By Leah Fessler
We've been told our wardrobes should include certain staples — the blazer, statement accessory, comfortable denim, black dress. We'd be smart to think about staples in our professional networks, too. One persona many of us are missing is the dissenter — she who routinely disagrees with you, seeing the world through a totally different lens.
From our earliest career experiences on, it's easy to associate with people who are working in similar fields, with similar struggles. "As we interact, we discover and create deeper similarities, which reinforce our initial attraction," explains London Business School Professor Dr. Raina Brands, an expert on social networks. "The more we interact with the same people, the more we share information and converge on common viewpoints."
Consequently, once you reach the top it's common to be surrounded by people who agree with you, think like you, and aspire to similar success. As a leader, your employees are also incentivized to affirm your ideas. "People often don't want to put themselves at odds with someone who has power over them, so many senior leaders end up not hearing bad news or getting constructive feedback on their ideas or performance," explains Amy Gallo, author of the Harvard Business Review Guide to Conflict at Work. This experience is a sign that you may be trapped in an echo chamber. No network can be truly diverse if it does not include people who routinely disagree with you.
"The key benefit of having a cognitively diverse network is that relationships with diverse people give us novel information and unique perspectives," says Brands. "These are the raw ingredients of creativity – these inputs trigger new insights, ideas, and ways of thinking that ultimately mean we perform more highly."
Dissenters are essential to cognitive diversity because they fuel what Gallo calls "creative friction," forcing you to question your assumptions. If embraced, this friction leads to growth. Staying close to those who productively disagree with you is a networking strategy many high-performing executives hinge their success on.
Take Founding Chief Chicago Member Suzanne El-Moursi, Partner at VU Venture Partners and serial entrepreneur with two exits under her belt. Suzanne describes herself as having Egyptian Roots and American Wings, and she's committed to building relationships with people who are "exactly that much different or apart in the worlds they come from."
"I work tirelessly to ensure that I am constantly surrounded with diversity of thought," says El-Moursi. "When you don't pay attention to ensuring the people in your network — and more importantly your closer professional circle — represent a wide range in their experiences, you are missing out on learning key lessons from all kinds of situations."
When she's at a crossroads, Suzanne expedites her decision making process by asking her extended network questions such as: Has anyone dealt with this? What happened? What did you do? "The response I get is a function of the broad and varying walks of life people come from, and from the experiences those environments brought them," she explains. "I am never interested to hear from people just like me. I am not interested in looking at reflections of myself. I am much more keen to understand what I can't see so that I move closer to understanding both opportunities and challenges ahead."
Of course, it's not healthy to sustain relationships with hostile or threatening people. Ultimately, the most successful networks are ODD, says Brand: "Open, meaning we have relationships with people and groups who do not have relationships with one another. Diverse, meaning we're connected to people who are demographically dissimilar, extending up and down the hierarchy and across formal work divides. And deep, meaning we benefit from a mix of acquaintance ties and deeper friendship ties."
A few actions can quickly shift your relationships with dissenters you respect. First, don't immediately trust your instincts when judging whether someone is being destructive rather than constructive. "It's easy to label a dissenter as 'unproductive' if they are pushing you to question your ideas and beliefs," says Gallo. "Ask yourself: Is this person making suggestions that help you see something differently or try out a new approach? Or are they just tearing down your ideas?" You're looking for people who challenge you because they're invested in your success, or share a common goal — not because disagreeing feeds their ego.
Next, make a list of the people in your network who see the world differently. Every few months, pull this list out and ask yourself: Have you done anything in the past few months to connect with that person in a genuine way? "It can also be helpful to be transparent about why you value that person," says Gallo. "Even telling them something like, 'I really appreciate how much you push my thinking and challenge my assumptions. I'd love to find ways to stay in touch so we can continue to share ideas and give one another feedback.'"
Even with the most egregious dissenters, you may be able to relate over seemingly small details like having kids who are the same age, liking the same food, or even living in similar places. Acknowledge those commonalities — doing so creates the psychological safety necessary for you to hear their criticism more clearly, and for them to offer dissent.
Originally Published July 27, 2020