Is organizational dissent important? The consequences of speaking up when you disagree at work
“Loyalty to whoever you work for is extremely important. The only problem is, it's not the most important thing. And when it comes to not admitting mistakes or covering up or not rectifying things only to save face, that’s a problem.” ~ Coleen Rowley, FBI
As citizens, we know that organized resistance and political dissent can force out tyrants, activate people who have long been on the sidelines and modify the course of history. However, how do we feel about the same kind of behavior in organizations?
The American public is captivated by stories of ordinary people thrust into the role of hero or heroine against powerful institutions. People such as Coleen Rowley, Cynthia Cooper and Sherron Watkins, who were featured as Time magazine’s Persons of the Year 2002. They embody the courage to engage in one such form of dissent: whistleblowing against illegal, immoral and unethical behaviors in their respective organizations (FBI, WorldCom and Enron). It takes guts to write a 12-page note and deliver it up the chain, to refuse to certify a balance sheet when your boss requests it or to make public the results of an audit that reveals accounting irregularities in your organization — and is no less courageous than putting your life on the line to protest a dictator.
Yet the archetype overshadows the day-to-day expression of dissent happening for most of us. Although few of us will become whistleblowers, most of us regularly confront problematic issues in the workplace, and we must decide whether to remain silent or express dissent. When we decide to say something unpopular in a meeting, to ask difficult questions to move the conversation in a different direction or to openly disagree with the boss because of strongly held values, how does this kind of dissent happen?
The literature on principled dissent identifies three factors that are strong enough to conquer the fear of possible repercussions and influence a person’s decision to express dissent in an organization:
- the seriousness of the issue the employee faces
- the level of personal responsibility the person feels about the issue
- the feasibility of a response.
Although we know people manifest their principled dissent either with their feet — quitting — or not mincing words in the yearly company survey, little is known about the strategies people use to cope when they choose not to express dissent. An organization that doesn’t allow for dissent runs into other sorts of problems:
- Strategically speaking, the absence of dissent kills innovation. When dissent is not allowed or openly discouraged, the real casualty is the organization’s ability to learn from its environment, failing to make sense of it through differing interpretations and alternative courses of action. The inability to mobilize its most precious internal resources through conflicting viewpoints breeds a culture of unanimity, often labeled as bureaucratic.
- Culturally speaking, the absence of dissent breeds disengagement. When the belief that dissent is futile permeates an organization’s culture, the only form left for expressing it is disengagement. When disengagement is a form of dissent (i.e., “I don’t care anymore. I just do what I am supposed to do.”), it becomes endemic and hard to eradicate. Treating its symptom (disengagement) rather than its cause (lack of participation) only perpetuates the organization’s pervasive narrative of powerlessness.
An organization’s inability to integrate dissent and use it for good has far-reaching consequences for its culture and strategy. How can people create work environments and organizational cultures that respect dissent for the sake of better cultures and more agile strategies? Here are a few ideas to make your organization more dissent-friendly:
- The organization needs to value differences and conflict for the sake of better decision-making. Organizational cultures where avoiding conflict is the norm keep the cost of dissent so high that it becomes not affordable. When people can disagree with one another and express their dissent, organizations are healthier. Disagreements often result in a more thorough study of options and better decisions. However, it takes more than a memo or a sign to beat conflict avoidance and become truly OK with disagreement and dissent in the workplace.
- Dissent-friendly processes and procedures lower the cost of raising dissenting opinions. Open-door policies, HR mechanisms (ombudsman and the like) and meeting protocols (devil’s advocate meetings) can all help regulate, give expression to and lower the cost of dissent. That reinforces the governance structure of the organization for better alignment and more efficient decision-making processes.
- Speeches, posturing or PR will not cut it. When it comes to dissent, the proof is in the pudding: Are the dissenting opinions fully heard? Are there consequences for the dissenters? The true test of organizational dissent is whether the outcome of the dissent manages to be heard and — in some cases — becomes the consensus. If the dissenters are marginalized, taken down or eliminated, their example will not be followed and, no matter the rhetoric, dissent will disappear.
What about a few ideas for the everyday dissenters who care strongly about their organizations?
- If you go for deep change as a dissenter, be patient. Getting early wins sets in motion a positive feedback loop, a contagion, a belief a motivation. It requires pressuring authority figures, using communication to change the narrative, making arguments in public and persuading skeptical neighbors one by one by one. None of this is sexy. It’s not a single sudden triumph but a long, slow slog. You don't have to be special to be part of the grind, to expand the frame of the possible. You just have to be a participant. The spirit of dissent is powerful. So is showing up after the dissent to contribute to creating what’s possible.
- If you dissent, engage in spirited dialogue but be concrete. How often have you heard in response to an idea, "That's just never going to happen"? When you hear someone say that, they're trying to define the boundaries of your imagination. The powerful individual works to push those boundaries, to ask "what if?" What if it was possible? What if enough forms of power — people, ideas, budgets, social norms — were aligned to make it happen? Simply asking that question is the first step in converting dissent or courage into power. But this requires concreteness about what it would look like to have, say, radically more inclusive organizations.
- Choose a good topic for dissent, then break it down. Choosing a defining topic for dissent is important. All change is about contrasts, and powerful dissenters set the terms of that contrast. This doesn't mean being uncivil. It simply means thinking about a debate you want to have on your terms over an issue that captures the essence of the change you want. Therefore, breaking down your aspiration into smaller steps and refocusing on those smaller steps is critical.
Adriano Pianesi is a leadership practitioner, faculty member of the Carey Business School, Johns Hopkins University, where he also teaches for the Office of Executive Education. Through ParticipAction Consulting, his consulting practice, he helps diverse groups of people come together to solve tough problems, and helps leaders work for change by harnessing the powers of conflict, diversity and complexity. He is a faculty member of the World Bank "Team Leadership Program" and of the State Department "Experiential Learning Program". He is the author of the e‐book “Teachable Moments of Leadership” where he describes a state‐of‐the‐art experiential leadership learning methodology that gets real results. Visit his website.