How to Communicate Dissent at Work

How to Communicate Dissent at Work

Dissent plays an important role in the workplace. For any organization to thrive, employees need to be able to propose solutions to problems, raise questions about unethical practices and ask how they can work more efficiently and effectively. In places where dissenting opinions are encouraged, employees report greater job satisfaction, and leaders are able to consider a wider range of proposals and options before making decisions.

There’s only one problem with dissent: a lot of people don’t want to hear it. Accordingly, many employees worry that expressing dissent will cause others to see them negatively, or that it simply won’t make a difference. I’ve surveyed and interviewed hundreds of employees and supervisors to better understand how employees can more effectively express their ideas at work. There are no magic words that will make people listen to you, but I’ve found several things that seem to be consistently associated with positive experiences.

The question of who should be on the receiving end of your dissent is an important one. To bring about any real change, you’ll need to express your ideas to someone who can actually do something about the problem. For this, many employees will turn automatically to their supervisors, but not all supervisors are able to address all problems. Similarly, they may not be willing as you to ferry complaints up the chain of command.

Of course, you may have other goals in expressing dissent. If your goal is just to get something off your chest, telling your supervisor will give you some peace of mind, regardless of the eventual outcome. If you’re looking for someone who understands your frustration, your coworkers might make the best audience. Though it is rare that lateral dissent results in change, it may help build a coalition around your position, or better prepare you for subsequent conversations with a supervisor. But be careful how you voice your concerns among coworkers — you don’t want to be labeled a whiner or subversive.

Rather than simply voicing a complaint or spotlighting a problem, try packaging your dissent with a solution. This makes it more difficult for someone to dismiss you as a petty grumbler or malcontent, and it saves your audience the cognitive effort of devising a solution themselves.

When you’re both describing a problem and proposing a solution, take care to emphasize the solution in your presentation. If you don’t present your solution clearly and forcefully, your audience is less likely to notice you’ve included one, making it easier to brush off your dissent. In general, presentation strategies that emphasize positive opportunities over negative realties will always help you plead your case.

Dissent usually arises from an emotional place. Most of us don’t complain about something unless we feel strongly about it. Nonetheless, emotional venting — however honest or well-intentioned — is rarely the best way to share your thoughts. Supervisors and coworkers alike are more likely to lend you their ears when they feel you’re expressing yourself in a rational and calm manner.

To bolster this impression, be sure to use direct factual appeals in presenting your dissent. Direct factual appeals include supporting information that demonstrates critical thinking and rational analysis, and they have an acknowledged strategic advantage in the workplace, since organizations strive to stay within the bounds of rational behavior.

Sometimes, however, adding a touch of emotion to your presentation may work in your favor, if you do it in a sophisticated way. One technique that combines emotional and rational appeals is to reference the values under which your organization operates. Few people care to challenge the central aims or purposes of their organization, making your dissent not only more persuasive but less controversial.

While it may be tempting to use hard, aggressive appeals — such as issuing threats, demands or ultimatums — these approaches very often backfire and are considered extremely inappropriate in a professional environment. Furthermore, every employee is replaceable; threaten to quit, and you just might get your wish. Even in the event that pressure tactics succeed in bringing about a desired outcome, your relationship with others will certainly suffer as a result, hampering your future happiness and success. And if you’re the one who backs down from a standoff, you will assuredly lose credibility.

There’s another question that you need to answer before making your case: When should you express dissent? When should you rock the boat? Dissent can be risky because no everyone appreciates it when an employee questions a policy or practice. There’s a danger that you could come across as griping or be perceived as a troublemaker. Be sure that you have the organization’s interests in mind. But beyond that, how do you walk the line between “problem solver” and “whiner”?

First, whether you communicate your ideas or remain silent, never just accept the status quo without thinking critically about it. Yes, there may be good reasons why a particular policy was implemented or a particular practice was started, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t better means to the same end. As an employee, you should never accept something because “it’s the way we’ve always done it,” or because a manager says it’s the only way.

But second, there is a threshold, somewhere between mildly annoying and clearly illegal or dangerous, where you need to say something. That threshold will be different for everyone based on your personality, the relationships you have with coworkers and supervisors, and the climate of your organization. If your threshold is too low, you might dissent about everything and be perceived as a complainer. If your threshold is too high, you might not dissent when you see unethical or illegal actions, so you need to be thoughtful about what’s important enough to say something.

Think critically about your workplace experiences and pay attention to when something crosses your threshold. Then speak up in a way that is more likely to make things better.


Leave a Reply


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.