Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 47;   November 25, 2015: Suppressing Dissent: I

Suppressing Dissent: I

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In some groups, disagreeing with the majority, or disagreeing with the Leader, can be a personally expensive act. Here is Part I of a set of tactics used by Leaders who choose not to tolerate dissent.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007), historian of American liberalism, speechwriter and adviser to Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson II, and special assistant to President Kennedy from 1961 to 1963. Although he participated in the deliberations leading up to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, he was a dissenter. Aware that President Kennedy sought unanimity for whatever the group decided, Schlesinger expressed his dissent in memos to the President, rather than aloud in the presence of the full group. He came eventually to regret his silence. In this case, the group leader, the President, did not act overtly to suppress dissent. Rather, he failed to encourage dissent — to create an environment safe enough to enable expression of diverse opinions. Photo ca. 1961-1963 by the United States Information Service available at Wikimedia Commons.

Loyal dissent by members of groups or teams is a valuable resource. Whether in mission-oriented teams or long-lived functional groups, dissent gives the group access to information, intuition, and perspectives that enable it to achieve high performance while avoiding dangerous blunders. But some groups and leaders regard dissent — even loyal dissent — as disloyal. They adopt attitudes and take actions that they hope will quell current objections and prevent future "complaints" as well.

Paradoxically, suppressing dissent can create threats to group safety and performance more significant than any dissent can do. Only when group members and leaders can recognize dissent suppression tactics can they create and maintain environments that allow safe expression of loyal dissent.

Suppressing dissent can entail acts either seen or unseen from any given perspective. The four most relevant perspectives are Leader, Dissenter, non-Leader Suppressor, and Bystander. A thorough exploration would include all four perspectives, but for brevity, let's focus on the Leader's perspective as an example. Here are some tactics Leaders use to suppress dissent.

Terminating, reassigning, or ejecting
Leaders who have sufficient organizational power can terminate Dissenters. Leaders who lack the power to terminate can sometimes arrange for reassignment, removal, or transfer. These are all drastic moves, often seen as heavy-handed, and they can in some cases create legal liability. But they are effective, and they convey clear signals to other group members that dissent is unwelcome.
Humiliating the Dissenter
Any means Any means of humiliating the
Dissenter, whether or not related
to the substance of the dissent,
erodes the Dissenter's credibility
of humiliating the Dissenter, whether or not related to the substance of the dissent, erodes the Dissenter's credibility. By creating fear of similar treatment, humiliation also inhibits others from joining the dissent, or offering unrelated dissents of their own on other matters.
Disinforming the Dissenter
By providing the Dissenter with misinformation, directly or indirectly, the Leader creates opportunities to discredit the Dissenter. For example, misinforming the Dissenter about a deadline can cause the Dissenter to be unprepared. If the disinformation pertains to the substance of the dissent, the Dissenter, misled, might make public assertions that the Leader can refute later, in potentially embarrassing contexts.
Disinforming others
By passing misinformation to others the Leader can create "facts" that affect the image and reputation of the Dissenter. Disinformation of this kind usually consists of assertions about the character, capabilities, or past performance of the Dissenter. By creating doubts about the Dissenter, the Leader can create doubts about the substance of the Dissenter's positions.
Abusing appointment power
Some Leaders have authority to assign tasks to group members, or to otherwise appoint members to teams or committees. Leaders can use this power to assign desirable appointments to non-Dissenters, or confer undesirable appointments upon Dissenters, often announcing them as faits accomplis, giving Dissenters no opportunity to express their preferences or seek alternative assignments. Such "misappointments" are often unethical, because they allocate responsibility not on the basis of merit or ability, but instead for purposes of retribution.

In Part II we'll look at suppressing dissent in meetings. That is, unless you object. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Suppressing Dissent: II  Next Issue

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