Seanwilliams-tieBusiness leaders say they want candid feedback and opinions from their employees, but for the most part, that’s too risky a proposition for the employees. We’ve all heard the reality too clearly – not a team player, being negative, fear of change. Vicki Cox Edmondson and George Munchus (2007) of the University of Alabama (Roll Tide!) explore what to do about that.

What form does “dissent” take in organizations? How should it be handled appropriately? Edmondson and Munchus identify four dissent behaviors:

Organizational silence:  Employees simple sit there and neither agree or disagree publically. There are no immediate negative organizational consequences, but neither is there anything positive. The employee voice, silenced, is hardly a viable strategy for effective communication, employee engagement or for tackling thorny business issues.

Organizational rumbling: Employees don’t share their misgivings, questions or suggestions productively. Instead, they break off into groups and, well, gripe.  The authors posit that in both cases of silence and rumbling, the employees don’t sense that addressing the issues is worth the risk of being seen in a negative light.

Organizational communication: Confusingly, this term is used only to describe the most positive outcome: the feedback and feed-forward among and between employee groups that results in addressing organizational issues. OC is usually more general than that, describing the process of communication regardless of how effective or ineffective it is.

Organizational blasting:  Employees lose patience with direct supervisors and appeal to higher authorities, often with great agitation.

These four elements rely on two factors: urgency and trust. The more urgent the problem, the more likely it is to be talked about. But the lower the trust, the less productive that discussion is apt to be. The authors’ linchpin for their theoretical proposition is trust. The decision makers need to enjoy high trust if they expect open communication. With high levels of trust, the urgency of the issue becomes irrelevant, whereas if trust is low, only the most urgent issues will come to the fore, and it’s likely in somewhat dramatic fashion. The authors use a pair of illustrative stories to examine their theory.

Relevance to the practice:  According to Edmondson and Munchus, organizations should commit to open and honest communication. This commitment should lead to increased trust even as it subjects issues to differing perspectives and fresh thinking.  They list several helpful tips (which should be familiar to most employee communication professionals):

  • realize there is more than one strategy to meet an objective;
  • communicate the strategy and implementation plan to everyone who is involved;
  • eliminate favoritism;
  • get to know employees’ communication and decision making styles;
  • actively seek divergent views and discuss the merits of those views;
  • be open minded;
  • admit errors in judgment;
  • don’t demonize or retaliate against the messenger; and
  • tell the stories described in the paper.

Edmondson, V.C., Muchus, G. (2007). Managing the unwanted truth: a framework for dissent strategy. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 20 (6) pp. 747-760.


Sean Williams is Founder and CEO of Communication AMMO.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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