Author(s), Title and Publication

Bisel, R. S., & Adame, E. A. (2019). Encouraging upward ethical dissent in organizations: The role of deference to embodied expertise. Management Communication Quarterly, doi:10.1177/0893318918811949


News reports of unethical behaviors in and by organizations remain all too common. If employees cannot label behavior as unethical publicly, organizational members will be unable to reflect on those judgments collectively and, in turn, will remain unable to update their work practices and policies accordingly. The authors of the current study aimed to identify a supervisor message strategy that can encourage members to voice explicitly moralized upward dissent. This study developed an experiment with 312 working adults. The participants were randomly assigned to one of three prompts. In the first prompt, participants were asked to imagine their supervisor talks often about embodied knowing (i.e., Imagine your boss is known for regularly talking about the importance of following your heart, listening to your bodily emotions, following what you can feel in your bones, and going with your gut feelings). In the second prompt, participants were instructed to imagine their supervisor talks frequently about intellectual reasoning (i.e., Imagine your boss is known for regularly talking about the importance of following your intellect, listening to your rational thinking, following what you can reason with your mind, and going with your logical reasoning). The third prompt functioned as a baseline control condition, in which participants did not receive any information regarding their supervisor’s regular talk. All participants were asked to imagine a scenario in which they received a request form their supervisor that violated company policies.

The results indicated that when participants were randomly assigned to read that their boss regularly talked about the need to value embodied expertise (i.e., “going with your gut feelings”), they were more than twice as likely to deny the boss’s unethical request by voicing an explicitly moralized objection, as compared with a baseline control. Furthermore, these same participants reported significantly less communication anxiety, as compared with a baseline control. However, no significant differences were found between the other conditions. The lack of significant observed effect produced by the “intellectual reasoning” condition may be a product of the parallel, but, admittedly, unusual wording of the condition.

Implications for Practice

Organization should (1) be aware that when leaders voice their valuing of members’ embodied expertise, for example through overt statements (“We need to listen to our gut”) and questions (“What’s our gut telling us?), they will reduce members’ anxiety about voicing upward ethical dissent, and (2) understand that when leaders and supervisors make reference to one’s embodied expertise and communication norm of their workplace climate, it may serve to counter the fear that private ethical concerns have to be defended with sophisticated philosophical or religious rhetoric once voiced.

Location of Article

This article is available online at: (abstract free, purchase full article)

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