Communicating dissent at the workplace(Pt. 2)

“The aspects of patriotism that hush dissent, encourage going along, and sanction comfortable distancing and compliance with what is indecent and unacceptable… those aspects are too fundamental to ignore or gloss over,” Bernadine Dohrn.

Research, as well as comments by well-known scholars show that dissent is not necessarily a negative thing. On the contrary, it is encouraged and managers/supervisors are often asked to invite dissent as it tends to move an organisation forward. In every workplace there are countless occasions where one is bound to disagree with someone, the statement of a colleague, instructions of a supervisor or even ideas of the CEO.

Again one might have concerns about certain conducts of the organisation that bothers on ethics or legality or perhaps simply have some ideas about how the organisation can be more efficient or better its goals. As a matter of fact, every organisation needs fresh ideas that challenges conventional thinking in order to succeed.

However, the problem is not so much as the expression of dissent but rather the manner in which they are expressed. Dissent if not communicated well can result in severe repercussions, alienating co-workers or even putting jobs in jeopardy.

Most often workers, especially those down the lower ranks of the organisational hierarchy, find it difficult to express any form of disagreement due to the fear of a backlash. In situations where they do, the result is a conflict between them and their bosses. Employers therefore try to stem out dissent as they feel it will disrupt the operations of the organisation. Dissent can however be expressed efficiently and effectively without having any fear of retaliation.

An employee has to understand that the time for communicating dissent is not endless and most managers will appreciate a timely, face-to-face dialogue. It is therefore essential to share your disagreement with your boss as soon as possible. A number of suggestions have been made regarding how workers can approach and communicate dissent.

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The first step towards expressing dissent is to determine the one who should be on the receiving end of your dissent; that is, someone who can actually work on the issue or concern. In most cases this will be the immediate supervisor. Supervisors are often the bridge between the worker and management hence any concerns must be channelled through the supervisor.

The problem though is that some of the supervisors are either unwilling or show no interest in the issue being raised and as a result the employee tends to take the issue directly to someone higher up the hierarchy. This strategy is referred to as circumvention.  Although circumvention can lead to conflict between the supervisor and the employee, sometimes it is deemed necessary after several attempts to get the supervisor to act fails.

Therefore, unless you are being harassed or abused, it is essential to first open a communication with your immediate supervisor. Dissent must also come with a proposed solution. It is not enough just to identify or describe the problem but also propose a relevant solution clearly and forcefully. Communication strategies that emphasises positive opportunities over negative realities makes it difficult for anyone to dismiss you as nothing but a whiner or grumbler.

One must therefore use direct factual appeal in communicating dissent. This is where people provide factual information based on their own work experience and their understanding of company policies and practises when they express disagreement. The information provided must demonstrate critical thinking and rational analysis and must have strategic advantage in the workplace.

The employer can add a touch of emotion where necessary by combining emotional and rational appeals to make his case without arousing controversy. Care must be taken though not to be overly emotional as that can lead to disaster.

Sometimes, employees try to use aggressive appeals such as threat of resignation, demands/ ultimatums, to express dissent. These approaches very often backfire and are considered extremely inappropriate in a professional environment. Moreover, employees are replaceable and therefore any threat to quit and you might get your wish. In the event that pressure tactics used by employees succeed in bringing the intended outcome, relationships are soured and this often leads to a period of unhappiness due to victimisation.

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John Garner, a communication professor, put it succinctly “While it may be tempting to use hard, aggressive appeals, these approaches very often backfire and are considered extremely inappropriate in a work environment.  It’s a quick way to lose allies, credibility and possibly your job.”

Any form of dissent must also be expressed in a way that appeals to everyone’s’ sense of self-worth. Communicating dissent in a respectable way not only shows respect to others, but it also reinforces your own professional worth, showing that you are willing to disagree when appropriate. One of the most effective tactics that has been suggested, as a means to achieve this, is to frame opinions as a series of “what if….? questions. What it means is that you are offering meaningful alternative ideas instead of just disagreeing for the sake of it.

Dissent can never be removed from any organisation. Workers are bound to disagree with their superiors on a policy, activity or direction an organisation is moving. However, this must not lead to acrimony between workers and their superiors.

Managers ought to realise that dissent, in general terms, is not meant to drag the organisation back, as Jacob Bronowski succinctly stated:  “has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetime.” On the other hand, it is essential for workers to develop the appropriate strategies and tactics to effectively communicate dissent. This will lead to a healthy organisation.

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