Rock n’ Roll Leadership Lesson #1: Embrace the Dissonance


From Radiohead, to Metallica, to Slayer, and all other musical genres, the beauty of utilizing dissonance emerges when it is followed up with a harmonious resolution. Dissonance is a clash of two or more notes, a conflict in harmony, which creates a tension that leaves the listener in a state of apprehension and angst. Some of the greatest musical moments have been created by innovating through a perfect sequence of dissonance and resolution. To me, this is the heart of rock n’ roll. But what does this have to do with leadership in the corporate realm? Well, everything!

The rock n' roll blueprint for innovative leadership

Dissonance in the workplace manifests as contrasting ideas, clashing opinions, competing priorities, generational gaps and mindsets, diverse team dynamics, or competing market strategies. Rather than viewing these tensions as negative obstacles (as is usually the case!), leadership should embrace them as opportunities for innovative thinking and growth, and leverage them by transforming them into catalysts for creativity and development.

A step-by-step guide to harnessing dissonance

# 1: Recognize dissonance

To harness dissonance, you first need to recognize it. Your leadership radar needs to be switched on to spotting off-notes in the harmony of your team’s work. Maybe this is a spark between two people during a meeting, a disagreement in viewpoints, or contrasting feedback regarding a project or idea. But wait! Instead of rushing to get the atmosphere cleared and bring about team harmony, leaders should rush to provide a safe way for the dissonance to be expressed.

Action: If some sparks start flying between two people during a meeting, grab centre stage and put down some rules for proceeding to express the clash. You could get things visual, for starters. Write down the differing opinions on a whiteboard or a virtual whiteboard, and put them side by side. And then have each clashing team member provide further info on their viewpoint, idea, or opinion.

After that, get the other team members to become engaged in the clash too, by having them voice their own thoughts on each perspective. The thing is, once words are out of peoples’ heads and are observable in the visual domain, then it’s much easier for people to speak up and defend or debate one of the two opinions. And then, following everyone’s stance on the contrasting opinions, turn the focus of the team to building upon both opinions, no matter their personal preference; a no-holds-barred snowballing session.

Hey, you want to take it further, you could assign a team member to be a ‘Dissonance Officer’, a rotating role, whose responsibility it is to recognize and pause a clash when it occurs and make it visual, in order to kick off the process. Get everyone involved in some dissonance culture!


# 2: Create safe & open ‘platforms’

If you’re going to actively promote constructive dissonance to enhance creativity and innovation, then as a leader, you need to create ways for your people to feel comfortable in expressing their disagreement. You want to cultivate a feeling of psychological safety amongst your people; safety in voicing their opinions without reprimand. Our servant leadership article also elaborates on this approach.

Action: Perhaps you can run a weekly ‘Dissonance session’, where people are called upon to express their disagreement with whatever it is that’s been troubling them during that week. In this session, encourage your team members to contradict the status quo, even if it’s not what what they truly believe. By airing out all these differing viewpoints, you’re sure to spark some fire in someone, who will latch onto a detail that will make all the difference for your team!

# 3: Leverage ‘Agile’ feedback loops

A project has come to an end, or a hefty task has been completed? Do not underestimate the power of post-project feedback sessions that plough through the project as a whole and the team’s performance, and allow for careful reflection on what was done, what worked well, and what could have been done different.

Action: Set the scene and encourage your team to identify ‘dissonant points’ during retrospectives — specific instances that challenged the team’s thinking or approach, or tasks that clashed with others, and so on. Capture these moments or ideas somehow and make sure they are centre stage from the very start of the next project. And remember, the resolution of dissonance should not be the end goal; instead, it should be a starting point for continuous improvement.

With this in mind, you should aim at designing feedback loops that ensure solutions are not one-off but part of an ongoing conversation. After a dissonance has been addressed, schedule follow-up sessions to revisit the resolution and assess its effectiveness.

# 4: Full on diversity for a broader perspective

Diversity itself brings about a natural dissonance that is both beautiful and incredibly beneficial. Leadership should be doing all it can to introduce new perspectives into the mix; new voices, new cultures, new worldviews.

Action: No matter the diversity of your team, you can always find a way of bringing in someone new to the mix, to speak and share their opinions at the next team meeting. Why not invite someone from another department/unit, perhaps a traditionally ‘adversarial’ unit, to share their own thoughts on an issue you’re discussing. Mix it up. The more clashing viewpoints you have, the more likely you are to spot an ‘aha’ moment that will reset your agenda!

# 5: Know your team’s personality

Great rock bands know each member of their band so well, that they can ‘speak’ in turns by continuing the melody or the structure of the song, even when someone’s incapacitated. As a leader, you need to brush up and skill up on the personality of each team member, so that you are in a position to be able to predict those people likely to end up in a debate due to a difference in opinions. Even learn to spot those who are ‘silent debaters’; people who would rather keep their opinions to themselves, despite clearly not agreeing with what is being said by someone.

Action: Train yourself on behavioural styles, communications styles, personality types. And once you know, train your team too. So that everyone understands the filters that each person applies when absorbing information and their particular thought process. This will help your team’s dissonance become real constructive, real quick!

# 6: Edward de Bono’s 'Six Thinking Hats'

If there ever was a constructive ‘dissonance to resolution’ tactic, it is undoubtedly de Bono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats’, where diverse viewpoints are massaged from a variety of perspectives, allowing for freedom of expression in a guided manner. There are six hats altogether, but you can use as many or as few as you want. I’ll explain here the 5 hats that I prefer to use, as they get some great results.

White hat is for stating facts or objective clarifications. Yellow hat is for positive comments only, or for stating things you like about an idea or opinion. Green hat is for creativity and adding further ideas into the mix. Black hat is for being the devil’s advocate and being incredibly cautious and critical. And finally, the red hat is for instinct and gut feeling.

Action: Next team dissonance you spot, utilize the ‘Thinking Hats’ method for exploring the dissonance. When there is a clash, people should proceed to speak up by first stating the hat they’re wearing, and then voicing what’s on their mind about what was said. It’s a great method for plowing through conflict or debates, since the blame cannot be on the people any more (they said this and that), since they’re speaking up from the safety of the hat they’re wearing. This method quickly becomes habit, and ends up eliminating feelings of being judged or criticized.

Dissonance as a Driver of Change

Rock n’ roll isn’t just music; it’s a masterclass in innovation. It tells us to crank up the volume on dissonance and sway to its flow. It’s the very heartbeat of creativity, blasting through comfort zones and igniting breakthroughs.

This mindset isn’t just about handling discord; it’s about embracing it and leveraging it. Leaders can become the maestros of innovation, guiding their teams through the uncertain, the unfamiliar, and the uncomfortable, to a place of harmony and success. This is rock n’ roll leadership: dynamic, inclusive, electrifying. It doesn’t just work; it rocks!


Deano Symeonides (aka Deano)

Co-founder of Talent Hacks, business psychologist, L&D engineer, and Uncanny Insight Generator (UIG). His passion is to push people to develop in their own unique way, to challenge the status quo (because, why not?), and to reinvent the way people learn.