Find Your (Dissenting) Voice6th Oct 2022
Back in my mid-20’s, I was on an 11-day Outward Bound course at the top end of New Zealand’s South Island. A few days into it, our group of 12 strangers found ourselves tasked with a two-day cross-country navigation exercise through some pretty rugged terrain.
After lunch on the first day, with us having successfully navigated to our first waypoint on a ridgeline, our group instructor pointed out a distant hilltop. “That’s where we need to be by nightfall, team.” Between our goal and us was a series of up and down valleys and ridges, covered in thick bush. We pulled out our maps and compasses and plotted our course. It should be pretty straightforward, we thought. We’d made it this far, we were really beginning to bond as a group, and the mood was jubilant. Three hours, max.
Armed with a plan, we enthusiastically headed down from the ridgeline into the bush. Surrounded by tall trees, we’d quickly lost sight of the hilltop we were aiming for, and we were relying on our ability to read the terrain and correlate what we saw to our map. After half an hour, I had a sense that we were going in the wrong direction. We’d been chatting and laughing, all the while heading down, down, down. Yet on the map there was clearly a ridgeline up to our left that would be what I thought, a smarter route. If we kept going the way we were, we’d end up way off the mark.
I was paralysed with indecision. Did I risk stopping the group, both our physical progress as well as our group dynamics, with an outlier’s voice? It was important to me to fit in with the group, and I didn’t want to be the killjoy. So I chose to stay quiet, hoping that someone else would notice our error and speak up. Yet after another 10 minutes, nothing had changed. I was carrying this burden and it was becoming heavy. I decided to drop back and have a quiet word to our instructor.
“Um, I think we might be off course.”
“OK. What do you want to do about that?”
“Ah, maybe we need to stop and reset?”
“OK. Your call.”
“Ummmm….” I did nothing.
The instructor gently put her hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eyes. “You’ve got this”, she said with a smile.
That gave me the courage to call it. And I did. I let the group know what I was thinking. Two other people said they also thought we were off track. So we gathered around the map, and I shared where I thought we were and where we needed to head. After some debate amongst the group, we decided to give my idea a go.
In the end, it was the right call.
I’ve never forgotten this experience. For someone who was deeply motivated to ‘go along to get along’, this was a personal turning point.
When I’m working with aspiring change-makers and leaders of all types, I come across this challenge regularly. It’s that feeling of being the only one who sees things a certain way. Of being the lone voice amongst a sea of sameness. It’s the fear of being seen as the annoying ‘squeaky wheel’ if you speak up.
We need your dissenting voice.
If you have a view that seems like it’s against the grain, it can be all too easy to hold back. Yet when you do, we miss a valuable perspective. When you speak up, it’s an invitation to others to see the world from a different perspective. And, like in my story above, it’s an invitation for others to speak up as well.
Last week, we had a guest at Change Makers who was the only female executive on her organisation’s senior leadership team. She told us a story of how she’d been struggling to decide whether to speak out to her colleagues about some cultural norms in the leadership team and wider organisation that she saw were beginning to become corrosive. In the end, at a leadership team meeting, she did. It was terrifying for her, and, and her message didn’t land that well. Yet afterwards, the CEO had a private word with her. He thanked her for speaking out and said he really valued that she aired her dissenting voice. He had her back. Since that day, others in the team have also privately come forward to her sharing similar views. And so things are slowly beginning to change.
Your voice matters. What are you holding back on that could serve those you lead?
Others’ voices matter too. Who could do with your encouragement right now?
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