11.4 Organizational Dissent

Rose Helens-Hart

Conceptualizing Dissent

A potential source of conflict and change in organizations is when individuals speak out against managerial policies or practices. But just as conflict has to potential to break down an organizational environment, dissent can help businesses and employees thrive by creating more inclusive and innovative organizations.

Organizational dissent can be described as a process where we first feel apart from an organization (Kassing, 1998)—we might feel distanced or at odds because of something that is happening, and then we express disagreement or contradictory opinions. Another way to think about organizational dissent is that it is a form of corrective feedback to an organization.

You might be wondering what the difference between “dissent” and “complaint” is. In fact, dissent is a form of complaint, one that is specifically directed toward managerial policies and practices. Often, “complaining” seems to have a negative connotation but “dissenting” seems to have a more professional connotation. Think about adding the term “dissent” to your vocabulary because it might just change the way you think about, respond to, and offer contradictory opinions and corrective feedback.

Organizational dissent can be understood as a form of resistance to unfair policies or oppressive organizational forms. Historically, bureaucratic organizations, or the ones that have highly structured hierarchies with many levels, have suppressed dissent from those low on the organizational chart (Kassing, 2001). This is one of the premises for the popular reality show Undercover Boss. In bureaucratic organizations, it may be rare that good ideas or just “complaints” make it to the people who can effect change. Sometimes this may be an unintended consequence of the way an organization is structured but it can also be deliberate—a company policy or norm perhaps that pressures people into keeping opinions and complaints to themselves.

Organizations of all kinds, however, are realizing that greater employee participation in organizations can lead to increased employee satisfaction, commitment, and organizational innovation (Kassing, 1997). As more and more people participate and have a say in the way an organization conducts its business, the more opportunities there are for people to express dissent.

Dissent increases because when people have access to more information and more discussion there is a larger domain of issues for them to consider and form opinions on.  Increasing employee participation and inviting more dissent can be difficult to initiate and sustain though. Leaders may provide the means for involvement like holding planning meetings, even adding suggestion boxes in break rooms, but if leaders do not respond to dissent, employees can become frustrated and the benefits of dissent to employees and organizations might not materialize. Dissent can be an important and valuable part of the organizational change process.

Dissent Triggers

Much has been written on common reasons why people dissent in organizations (employee treatment, inefficiencies, role responsibility, resources, preventing harm, and decision-making) (Kassing & Armstrong, 2002). Kassing (1997) argues that people dissent about things that affect them personally and with which they have a moral conflict. This first type of dissent can be described as a personal-advantage dissent message (Kassing, 2001).  Maybe you feel as if you are consistently given less desirable shifts to work, that you are paid too little, or that common space is too messy for your taste. These would be issues related to your personal position or the working conditions of your organization.

Principled dissent messages, however, are those about unethical or questionable business practices and it is easy to see how the examples just mentioned could turn into more principled dissent (Kassing, 2001). Perhaps it is not just you who gets the bad shifts or paid little, maybe there is a pattern of discrimination against people who share particular characteristics. Perhaps work areas go beyond messy to unsafe or unsanitary. Now you might be speaking out about something that affects a lot of employees and is unethical to ignore.

Dissent Audiences

In general, there are two main groups of people to which you could dissent—those that can do something about your problem and those who cannot (Kassing 2001). If you are expressing dissent to people who can effect change in your organization (such as managers, supervisors, heads of departments) then you are engaging in articulated dissent.

Whistle-blowing is an extreme form of articulated dissent where you express dissent to public audiences like professional organizations or the media and alert them to the problem (Kassing, 2001).  These audiences may be powerful enough to effect change by placing public pressure on organizations to change their practices. You all might be familiar with Edward Snowden as he had extensive global media coverage. Snowden was a system administrator of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and leaked classified information about National Security Agency surveillance programs he felt were an undue invasion of privacy. Although he was a government worker, he “blew the whistle” on governmental practices he felt were unjust and immoral.  Many whistleblowers end up leaving the organizations they work for though some manage to stay anonymous to avoid potential organizational retaliation.

One can also dissent to ineffectual audiences or people who can not fix your problem (Kassing, 2001). Dissenting to ineffectual audiences within your organization is called latent dissent. For example, you might complain to a co-worker at the desk next to you about how outdated your computer is and how that limits your productivity.  That coworker might not be able to get you a new computer but might sympathize and commiserate because she too has an old computer. Sometimes this type of “complaining” can be cathartic and bring people closer together but it can also lead to a negative work environment if undesirable conditions continue.

Displaced dissent is expressing dissent to ineffectual audiences who are not members of your organization like friends, partners and family. While ineffectual at changing practices and policies, it too can have a cathartic effect.

Constructing Dissent Messages

How you go about dissenting is affected by who you are as a person and in your organization (Kassing, 2000, 2001)—do you feel empowered/disempowered at your job? What is your conflict orientation?  What is your role in your organization? Are you satisfied with your work? Are you aggressive or passive by nature? All of these things can affect what dissent strategy you choose.

Your choice of dissent message strategies may also be influenced by your relationships with others. Research has shown that in American organizations, those with high-quality relationships with effective audiences are more comfortable with articulated dissent, but if they have poor relationships with those effective audiences they would prefer latent dissent (Kassing, 2000, 2001).

The culture and norms of an organization can also influence dissent strategy choice.  Does the organization encourage dissent and have communication channels set up to receive dissent? Does the employee feel invested in bettering the organization?  A bureaucratic organization in particular might not have a clear policy on dissent but if there is no easy way of providing feedback it may become a norm not to attempt to express it. This structural issue may suppress articulated dissent and lead to more cases of latent dissent.

The direct-factual appeal strategy is when one focuses on proving a condition exists with evidence rather than blaming someone for that condition (Kassing, 2005). For example, if you are denied vacation time repeatedly you might dissent to your manager that in the employee handbook, you are allowed to take a vacation day as long as you submit your request with two week’s notice thus you would like to know how you could obtain vacation time since you have already followed the proper procedure. This would probably be better received than dissent that blamed your manager for your denied requests.

The solution presentation strategy is often referred to as the most effective articulated dissent strategy (Kassing, 2005). When using this strategy you would provide a possible realistic solution to the issue you are dissenting about. For example, let us say you work in a warehouse that did not have air-conditioning and all employees used to be provided with free sports drinks to keep hydrated. But because of some financial issues, now the fridge is locked and employees only get free drinks when the temperature hits 90 degrees outside. A possible dissent message using this strategy might provide an inexpensive solution to the problem like requesting large dispensers where you can dissolve powdered sports drink mix. Employees can bring water bottles and fill up when they need to at a fraction of the cost (and waste) of individual sports drinks. You might even couple this with a direct factual appeal and say, “Even when it is lower than 90 degrees outside, the temperature in the warehouse can be very high. Last week it was 80 outside but in the warehouse, it hit 90 degrees. For our health and safety, it is important to make it easy for employees to stay hydrated.”

The coalition strategy is self-explanatory (Kassing, 2005). Rather than dissenting individually, your message might be more powerful if a group of people present a collective message. You can think of this sort of like a tiny union.

These three dissent strategies are generally seen as fairly effective and respected (Kassing, 2005). Now, let us talk about some of the less effective strategies. Although the following strategies might be seen as less effective, depending on your relationships, the personal factors of the people you are dealing with, or the nature of the issues, they might be necessary or your only choice so it is good to think about when they might be useful.

The circumvention strategy is when you break the chain of command and go above the head of a direct supervisor or manager (Kassing, 2005). Breaking chain of command might be necessary if the relationship between the employee and their supervisors is quite poor or the dissent message has been repeatedly ignored. The risk with this strategy, however, is that the action can further damage the relationship between the employee and supervisor or the new authority may pass the issue back down the chain.

Threatening resignation is a strategy where you threaten to quit your job or appointed task if an issue is not addressed (Kassing, 2005). For this to be an effective strategy, someone would need to have a lot of power in the organization. Perhaps the person using this strategy is the only one with specialized knowledge or for some other reason is seen as irreplaceable at the time.

Finally, we come to repetition (Kassing, 2005). This strategy probably sounds the most like complaining where you give the same dissent message over and over again. Really, all of the previous strategies could be repeated if they go unaddressed but you can imagine if someone repeats a poorly worded or unreasonable request over and over it is probably not going to improve the way people think about them and the issue.

Practical Application

Here are some tips to help you think more proactively about expressing dissent in organizations.

First, know your goal—do you just want to vent some frustration or do you want to solve a problem or change something? If you just want to vent, latent or displaced dissent may be the best approach for you. Talk to your best friend for a while and see if the issue still bugs you. Knowing and being able to defend your ethical standards will help you decide if you want to move forward with a form of articulated dissent. Also, having an idea about the quality of your relationships at work and the organizational climate and attitudes toward dissent will help you pick a dissent strategy.

When in doubt, use a direct-factual appeal and offer a reasonable solution to the problem to start a dialog about the issue.

Finally, think critically about issues—there may be more going on than you know about so finding out why things are the way they are before trying to fix them may be useful so that you understand whose egos and jobs may be on the line. Dissent can be a very good thing. It can help organizations be more innovative, help you stand out as an employee invested in the betterment of your organization, and lead to a more positive and collaborative working environment.


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Introduction to Professional Development Copyright © 2022 by Rose Helens-Hart is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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