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, Nonleader 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 credibilityof 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 Nondissenters, 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.
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More articles on Devious Political Tactics:
- Devious Political Tactics: More from the Field Manual
- Careful observation of workplace politics reveals an assortment of devious tactics that the ruthless
use to gain advantage. Here are some of their techniques, with suggestions for effective responses.
- Pushing the "Stupid" Button
- Some people know exactly how to lead others to feel ignorant or unintelligent. Here's a little catalog
of tactics to watch for.
- Why People Hijack Meetings
- When as chair of a meeting, you have difficulty completing a reasonable agenda, you might be the target
of a hijacking. Here's Part I of a series exploring meeting hijacking.
- Answering Questions You Can't Answer
- When someone asks an unanswerable question, many of us respond by asking for clarification. That path
can lead to trouble. Responding to a question with a question can seem defensive, or worse. How can
you answer a question you can't answer?
- Obscuring Ignorance
- Some people are uncomfortable revealing that they have limited understanding of topics related to the
issues at hand. They can't allow themselves to ask, "Pardon me, what does X mean?" Here are
a few of the techniques they use to obscure their ignorance.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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