in different generations. And so for the younger generation, you see a greater preference for work, work family integration, a greater emphasis on, I want my work to be meaningful as opposed to being recognized and opposed to just acquiring achievements and accomplishments compared to older generations. But for these individuals, they’re not using a lot of these strategies that I’ve been talking about.
The way that you convey a message can push people to being interested, curious, and open up an opportunity for those ideas to be considered, or those defenses go up. And I think the younger generation has not spent enough time on what is the best way to communicate ideas effectively. They’re going straight for the jugular of, “You’re wrong, I have a better way.” And while that might be true, the goal is not to be right. The goal is to improve the intelligence and the wisdom of the group. And the older generations in the workplace, they’ve made their careers focusing on status and power. And in some ways, the way you consolidate status and power is keep the status quo going. And so there’s really a denigration of the values of younger generations. The problem is that you have not allowed a sufficient opening for someone who lacks official power and status to be given a forum.
ALISON BEARD: So final question, can people be successful if they don’t want to push the envelope in this way? Or do you think that everyone needs to start figuring out areas where dissent is necessary?
TODD KASHDAN: Yeah, I’m glad you said this because if in a world where everyone is dissenting, nothing actually gets accomplished. It’s really important to think of yourself having two roles. One is, are you going to be a receptive, open-minded audience member when people share ideas? And that doesn’t mean agreeing with someone or going along with them. It means is that you’re willing to give a reception to an idea. And there’s the idea generator where thinking about new ways of doing things, thinking of better ways of doing things, even if it’s just removing inefficiencies or removing unnecessary barriers. It’s the combination of what works well, what doesn’t work well, and what structures can we build into our mode of thinking such that the ideas that work well can develop, be experimented on and be tweaked as society changes, as culture changes, and as the organization changes.
ALISON BEARD: Terrific. Well, I will say that I am not one who really shies away from dissent, but I do think I could probably do it more effectively. So I personally will take your advice to heart, and I hope that others do too. Todd, thanks so much for being on the show.
TODD KASHDAN: Yes, so fun to be here.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Todd Kashdan. He’s a psychology professor and director of the Well-Being Lab at George Mason University. He’s the author of the book, The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively.
And we have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts, or search HBR on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Robert Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox, and Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.