Lessons on Dissent from a Navy Ship

The following article originally featured in The Foreign Service Journal and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Jimmy Drennan

During the course of a damage control drill on my first ship, USS Anzio (CG 68), I was barking orders to sailors from my repair locker. My job was to ensure my team quickly suited up in firefighting equipment and established fire control boundaries and then report back to the damage control assistant (DCA) in the Central Control Station. The DCA gave periodic status updates, and in one such update he noted my repair locker was the only one that hadn’t reported completion.

When my team heard this, they scrambled even faster to put on their gear and establish boundaries. Noticing that some sailors began skipping key steps in their haste, I yelled out: “I don’t care what the DCA says! I want you to do this right!”

Just then, the chief engineer, who had been observing the drill in the background, grabbed me by the arm, looked me straight in the eye and said: “Don’t ever do that again.”

I got the message immediately. But I didn’t realize until many years later that the lessons I learned that day involved how to properly and effectively dissent in the military. Over time, the more I grasped the best techniques, motivations and conditions for disagreeing with my superiors, the more I realized that these lessons apply in any enterprise.

If you choose the right venue, build a reputation of competence and integrity, and honestly evaluate your reasons for dissent, you will maximize the chances of being heard.

How Not to Dissent

When I told the sailors in my repair locker to ignore the DCA, I violated several principles of effective dissent. First, and maybe most importantly, I dissented to the wrong audience. If I believed proper procedure was more important than speed, I should have had that conversation with the DCA in private following the drill. The whole point of dissenting is to help guide your organization in the direction you believe best. But as it was, I didn’t give the DCA the chance to hear my thoughts before I shouted my disagreement to the sailors.

This was my second mistake: I dissented in public. Except in rare circumstances, it is almost never the right call to publicly disagree with your superiors, especially if your intent is to convince them to change direction. Public dissent tends to back decision-makers into a corner and, more often than not, forces them to dig in their heels.

Dissenting in a public setting, whether it is a Navy repair locker, a meeting or a widely distributed email, could jeopardize external stakeholders’ trust and confidence in your organization. In my case, I put sailors in the uncomfortable position of having to choose whether to follow my orders (to proceed deliberately) or the DCA’s (to proceed rapidly). This undermined our chain of command. I could have inadvertently introduced delays and confusion in future scenarios as my sailors waited to hear whether I agreed with the DCA’s orders or not. I should have waited for my opportunity in the appropriate venue.

I later discovered I would have countless private discussions with the DCA and attend several small group meetings where my honest opinion would be received with an open mind. If I ever doubted whether I had permission to speak candidly in those private sessions, I recalled some advice from my first chief: “You’re in the room, aren’t you?”

Back in the repair locker, most of my sailors chose to follow the DCA’s guidance instead of mine because he had already demonstrated competence in firefighting and earned their trust. I had been onboard for only a matter of weeks, and my sailors barely knew me. My third mistake was not building trust with my audience before I offered my dissent. Although I believed strongly that it was most important for my sailors to practice their emergency actions deliberately before picking up the pace (and I still do), my sailors had no real incentive to listen to me over the DCA. I would have made more progress if I had first taken the time to demonstrate my competence as a naval officer and shipmate to them.

Building Credibility

If your audience respects your credibility, they will be more apt to heed your dissenting view. Likewise, it is imperative that your audience trusts you to act ethically. There is no surer way to destroy trust than to give dissenting advice based on some ulterior motive, such as politics or personal gain.

One thing I did right that day in the repair locker was to shut my mouth once the chief engineer counseled me. That was another lesson I didn’t fully understand until many years later: don’t carry on blindly. I voiced my dissent, my superior heard me, and he told me to fall in line. And I did.

Throughout my career, I often found that once is enough. Dissent does not have to be contentious or dramatic as it is often depicted in movies. Rather, if it is properly done in a measured way with a valid message, dissent can spur professional, unemotional conversations. If your audience understands your dissent but still decides to go its own way, you can rest assured that you did your job and gave your best advice.

Over the years I’ve also learned there are often factors I wasn’t considering or even aware of. Every so often you may find yourself in a situation where your convictions compel you to persist in your dissent, despite your audience’s initial dismissal. As always, your convictions and principles should guide you, but do acknowledge the potential consequences of your persistence, and recognize the possibility that you may not be seeing the full picture.

Being Heard

Many years after that first damage control drill, I found myself in an entirely different situation where the lessons I’d learned on dissent proved invaluable. I was in a four-star general’s office with a small group of officers to discuss an investigation. An incident had occurred in conjunction with an ongoing operation and we were being asked to relay the details so the general could answer questions from his superiors. I was the most junior person in the room.

Working in a four-star headquarters as a staff officer, I rarely had the opportunity to interact with the general. But I had briefed him several times in small and large venues, and I had built a reputation as a knowledgeable and trustworthy officer regarding the subject matter at hand.

I listened quietly as the tone of the conversation clearly indicated the general intended to continue the operation, with no one offering a serious alternative. As the meeting was coming to a close, I spoke up and recommended we consider terminating the operation. I am sure I surprised a few senior officers in the room, but I made sure to be respectful, direct and concise. The general heard me out, and the meeting soon adjourned.

I cannot say the general took my advice, but I know he considered it; and several of the other officers in the room later told me they agreed with what I said. Instead of damaging my career, my dissent further cemented my reputation as a subject matter expert and even opened career opportunities for me. Because I followed the lessons I had learned on dissent over the years, starting with that day in the repair locker, I was able to deliver a much-needed dissenting opinion that would be honestly considered, without fear of consequence.

Lieutenant Commander Jimmy Drennan is a naval officer currently assigned to United States Central Command as a maritime operations planner. He has 15 years of experience in the surface navy, with assignments as repair division officer, navigator and operations officer, as well as three deployments to the Middle East on guided missile cruisers. Out of uniform, he is president of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). He is the recipient of the Surface Navy Association’s Arleigh Burke Award for Operational Excellence and the Navy and Marine Corps Association Leadership Award. These views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of any U.S. government department or agency.

Featured Image: (Jul 26, 2006)The US Navy Ticonderoga Class Guided Missile Cruiser USS ANZIO (CG 68) (left) pulls alongside the USN Nimitz Class Aircraft Carrier USS DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (CVN 69) for a refueling at sea somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Navy official photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Dale Miller)

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