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Deal with Dissent

Not everyone will support the recovery process. Some may even actively resist it. The leader’s strategy must differ for political dissent versus staff dissent. Below is a checklist for how to deal with dissent.

Send the right message. Dealing with dissent starts sending the right messages from the beginning. Make sure that stakeholders understand that there is a real problem and that something has to be done about it. Provide justifiable or, ideally, compelling reasons for cost-reduction and change strategies. Make it clear that the right thing will be done. Define the “right thing” through a long-term vision, financial policies, and/or a long-term plan.  

Define priorities. As the recovery process unfolds, describe what the priorities are. What are the most important things to preserve? What tactics or strategies are off-limits? What services are of the lowest priority? What are the temporary versus permanent measures? Although everyone may not agree with the priorities, they will at least know what the priorities are

Be open and accessible. Provide information freely to neutralize misinformation. Be responsive as well as proactive in providing information.

Listen to dissent and learn from it. Understand the nature of dissent and then deal with it accordingly. What are the issues underlying the dissent? What are the dissenters’ interests and goals? By understanding the interests and worldview of dissenters, the leader may be able to frame the change in a way that would resonate with them. If possible, provide feedback on how differing viewpoints had affected the recovery plan in specific ways.

Establish that there are consequences. Make it clear that failure of staff to cooperate with the new way of doing business will have repercussions. Be clear about what the repercussions are and make sure they are realistic in the context of collective bargaining agreements, civil services rules, etc.

Don’t be afraid to terminate employment. At-will employees who obstruct the recovery process harm the public and other employees. The leader should consider it a duty to remove them.

Open direct communication with employees. Don’t rely on middle managers to relay all communications. The message may not always make it through in the form you intended. Consider the use of new media channels like blogs and internet video.

Contain dissent that you can’t manage. In a political environment, it is possible that there will be sources of dissent that are very difficult or impossible to neutralize. Take steps to isolate these sources so that their negative attitude is attenuated and doesn’t spread. For example, convert the fringe members of a dissenting faction so that the core members are isolated. Include the dissenters only in large group settings where their opinion will be the clear minority. Consider training in “interest-based problem solving” or other constructive methods of negotiations for all conflicting parties – it may help change the tone of the conversation and open up new options to resolve disagreement.     

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