This blog is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center (OCRC)

“Now more than ever, decision-makers can’t act alone; they must bring diverse perspectives to the table and ensure that those voices are fully heard” (Fletcher et al., 2023, para 2).  

Dissent originates from the Latin dissentire, meaning “feeling apart” (Kassing, 1997). “Dissent” in English means to “differ in opinion” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Dissent in the workplace refers to employees expressing disagreement, opposing viewpoints, or objections regarding various aspects of their work environment, including policies, practices, decisions, or actions taken by their organization or superiors. It involves employees speaking out in a manner that challenges the status quo or established norms. 

From an organizational communication perspective, dissent is primarily examined under the conceptual framework of employee voice and participation. In this tradition, dissent has been viewed as a form of employee voice that can enhance organizational learning and bring diverse perspectives into managerial decision-making. Under this approach, scholars have explored how organizations can foster a culture that can encourage a free flow of employee voice, including dissent, and establish organizational structures and policies that can facilitate employee empowerment. This has been done by examining factors that hinder employee voice and participation (e.g., silence or displaced dissent).

Some communications managers may believe employee dissent harms internal organizational harmony and external reputation. This view is not entirely unwarranted, given how devastating media reports about disgruntled employees or former employees’ accounts of their experiences can tarnish the organizational reputation. My study, published in the Journal of Public Relations Research (Kang, 2021), precisely explored this question and found that negative testimonials significantly tarnished the organization’s moral and business reputations. However, dissent at the organizational level has many positive implications for the organization, and growth-oriented leaders consider dissent inherently legitimate and valuable for organizational learning capacities.

Positive Implications of Dissent

Dissent is a natural part of organizational politics and necessary for organizational democracy. Dissent as a voicerepresents the inherent right of employees to express their voice safely and openly in a democratic organization, as the concept of voice in the liberal political sense is considered a cornerstone of democratic society. Therefore, the value of dissent lies in the notion of voice as an inherently ethical and democratic thing for organizations to extend to their employees. From this perspective, employee dissent represents employee voice, which democratic organizations must practice earnestly, fostering open and decentralized organizational dynamics and culture. 

Dissent represents differences in values, opinions, and judgments instrumental to organizational learning and democracy. Dissent often exposes underlying conflicts or problems within the organization that can lead to the creation of collective solutions. When expressed constructively and within appropriate boundaries, dissent can bring new perspectives and alternative approaches to organizational problem-solving and decision-making. Thriving organizations allow diverse views and knowledge to be incorporated into organizational processes for effective problem identification, innovation and improvement, and decision-making.

Employees often do not voice their discontent or dissent about workplace problems to their supervisors out of fear or futility. Instead, disgruntled employees may turn to ineffectual internal or external audiences to vent their frustrations or to make sense of the situation. This type of ineffectual dissent can catch management off guard and may lead to internal organizational turmoil and external reputational crisis. While the direct evidence linking organizational processes and dissent (beyond disruptive, displaced, and de-identified dissent) is lacking, we can extrapolate a positive relationship between dissent and supportive and democratic leadership and organizational processes. 

Also, studies have found that the organizational communication climate that fosters free speech influences how certain types of employee dissent prevail (e.g., Cenkci & Otken, 2019; West & Sacramento, 2023). To foster an organizational climate of psychological safety (Edmondson, 1999), relying on individual and interpersonal virtues of empathy and humility is not enough. Structural elements and organizational norms must be in place to safeguard the abuse of power in organizational processes and ensure democratic communication for effective organizational learning. For example, taking turns to speak up during a meeting can lessen the likelihood of a few influential voices dominating the conversation and provide the best outcome. Also, establishing protocols (norms) for expressing dissenting opinions can reduce the perils of group thinking and bring diverse perspectives to the surface by promoting dissent.

How to Cultivate Dissent for Organizational Learning Capabilities

Cultivating an open climate for employee dissent requires deliberate actions and practices. Here are practical suggestions for creating such an environment:

1.) First, create a culture of respectful dialogue by emphasizing the importance of respectful communication, even during disagreements. Encourage active listening, empathy, and understanding of differing perspectives. As part of this effort, diversity should be represented in decision-making teams, and leadership should demonstrate an excellent example of encouraging and valuing dissenting opinions.

2.) Second, establish transparent decision-making protocols that incorporate dissent, such as soliciting diverse opinions, considering dissenting viewpoints, and outlining how decisions are reached. Establish regular feedback mechanisms and acknowledge that dissent can be a crucial part of the protocol.

3.) Lastly, establish clear communication channels such as suggestion boxes, regular team meetings, anonymous feedback systems, or open-door policies to allow employees to express dissenting opinions without fear of reprisal.

Dissent can be muted, ignored, reprimanded, expressed, and incorporated via formal and informal organizational channels. Employees can express their dissent in many ways through various stages of interactions within the organization. Dissent is more likely to occur as employees become more involved in organizational functions and are provided with routes to voice their input. In other words, dissent, in some ways, is a form of employee engagement and commitment to organizations.  

Minjeong Kang, Ph. D. (Mass Communication, Syracuse University) is an associate professor at Indiana University. Dr Kang’s research has received national and international recognition, including Emerald Publishing’s Literati Award of Excellence for Highly Commended in 2018, Gallup Korea’s Outstanding Research Award in 2020, and the 2009 Ketchum Excellence in Public Relations Research Award by the Institute of Public Relations. Her recent work has focused on developing organizational listening diagnostics for participatory workplace communication and employee engagement.

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