Monday 13 May 2013

Does dissent equate to disloyalty?

I had written ‘courage to speak up when it really matters’ earlier and one reader asked me whether the courage to speak up is nothing more than the ability to show dissent. There is some element of linkage but dissent in the organisational context is a more complex situation. It is the expression of disagreement or contradictory opinions about organisational practices and policies that will generally lead to conflict if not resolved.

Dissent is a word that has negative attributes to it. Dissent is actively discouraged in the army to ensure that the command and control structure is maintained, however, an organisation is not an army so let us not ban dissent just because we have a similar command and control (despite the reality that the two structures are designed to deliver completely different outcomes!).

The opposite situation to dissent is the basic political activity undertaken by some employees to ‘cosy-up’ or ‘brown-nose’ or ‘suck-up’ to their boss. The word sycophant is used as a label for such individuals who are fairly visible in the manner in which they implement their bosses’ dictate and avoid voicing a strong opinion that can be seen to be in disagreement to the bosses’ point of view or instruction. Marshall Goldsmith provides a simple perspective on how to understand sycophancy. Those of us who have dogs will always say that a dog is a trusted animal and someone who gives unconditional love. Stretching this can we say that a dog is as important as family as it is “man’s best friend”. The truth is dogs do not show disagreement or dissent in any form. So if a person in the office adopts such behaviour then is there a chance that the manager is also using similar positive labels (‘loyal’ or ‘always there for me’ etc.) to describe a sycophant.

In the organisational context, loyalty denotes a person’s commitment and attachment to the place they work and not to the individivual that they report to. Loyalty to the organisation is not impacted due to dissent. For me, dissent is a barometer for larger issues that need monitoring in an organisation and should be encouraged. On occasion I have seen the solitary voice of reason amongst a group of employees who have been instructed or asked to do a specific action (or activity) drowned out by the jaundiced view of a sycophant who will challenge the colleague (employee) raising the point or seeking some degree of debate on the assigned task. When I have challenged sycophants I have been given a justification that outlined their behaviour as the right way to ‘manage upwards'. Sycophancy practiced in this manner in nothing more than psychological bribery!

A manager’s power base is made stronger by the presence of sycophants but long-term longevity in any organisation comes from finding the right balance of dissent and agreement (but not sycophancy). One huge danger for a boss is that sycophants typically undertake actions using the bosses name and attempt to run the ‘real’ show under this guise. In most organisations where there have been ethical or dubious activities (and my own interaction with individuals who took a ‘short-cut’) I have realised that the role of the dissenter is very important. The habit of ignoring or stifling dissent has led to some amazing business decisions and outcomes that are mystifying!

Managers that are narcissists (‘someone who is self-preoccupied with themselves and hence believe that their ideas are always the best’) are likely to find it difficult to identify and neutralise sycophants. Sycophants play a substantial role in perpetuating narcissistic behaviour. In fact, my suspicion is that sycophants emerge around a narcissistic manager but that is for another blog (and another day)!

Below are some simple questions to ask yourself if you want to confirm the degree of sycophantic behaviour that you might be exhibiting:
  • Are you usually the first one to agree with your boss?
  • Do you actively dissuade others from raising objections or disagreements?
  • Do you step in on behalf of your boss to argue or debate with a colleague?
  • Do you agree with your boss in public but then actively disagree with him in private (this is the best way to lose credibility with your co-workers)?

If you have answered yes to two or more then you need to rethink your approach with your boss as you are in docile territory (polite way of saying that you are a yes-man!).
Below are some rules for managers to ensure that they encourage disagreement/dissent when needed:
  • Gear people and teams around common goals, objectives and performance measurements. No one person can be successful if others don’t align. Team work is the best way to neutralise a sycophant.
  • Encourage principled contrarians and encourage your team to engage in decisive dialogue. Such dialogues have two critical aspects. First, they must involve a sincere search for answers, the ability to tolerate unpleasant truths and secondly, enable the ability to invite spontaneous input to capture a full range of views
  • Be smart enough to understand the difference between flattery and true praise. Flattery is not grounded in sincerity
  • Actively ensure that you are sending signals to all that the performance appraisal is not about loyalty but ensure that chronic dissenters (negative participants in the work-place) are sent the right signal.

Here are some tips on how an employee can show disagreement/dissent without appearing to be disloyal:
  • Stay informed and be aware of office politics. Figure out the inner circle and how power transmits and transmutes in your organisation. This will make sure that you show dissent in a respectful manner. Showing dissent/disagreement is already challenging enough to the ‘emotional antennae’ of a boss
  • Deliver on your job and expectations against you. If you are strong in your delivery and doing well then dissent becomes an earned right
  • Do work on understanding your boss despite his or her proclivity to sycophants. It is not only about understanding their personal style of working but also understand what they value and how the same can be delivered within reason
  • Actively engage with sycophants and other employees to ensure that you are sharing your point of view constantly and without any fear. Stand for the right things. How do people describe you? Do you have integrity? Are you reliable? Being liked at work is not an ideal. In any given scenario, I have come to the realisation that for every decision I take 25% of the people impacted may not like it. I don’t focus on the 25%. I focus on the 75% that will like it
  • Do not challenge the boss and sycophants head on. One tip is to build consensus outside of meetings rather than inside meetings. Never go to a meeting without some understanding of where others stand on a particular debate. “Neutralise outside the room or get pulverised in the room!"
  • Don’t dissent just for the sake of dissent. If you are raising dissent on every issue then you will find yourself justifying the title of disloyal, which you are sure to earn. Being a perpetual (chronic!) negative dissenter is a bigger issue than just raising dissent where it matters
  • Choose your battle. No point in being a dissenting voice on trivial matters when you can conserve your energy on the real substantive issues where debate will add more value to the bottom-line and make it worth-while for people to listen to you
  • Learn to share dissent with a solution or answer. Providing no solution sounds negative but with a solution it takes on the bearing of constructive input and makes it difficult for others to reject or dismiss or ignore while not diluting your loyalty to the organisation (or the perception of loyalty).

In closing, dissent is not being disloyal nor does it mean that a dissenter is against the team!
What do you think?


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