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4 Strategies to Handle Dissent in the Digital Workplace

February 08, 2022 Collaboration and Productivity
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

Dissent and disagreement in the digital workplace can come in various forms. While conflict is inherent in a collaborative setting, and in fact can be quite healthy, if handled poorly it can lead to disengagement, lower productivity and outright employee resignation.

That's a lesson project management software company Basecamp learned the hard way when the company's ban on political speech led nearly one-third of its staff to resign.

Basecamp, unfortunately, isn't the only company to have felt the repercussions of mismanaged friction caused by hot-button issues. In today's reality, leaders need ways to identify and defuse situations before they escalate. 

The Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Disagreements

Workplace dissent tends to occur with differences of opinion, most often regarding policy. While a diversity of opinions can bring about healthy conversations that are ultimately beneficial to growth, dissension can have a major negative impact on the employee experience and the organization as a whole. 

Dragos Badea, CEO of desk- and room-management company Yarooms, said internal dissent is a double-edged sword. "On the one hand, having discussions and challenges to authority is good, as it prevents us from getting into the 'we do it this way because we have always done it this way' mindset," he said. "On the other hand, internal dissent can make it really hard to plan and execute long-term strategy."

Without dissent, companies may believe everything's going well and refuse to change, no matter how beneficial change might be.

Related Article: How to Interrupt Bias in Your Company

The 3 Stages of Dissent

Hema Crockett and Jamie Jacobs, co-founders of HR consultancy Gig Talent, said dissent can take on different forms, from employees expressing disagreement verbally and non-verbally, to passive-aggressive behavior or withdrawal from work both socially and professionally.

In general, however, it has three stages, and each stage is progressively more serious than the previous one. Managers should pay special attention to workplace dynamics if they want to know just how far-reaching a potential problem has become.

Stage 1: Vocalized or articulated dissent

In the first stage, employees express their dissent to the leaders of an organization. They may also reach out to other individuals who they believe could help them deal with the issue. This is a great time to take proactive action to investigate and defuse the situation before it escalates.

State 2: Latent dissent

In the second stage, an employee will typically turn to a fellow coworker, rather than manager, to discuss the issue. This could lead to division, where cliques form and employees pass judgment on each other.

Stage 3: Displaced dissent

This is the stage when workplace issues are discussed externally. This can be, at best, with friends and family or, at worst, on social media and other public-facing venues such as Glassdoor.

Related Article: How to Tackle Microaggressions in the Digital Workplace

4 Tips For Handling Dissent in the Digital Workplace

Dissent can occur in any workplace setting, but it may spread more quickly in a remote setting. Here are some tips for handling it in the digital workplace: 

1. Observe Behavior During Meetings

Dissent doesn’t just happen. It brews. Friction builds over time. In remote and distributed team situations, leaders should observe employees during meetings and address situations that have the potential to spill over. This may mean requiring cameras to be on in some meetings to assess engagement and gauge non-verbal reactions. “In addition to the live, in-meeting observation, developing a normalized practice of asking for input, feedback and other points of view are important,” said Crockett and Jacobs. 

2. Interact With Employees in Other Settings 

Most meetings focus on solving problems or pressing issues. Leaders should make time for more informal chats with employees outside of scheduled meetings. Particularly in remote and hybrid work environments, this provides an opportunity for employees to speak their minds and for leaders to gather feedback and opinions in a more laid-back setting. 

3. Have an Open-Door Policy

“Another tip is to maintain an open-door policy, one that often reminds employees that they can come to you to express any concerns or dislikes even while working remotely,” Crockett and Jacobs suggest. Even something as simple as making it easy to schedule a meeting on a manager’s calendar can go a long way. 

4. Be Empathetic to Employee Concerns 

Finally, leaders should try to be empathetic to employee concerns. When disagreements occur, individuals can get defensive. Management's role — and especially HR's role — should be to determine if employees have reasonable grounds for their dissent.

Dan Silberman, CTO of San Francisco-based Mozart Data, said the goal of a leader should be to remain connected to their team members’ points of view. That's a bit more challenging in the remote workplace, but still very possible.

In this era, leaders have everything to gain from practicing more empathy. Silberman said it’s essential to be empathetic to an employee's concerns, even in disagreement, to ensure a solution is reached quickly and before it escalates.

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