The Obligation of Constructive Dissent

An open work environment is one in which employees can speak their minds without fear of reprisal.  This type of environment is crucial to building trust between managers and their people.  Employees not only are free to express their “real” thoughts, but are encouraged to do so.  They know their voices will be heard.  Also, in an open environment, managers accept “bad” news.  In fact, when things go wrong, managers will definitely want to hear about it.

There are many valuable tools to help managers create and nurture an open work environment.  Several of those tools are discussed in Chapter 2, The Power of Trust: Integrity, Openness, and Respect, of Managers, Can You Hear Me Now?

One of the tools I found especially helpful in creating an open work environment is what I refer to in my book as the “obligation of constructive dissent.”

The obligation of constructive dissent is a concept that is often misunderstood unless it’s continually reinforced.  The manager informs employees that as members of the manager’s organization, every employee not only has the right to disagree, but is obligated, to do so.  In other words, if someone in the organization believes something is wrong, that person is required to say so.

To clarify; the obligation to constructively dissent applies to matters of importance to the organization.  Matters like strategies, tactics, practices and, of course, ethical issues.

Please notice the use of the adjective “constructive” modifying “dissent.”  My point here is that when an individual exercises the obligation to dissent, it must be presented in way that is helpful, not disrespectful or hurtful.

When managers accept and consider constructive dissent, employees understand their opinions are valued.  They know their manager wants to hear their ideas.  They also know their manager wants to do the right things for the right reasons.  When employees have an obligation to constructively dissent, the overall organization is more effective and better able to work as a team–all of which benefits the overall business –its customers, employees and shareowners.

I would be remiss if I didn’t add one more thing.  When all constructive dissent is heard and considered, and a decision is made on how to proceed, employees have a further obligation to accept the decision, rally behind it and support it.  Managers need to be clear with their employees that dissent about any given situation ends when all constructive advice has been weighed and a decision made.  The fact that an employee dissented does not entitle him or her to reject a manager’s decision.  Rather an integral part of the obligation of constructive dissent is a further obligation for individuals who have expressed their dissent to stop arguing their issue –something that takes great discipline.

In a truly open work environment managers and employees perform their duties with mutual respect and trust.

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