How to clamp down on worker dissent

If you’re a senior executive or manager and want to make sure that your workers don’t get too uppity, you might achieve your goal by being a tyrant and by encouraging your lieutenants to be the same way. Surely management-by-intimidation works, right?

Well, maybe, for a short while. At the same time, it surely will give rise to claims that you’re a jerk and maybe even a bully. And given a chance, your employees will leave for (hopefully) greener pastures.

A “better” approach

Fortunately, there’s another, more effective way to clamp down on worker dissent and possibly not have to answer for it. The trick is to do it with a smile, albeit an insincere one, and then take some action steps such as these:

  • Create a workplace culture that values superficial politeness over honest work relationships. Make sure that superficial atmosphere — what psychologists Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks call a “pseudo-relational” organizational culture — sweeps employee concerns or differences of opinion under the rug. 
  • Insert a civility rule into your employee handbook that ensures, say, when a young staff assistant complains angrily about management inaction on her sexual harassment allegation, you can nail her for acting inappropriately, “in violation of our employee policies.” By turning targets of mistreatment into transgressors, you can get rid of pesky complainers.
  • Keep using the word “transparency” over and again, even as you become less transparent.
  • Favor and reward a group of loyalists who will act as surrogate defenders to slap down any criticism on your behalf. 
  • Bully and expel a dissenter or two to send a message to everyone else that they’d better not question the organizational line.

But hold on! At some point, this approach doesn’t work either. Once your employees figure out the passive-aggressive culture of your workplace, they’ll take a hike when other options open up.

Instead, try this…

Of course, the best way to reduce worker dissent is to keep an open door and an open mind to employee concerns. An energetically healthy workplace is not necessarily free of disagreement or conflict, but rather one that handles such matters honestly, transparently, and respectfully, whenever possible.

By creating an organizational culture of genuine openness, mutual accountability, fair expectations, dignified treatment, and maybe even some kindness and humor to go with it, you’ll reap the benefits and feel good about what you’re doing.

If more employers understood these basic “soft skills” of good management, then (1) our workplaces would be more productive; (2) workers at every level would be happier and healthier; and (3) the number of work-related grievances and lawsuits would shrink markedly.

It seems so easy, right?

***

As long-time readers may recognize, I’ve been using this blog as sort of a work-in-progress to sift through, relate, mix, and match assorted information, research, and insights. I’ve drawn upon a good dozen or so previous posts to crystallize ideas for this one. Thank you for your continued readership!

Free blog subscription

For a free subscription to Minding the Workplace, go to “Follow this blog” at the top right of the home page, and enter your e-mail address.

11 responses

  1. That was funny! I needed that. I wish your ending wasn’t such a rarity in the Corporate world. I can only hope that someday this will change.

  2. Really excellent and honest column, as was the recent one on the realities of bullying culture within the nonprofit sector. I had to stop by today and comment because the following particular cultural tenet is one that I see used repeatedly by government, nonprofits, small companies and large corporations . . . it’s everywhere!

    “Keep using the word “transparency” over and again, even as you become less transparent.”

    BINGO!

    It’s like nails on a chalkboard to my ears at this point, and is very transparent (lol) to me when I catch them pulling this one. And for the past several years I have been spreading the word about how this tactic’s use is far too prevalent and very dishonest and destructive. People are wising up and catching on, finally.

    Keep up this great work, David.

    P.S. These two tie for second place on my own personal list, having witnessed them both being used repeatedly (and pretty much verbatim) during my former nonprofit career:

    – Create a workplace culture that values superficial politeness over honest work relationships. Make sure that superficial atmosphere — what psychologists Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks call a “pseudo-relational” organizational culture — sweeps employee concerns or differences of opinion under the rug.

    – Favor and reward a group of loyalists who will act as surrogate defenders to slap down any criticism on your behalf.

  3. Keep using the word “transparency” over and again, even as you become less transparent. Yes. Between smoke and mirrors, passive aggressive behavior, the chief and lieutenents creating visual and spoken myths, etc. It is such mental and emotional abuse, that a normal person’s trust for others and their own intuition is severly impaired.

  4. It seems that the soft skills should really be ‘no-brainers’ insofar as promoting a productive work culture, but most employers function out of their insecurities, fears, and other psychological factors (e.g., sense of entitlement). And because we have authoritarian work cultures, employers get to act upon their own ‘stuff’ with little or no consequences (or awareness for that matter) when this causes harm to employees. I don’t know what it is going to take for change to move (maybe push) employers to self-examination about their own ‘stuff.’ But until that happens, I hold minimal hope that we’ll get beyond band-aid efforts.

  5. I love the sarcasm it describes my organization to a T, a hostile passive aggressive environment where the bully thrives as do their loyal cronies. Where dissenting opinion especially when you are right is squashed by targeting the individual when you won’t embrace the “group think” mindset.

  6. Excellent post! As you have written so well about it before, this group of loyalists is routinely used to participate in the mobbing of the bully’s target (s). I suspect, based on my readings, my personal experience and the common lack of accountability in the non-profit sector (particularly healthcare) that dysfunctional cultures are fare more common than in private corporations, in which the bottom line matters.

    • You raise an interesting and difficult question about what sectors of our economy are likely to produce more dysfunctional organizations. I think the multifaceted governance structure of non-profits, and the sometimes more challenging aspects of measuring outputs and quality in that sector, can promote a lot of dysfunction. However, a “purer” profit motive can, at least in the extremes, promote a lot of exploitation and mistreatment as well. While not dysfunctional in the same way as the non-profit sector, I’d call it dysfunctional from the standpoint of a good society.

      • Thank you David. Examining the rate of dysfunctional cultures in governmental, for profit & non-profit sectors would shed light on the motivations of and possible remedies for bullying.
        IMHO, the most affected sector appears to be “academic healthcare centers”, where the hierarchical and authoritarian work culture of academia meets the even more hierarchical culture of Medicine. That both sectors are in a difficult state of affairs, arising from a number of factors, particularly financial, creates a “perfect storm” for bullying.
        In response to DR’s comments re: I don’t know what it is going to take for change to move employers to self-examination”.. Perhaps one or more of the following: 1) state laws (like the one passed in TN); 2) nearly fatal financial debacle related to their dysfunctional culture that even the “too important to fail” institutions may be allowed to fail and/or 3) a case of extraordinary abuse that the media may champion. This, I hope, would give these institutions the opportunity to change course and become “employers of choice”. Best.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: