Secret dissent – (Undermining Leadership Effectiveness)

In many organizations there is a clandestine society you could label the silent opposition, the underground or the resistance. They do not agree with the direction or policies of the people in charge. They have problems with the vision, mission or some of the daily practices. They believe they could do it better or there has to be someone out there who could do a better job than the current leadership team. You may not know their real identities, opinions or intent because of their whispered opposition and secret dissent. They often;

  • Second guess every Corporate decision
  • Question or challenge the motives of management
  • Remain stuck in nostalgia and the good old days
  • Poison morale with negative and unproductive thought 

What has the organization done to earn their ire? The company may have made mistakes in the past, so the group perpetuates the negative reputation. The corporation’s current manner of treating people may desire improvement. There may be a culture of favoritism where the minions of the boss are rewarded with the choice assignments and better bonuses.  Or the contingent is dissatisfied with their own position and wrestle with a stagnant career trajectory. 

Secret dissent is also due to the fact that people believe the wrong people are in power. They may not approve of the person because of their affiliation with another leadership regime. They may also find it hard to work for someone who does not share their cultural, gender, racial, ethnic or other diversity related differences. People are known to give less than their best or more than expected based on their identification with the person or group running the operation. 

Execution has received attention over the past few years, as an area of breakdown within an organization. Ineffective execution could be due to a lack of understanding, poor leadership follow-up and low commitment to the mission and vision. They may inadvertently sabotage results by not believing in the strategy. Employees who do not believe cannot achieve at the highest level. Employees who do not buy into the program may be guilty of secret dissent. 

Many times employees are not committed to the program because they have their own agenda. Imagine showing up at an event when there is the main program and another agenda being circulated at the same time. There are times and performances listed and a different order of services, relentless sidebars and competing performances. The impact of the service would be diminished and it would damage the effectiveness of the program. 

Many organizations assess the corporate climate by conducting a cultural analysis, 360 degree feedback instrument, and employee and engagement surveys to determine employee perceptions. These resources enable an organization to gauge the corporate culture and climate, so that leadership can institute a strategy to improve the environment. This should ultimately lead to an improvement in employee engagement and results. The plan is also more scientific than cultivating a list of credible informants to give their assessment of the emotional climate. 

Leadership has to address the negative grapevine or live with ineffectiveness causing compromised results and poor morale. Secret dissent can affect alignment and the achievement of corporate goals. It is difficult to lead with a faction aggressively working to undermine your position. Imagine a general leading an army toward a goal of victory when there are people in their ranks giving contradictory orders. Imagine a sports team when the blockers are following their own plays and moving in a different direction. 

Counter instructions can limit the effectiveness of an organization. A sales region for a pharmaceutical company devised a 3 part strategy to handle the secret dissent within their region. New employees changed their excitement about Regional Office staff after spending time in the field with their co-workers. Apparently, some senior representatives corrupted the minds of the new recruits with bad information. Regional leadership developed a proactive strategy to counter the negative commentary. 

The new employees were told that some people may not share their enthusiasm for the company and its regional staff.  As a matter of fact some may question leadership sincerity and competence. When they hear disparaging comments they were instructed to simply ask three questions of the accusers; 

  1. “How do you know this to be true?” This is to determine if it is mere speculation or based on certifiable examples.
  2. “Why are you telling me this?” Since they are new with the company and full of excitement and promise, why does anyone feel the need to bring them down with negative views from the past?
  3. “If it is so bad, why are you still here?” This question usually gets to the heart of those who complain without offering solutions. They are mired in excuses and short on explanations. 

A few months after instituting this strategy a new recruit could not contain her excitement. She followed the 3 questions strategy. She reported that it worked like a charm. The sales person was delivering negative information. She caught him by surprise by asking the 3 questions. He froze in his tracks and abandoned the negative comments about the company. At least, this approach helped reduce some of the negative thinking directed at their new personnel. 

The objective is not to abolish dissent, but to encourage all voices to state their opinions and position in a consistent manner. For this to happen, a company must establish an environment where people can state their minds without fear of reprisal or retaliation. They must also teach people how to dissent. The old adage of disagree without being disagreeable is still valid instruction. Additionally, it would be helpful if everyone understood and embraced the meaning of consensus. They should fervently discuss debate and disagree, but when they settle on strategy and tactics, everyone should support it whole heartedly. Their objective should be for the greater good of the enterprise. 

It is difficult to succeed without alignment and everyone pulling in the same direction. Some resist the entire platform and other certain elements of it. Many times resistance occurs without allowing the strategy or tactics an opportunity to work. I was guilty of this early in my career. As a sales representative my manager wanted me to implement a program I felt had no way of succeeding. He wanted me to give a pharmacist 6 vials of three of our products as free samples (2 for each product). Each vial contained 12 tablets. The pharmacist was substituting generics for our products. My boss felt these 6 vials would stop him from this substituting a generic for our products. I was not concerned about these minor products because I was increasing the market share of our other products.  I told him I knew the pharmacist and he would lose a large amount of money on this approach. 

Needless to say, I did not follow his advice. I will never forget his words when he found out I did not implement his suggestion. He said, “You decided that it wouldn’t work without the decency of trying it out.” I realized my folly and put a program in place to implement and track the results. I was guilty of secret dissent. 

There may be an anti-leadership faction within your organization for many of the reasons listed. The leadership team has the responsibility to cast the vision and inspire the team and its leaders to commit to the organizational mission and vision. Incentives should be in place to reward the team when objectives are reached. Effort should be made to place the right people in the right jobs where they can have input into their development, learn mastery of skills to reach their potential and receive the joy of belonging to a higher purpose. But there is also the obligation to hear the individuals who may not be on board with the strategy. Well meaning individuals should be heard and their views taken into consideration. However, if their secret dissent undermines the integrity of the operation in a destructive manner, a decision has to be made on their value to the organization.

Copyright © 2011 Orlando Ceaser

6 thoughts on “Secret dissent – (Undermining Leadership Effectiveness)

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