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Organizational Dissent: What Is a Leader To Do?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Khadija White-Thomas
May 26, 2023

“People do not argue because they misunderstand one another, they argue because they hold different goals.” – W.H. Shyte, Jr.

What is a leader to do when there is organizational dissent? Organizational dissent, exposed objection and apparent opposition can be an opportunity for organizational transformation. These nonconforming expressions of disagreement and resistance could bring forth the opportunity to remove group thinking, eliminate dysfunctional alliances, address cultural biases and extricate antiquated beliefs. When addressed most effectively, organizational dissent could be liberating and bring forth positive outcomes to manage policies, procedures or other organizational matters, which can prove advantageous for all stakeholders.

When leaders genuinely desire unity and progress towards the same goals, that dissension gap should be addressed truthfully. Nevertheless, getting to the same understanding can be a journey since the interpretation of the goals may vary. There is always an opponent, a proponent, an implementor and a stakeholder. There is also the messy middle—that gap of differentiation that creates dissension among all the roles. What is a leader to do? 

For this writing, the discussion focuses on articulated and latent dissent. Leaders learn that articulated dissent is initiated constructively. This dissent is when an individual may express resistance, objection or opposition to others who may have influence and authority to create changes within the organization. On the other hand, leaders also discover that there is latent dissent. This dissent expresses resistance, objection and opposition that is voiced to other colleagues. In contrast, there is likely no change from the venting. The means to voice an opinion is by empathizing with and seeking an alliance. What is a leader to do? 

We have found that leaders must be willing to address organizational dissent. It is imperative to address this concern because if left ignored, organizations will be consumed with employees that suffer low morale, a lack of collaboration and teamwork and then there is the potential decrease in job satisfaction from a lack of employee engagement. Additionally, addressing dissent within the organization may expose unethical, impractical and unfavorable behaviors that may be present and unknown. So, what is a leader to do?

This discussion and depiction of organizational dissent requires a leader to undertake several steps for addressing dissent, objection and opposition. These challenging steps are necessary for understanding not only the dissent but the motivations and self-interests of the stakeholders. “It is a bad plan that admits of no modification.” – P. Syrus

The Courage to Change ~ “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!” – P. Senge

Having the vision to understand and recognize the necessity for change is vital. What better way to identify the top priorities than by first defining the mission of the organization, who we are, what we do and how we serve our internal and external stakeholders?

A Push Towards Progress ~ “A vision without a strategy remains an illusion.” – H. Smith

Accelerate a sense of importance by restating and redefining the organizational commitment, realigning the core functions and clarifying overall objectives.

Let’s Solicit Input ~ “Progressive organizations empower employees and encourage participation.” – L. Bolman; T. Deal

Hearing alternative perspectives can encourage creativity as others can sit at the table to share in the process. It is the forming of this coalition that will begin to believe that accomplishments are attainable as they work together and not apart.

Take Steps Towards Cultural Transformation ~ “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.” – P. Drucker

Set the apprehension aside and develop and shape a new culture so creativity and innovation can emerge. Let’s not rely on that dreadful statement, “That’s how we do things.” The best way to shape the new culture is step by step, not quantum leaps. Go forth!

Approaches Towards Strategic Communication ~ “Good communication is the bridge between confusion and clarity.” – N. Turner

When communicating about any change, the communication must be purposeful and consistent to share legitimate causes or reasons across all boundaries. No opaque language—let’s talk about it frankly (with all due respect).

In these critical steps, the emphasis is returning to the basics, beginning and clarifying. Let there be a discussion on goals, magnify the vision and accelerate the mission. Also, realize that problems, challenges and performance gaps are deficiencies that can be resolved through collaboration, communication and the courage to transform the culture. So, what is a leader to do? Let’s have a rational dialogue, remove the obstacles and the personal bias, create a participatory environment and be a sponsor for improvement. This is the action that a leader CAN do. 

Author: Dr. Khadijia White-Thomas works in the federal courts as an executive leader. She is also the Founder and CEO of Decree Consulting & Publishing, LLC, focusing on organizational change, and providing business coaching, strategy, and leadership consulting services. Contact Dr. Khadijia at www.decreeconsult.com.

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