The importance of expressing dissent in organisations.

Sue Unerman

Chief Transformation Officer, MediaCom

Arguing in public is very taboo. ’With all due respect, I can’t agree or I must say no.’ Saying this to your boss is almost unheard of in many companies.

This thinking needs challenging and dismantling.

Why shouldn’t you disagree with your boss? Are they meant to be infallible? Unless you’re working for the Pope, this is unlikely (and even then, but let’s not go there).

The idea that the person at the top of the hierarchy is always right is of course wrong. Yet somehow, even though few bosses would claim to know everything, disagreeing with them isn’t usually encouraged, especially in front of other people.

Of course, rows and aggression in the workplace (or elsewhere) is unacceptable and unproductive, but not daring to disagree creates an unhelpful and unhealthy workplace.

Refusing open dialogue makes the organisation weaker, not stronger, in three ways.



First, it encourages a parent-to-child culture in the business. The theory of transactional analysis suggests that there are three states in which we can interact with others: parent to child, child to child and adult to adult. One of the key elements of parent-to-child behaviour is insisting that the bosses shouldn’t ever be challenged in public. Every great boss I’ve worked for has been open to challenge and more than able to take on new ideas, no matter who or where the ideas come from. If the hierarchy in the workplace insists on interacting with the staff as children, if management treats them like children, then they’ll struggle to develop initiatives.

Secondly, not arguing with the boss stifles dialectic. Through rigorous debate and logic, we could uncover the truth about a topic, then work together to synthesize better ideas based upon that truth. But if one of the participants intimidates another—especially with the threat of losing one’s job—as you might imagine, it doesn’t work as well. Therefore, the solution has been to ensure that no hierarchy is ever challenged. This too backfires as there can be no open arguments and—let’s be honest—bosses are wrong just as often as anyone else. It is far better to create a culture where rigorous debate is not just tolerated but encouraged.

Lastly, if no one sees anyone speaking up to someone with power (i.e., to the person who writes their review, who has the potential to block their pay raise or promotion), then you’ll get much more conformity of thinking and behaviour in the business. Without diversity of thought, there’s no freedom for people to truly be themselves in all their diverse glory.

This is the Glass Slipper problem, which afflicts everyone who doesn’t fit the culture and expectations of their chosen career. There are many unspoken expectations wrapped up in the job you take, fuelled by years of cultural imagery. For example, an investigative journalist is expected to be hungry, edgy, a bit tired looking and fearless. If you’re a comfortable and well-rested journalist, does that make you less effective at chasing down a story? A chef is meant to be potty-mouthed and aggressive. If you’re efficient and relaxed are you a worse chef? If you don’t participate in media’s drinking culture, are you less likely to progress because you just don’t fit in?

A professor at the University of Colorado, Karen Lee Ashcraft, wrote a paper identifying this issue. Ashcraft writes that some occupations have come to be ‘naturally possessed’ of features that fit certain people much more than others. If you have ambitions to progress within an organisation that is characterised with attributes that don’t come naturally to you, then you may feel under huge pressure to adopt them, even if it means hiding your real identity day in and day out. This can put an enormous strain on people and the effort it takes is not only exhausting but also a detraction from the energy that would otherwise be available for doing good work.

Sometimes the attributes are gender, sexual orientation or skin colour. Sometimes it’s more subtle. Do you ski? If you do, is it at the ‘right resort’? If not, in some companies you might as well have not bothered.

Squeezing your foot into a glass slipper that doesn’t fit is always painful. Organisations that go along with this are missing out on the benefits of diversity and wasting their teams’ energies on the fruitless exercise of conformity.

I published a book, The Glass Wall: Success strategies for women at work and businesses that mean business, which is all about diversity in senior management. Diversity is good for business. As is challenging the status quo. With today’s economic outlook, a business has to be agile and adaptable. Conformity and thin-skinned hierarchy slow this down and no business can afford to be late to transformation when new ideas emerge.

A culture in which people are confident enough to argue their point of view is essential for strong growth and a really happy team that can grow together to be the best.