Professor Sherry Moss comments on workplace dissent in USA Today College

1.22.2013 Article, Faculty News

How to (appropriately) handle dissent in the workplace
Reposted from USA Today College | by Alex Parrott

If you’re a college student or recent grad toughing it in today’s economy, simply having a job can be a badge of honor — and a job you care about is cause for celebration. Nonetheless, life on the lower rungs of the career ladder is often difficult, particularly if your views come into conflict with those of your superiors.

There are countless situations in which you might disagree with the prevailing opinion or practice of your organization. On the somber end of things, you might have concerns about the ethics or legality of your organization’s operations — or perhaps you simply have a few bright ideas about how your organization can run more efficiently or better realize its goals.

In fact, all organizations need fresh ideas that challenge conventional thinking in order to thrive, but expressing your dissent poorly might have bitter repercussions, alienating co-workers or even jeopardizing your employment. As these career and communications experts will tell you, however, all it takes is a touch of finesse to ensure that your dissent is warmly received and contributes positively to the work environment.

• Laying the groundwork

One thing you can do while you’re still job hunting is critically evaluate each job you apply for, making sure you get a good idea of what will be expected of you. Use your interview or other moments of early contact to assess the organization’s values and workplace culture. “The better you understand the vision and strategy of your organization, the less likely there will be major points of disagreement later on,” said Dale Austin, director of the Career Development Center at Hope College in Holland, Mich.

Once you’ve landed a job, it goes without saying that you should hit the ground running. Making positive first impressions on your boss and co-workers is likely to keep you in their good graces long into the future. “Work hard, deliver excellent results and generally be conscientious and agreeable,” said Sherry Moss, professor of organizational studies at Wake Forest University School of Business in Winston-Salem, N.C. “That way, you’ll build up the goodwill capital needed to be credible when giving constructive feedback.”

• Approaching dissent

When you do discover something in need of improvement, try to exert your influence gradually before taking any drastic action. “Pick an area you’d like to see evolve, find collaborators and work on one issue at a time,” advised Desha Peacock, director of career development at Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vt. “The worst thing a new employee can do is express dissent on several issues at once.”

There are important limits to the virtues of picking up supporters and biding your time, however. While it’s often a good idea to build coalitions, becoming the ringleader for a wide cast of dissenters is ill-advised. “It’s an effective exit strategy from your current position,” Austin said.

Equally unwise is disregarding the chain of command, appealing to your supervisor’s bosses before going to your supervisor. “Unless you are being harassed or abused, try open communication with your immediate supervisor first,” Peacock said. “Then, if that doesn’t work, consider taking your complaint to the human-resources department.”

Additionally, your time to communicate dissent is not unlimited, and most bosses will appreciate a timely, face-to-face conversation, said Matthew Randall, executive director of the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania in York, Pa. “It’s best to share the nature of your disagreement with your boss sooner rather than later,” he stressed. Typically, the ideal time to express dissent is as soon as you’ve marshaled enough data to make a modest but persuasive case.

• Expressing dissent

If you’ve resolved to express dissent to your boss or supervisor, the most effective tactics are those that appease every party’s sense of self-worth. The trick is to simultaneously show respect for others’ opinions while suggesting that your ideas stand to benefit the organization as a whole. “Communicate your difference of opinion in a gracious manner,” Randall said. “This shows respect, but it also reinforces your own professional worth, demonstrating that you’re willing to disagree when appropriate.”

There are several specific tactics that help achieve this delicate balance. One is to frame your suggestions as a series of “what if …?” questions, said Ryan Brechbill, director of the Center for Career and Professional Development at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. “This shows that you’re offering meaningful alternative ideas and not disagreeing for the sake of it,” he added.

Moss, meanwhile, prescribes the so-called “DASeR approach” for giving constructive feedback. Following “DASeR,” you, the dissenting employee, would first describe the issue of concern, acknowledge how you feel about it, specify what you’d like to do instead and reaffirm that you appreciate the chance to express your opinion. “This way, the employee feels more comfortable having a difficult conversation, and the recipient of constructive feedback feels less threatened,” Moss said.

There are several tactics you should avoid at all costs, as they rarely succeed and are likely to engender scorn or derision. One is emotional venting, opting for an extended rant rather than a levelheaded presentation of facts and reasoned arguments. “Supervisors are far more likely to lend you their ears when they feel you’re expressing yourself in a rational and calm manner,” said Johny Garner, assistant professor of communication studies at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.

Worse still is employing threats, ultimatums or other pressure tactics, Garner said.

“While it may be tempting to use hard, aggressive appeals, these approaches very often backfire and are considered extremely inappropriate in a work environment,” he said. “It’s a quick way to lose allies, credibility and possibly your job.”

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