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The Importance of Listening to Workplace Dissent

Whatever actions founders, CEOs, CFOs or other top managers at a cloud solution company take in response to workplace dissent, they must not ignore it, according to business experts.

January 24, 2017

7 Min Read
The Importance of Listening to Workplace Dissent

By Derek Handova

In the 21st-century, the idea of organizational fit has become a fetish for many businesses, including some of those in the cloud software industry. Entire HR systems have sprung up wielding power over hiring decisions to select conformists and circumvent individualists. Realistically, however, no modern workplace will ever have a monolithic mindset no matter how hard a company tries to find its next employees with a myopically narrow set of mental characteristics. After all, every workplace has some naturally negative personalities, according to organizational experts.

Rather than fight the tendency of variation within social groups, SaaS infrastructure providers should embrace the saying it takes all kinds and channel dissent as a tool for positive change. For example, many workers have constructively critical perspectives that differ from established corporate policies, which if left unexamined and unrevised for too long become first ineffective then counterproductive—even pathological.

Lack of Attention: Business Killer App

Unaddressed dissent will turn inward, fester like a sore and eventually emerge as the pus of indifference, the true bane of business. Distracted by inner demons of disaffection, workers will lose focus and results will suffer.

“People with differing opinions are not what business owners need to worry about,” says Ben Landers, president and CEO, Blue Corona, an analytics and digital strategies company. “In order to disagree, most people have to care and be paying attention, and this is exactly what you want from your team. The real killer of business performance is lack of attention and employee disengagement.”

Acknowledge Dissent

A well-worn maxim, acknowledging that a problem exists in workplace opinion remains the initial step to resolving it. According to Landers, his managerial team maintains an open-door policy and welcomes expression of alternate points of view. However, not everyone feels brave enough to personally express their dissent and use of anonymous survey tools also takes place.

Whatever actions founders, CEOs, CFOs or other top managers at a cloud solution company take in response to workplace dissent, they must not ignore it, according to business experts. And they say give it the respect it deserves.

“The worst mistake an employer can make is to treat dissent as a ‘ridiculous gripe’ and deny its existence,” says Adetokunbo Abiola, media and marketing consultant, Town Crier Online, provider of business information for entrepreneurs and professionals. “By listening to employee discontent, business owners are taking the first step toward stopping unrest from spreading.”

‘The Big Picture’

A bookend to dissent acknowledgement, management needs to convey the proverbial big picture to employees to build consensus. Just as Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke kept his eye on saving the world financial system in 2008-2009 and not the distraction of temporary accounting issues, so must corporate leadership communicate a clear, unequivocal mission to its staff, discarding ephemeral concerns.

“Perception is reality, so if employees fear management policies will affect their reality, they will rebel,” Abiola says. “Intervening swiftly is more likely to ensure your employees continue working toward company objectives.”

To better gauge reality of areas where your company needs attention, offer options for employees to express dissent, according to workplace experts. They also believe this has the side benefit of helping weed out comments from the generally unhappy.

“Everything from quarterly one-on-one meetings with managers to peer recognition systems not only gives employees the best outlet to share opinions but also increases engagement,” says Greg Harris, president and CEO, Quantum Workplace, provider of engagement tools for organizations. “Effective feedback begins with frequency and variety. Most employees have constructive feedback, but everyone responds differently to one-on-one meetings, anonymous surveys, 360-degree feedback and peer recognition, so offer all four.”

Build Trust Based on Feedback

More important than just listening to and acknowledging workplace dissent remains the process of building trust with workers. Leadership can do this best by taking input from employees and acting on it to redress office grievances.

“After encouraging employees to share dissent, it’s crucial that leaders are transparent with the feedback and show what they’re doing to address employee concerns,” Harris says. “This allows everyone to be on the same page about what is working and what needs improving. Employees who trust their employers are more likely to be open and honest with their feedback—even if negative.”

Listening: a Skill and a Process

While hearing out and acknowledging employee dissent exist as laudable hallmarks of the business with values, you need more than their mere existence. Listening to worker dissent remains both a skillset and a process that managers can learn and master, according to business management researchers.

“Listening is a vital management skill—that includes listening to differing opinions, calls for change and employee frustrations,” says Leigh Steere, co-founder, Managing People Better. “Employees are your radar—without their input, a manager is flying blind. Because employees are carrying out nitty-gritty business operations, they see firsthand where processes aren’t optimal. They see hindrances to productivity—whether complicated business procedures causing tasks to take longer than needed or ‘corporate politics’ posing barriers to getting things done.”

Steere suggests five tips that can help managers listen to subordinates in order to improve communications:

  1. Breathe deeply, commit to the conversation and turn off all distractions (e.g., phone, email)

  2. Ask clarifying questions to understand the employee’s perspective (e.g., “When did you become aware of this issue?”, “What examples illustrate the problem?”, “How can we solve the problem?”)

  3. Summarize what you heard in your own words—this will help the employee feel you’ve really listened

  4. State what you will do with the employee’s information (e.g., survey customers about the problem, ask the employee to help with the questionnaire, request time to research the issue, give a date when you will update the employee)

  5. Follow through—employees won’t believe you care until they see you act (i.e., you will damage morale if you respond with “radio silence”)

Dissent Improves Product Quality

Enlightened managers of software companies know they do not know it all. How things got done in the past may have no relevance to how they occur in the future. It’s foolish to think otherwise. And with the agile innovation cycle of cloud products, ability to quickly adapt remains crucial. Some feel that dissent plays a cornerstone role in improving products to change with the times.

“The best innovations we have made regarding our offerings came from employee dissent,” says Jeff Kear, founder, Planning Pod, provider of event management and registration software. “We encourage employees to look at every process and product feature with a critical eye. As business owners and founders, we never assume how we run our business or build our software is perfect, so we welcome active, critical examination to continually improve how we operate and serve customers.”

Kear seeks both qualitative and quantitative data to verify if critical feedback represents an isolated case or remains a systemic issue. That’s when he puts on his Vulcan ears and acts like Spock: to logically separate overwrought emotions from discernable facts. Fascinating. Or curiouser and curiouser.

Don’t be a Dope, Get Curious!

So while employee dissent can be nerve-racking, company leaders owe it to their headcount to hear, acknowledge and process it orderly. However, this shouldn’t exist as a rote protocol on autopilot. Executives must have their heads in the big game and remain engaged themselves. In reality, dissent can activate neurotransmitters like dopamine in the brain and heighten awareness, curiosity and other higher intelligence, which improve all corporate outputs, according to leadership development experts.

“Leaders need to listen to all perspectives to understand their employee base and develop the most innovative and effective solutions,” says Kathy Taberner, certified executive coach and co-founder, Institute of Curiosity, a coaching and training organization. “Leaders need to get curious in all aspects of leadership, particularly when communicating with others so they can understand what employees think, which supports engagement and collaboration. When people collaborate effectively, better solutions are created and innovation and productivity thrive.”

Dissent leads to creative tension that makes leaders curious and motivates and engages workers, according to Taberner. So counterintuitively, dissent has constructive uses and can lead to a thriving corporate culture where everyone feels heard and understood, even if their perspective does not prevail at the end of the day.

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