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Dissent in Risk Management​

Employees’ perceptions about conveying disagreement can influence the way they respond to assigned duties.


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Employee communication of dissent, or constructive challenges, to management and its corresponding reception, are key aspects of risk management. Employee perception about conveying disagreement influences that employee’s understanding of controls, and his or her conscious or unconscious willingness to execute assigned duties.

Implementing a risk response — deadlines, checklists, reviews, and other specified assignments — may not coincide with the desires of the process owner tasked with completing them. This disconnect between the goal of management and the desires of the process owner is a prime source of dissent, which, in turn, affects the success of the risk response.

Specific steps precede an employee’s decision to express dissent. First is the awareness of the issue, followed by the attribution of personal responsibility for responding, and then the estimation of the response. The decision to express dissent then involves weighing the possible change against the anticipated backlash. 

There are typically three types of dissent: articulated, antagonistic, and displaced. Because internal auditors must include an assessment of communication channels when testing the design and effectiveness of controls, it is important that they understand the role that dissent plays in a risk management program and how dissent can influence control effectiveness. By doing so, auditors can identify sources of control failure not immediately recognizable when the control is evaluated in isolation.

Articulated Dissent

Articulated dissent is the direct communication of dissent by employees to individuals with the authority to influence organizational change. Employees choose this method because they believe the dissent will be received positively and seen as constructive feedback. Articulated dissent is influenced by a perception that retaliation will be minimal and a conversation with management is positive. Employees will use articulated dissent when it is perceived that the organization is accepting of criticism. It involves an active effort to change the organization for the better from within.

Antagonistic Dissent

Antagonistic dissent is used by employees who believe that dissent will be received as adversarial, but that the feedback they provide will ultimately be safeguarded against retaliation. This strategy is used by employees in roles that provide a sense of organizational leverage — based on position, expertise, or relationship — and the perception of immunity against reprisal. Antagonistic dissent is primarily used to oppose issues that have a personal connection to the dissenter. Employees express dissent to audiences that are captive or influential, and it occurs in low retaliation conditions. The dissent is intended to change the organization from within, but primarily in a direction that is most beneficial to the individual. Although the underlying motivation for dissent can be self-oriented, the change may be a positive for the organization. 

Displaced Dissent

Displaced dissent is used when the employee believes that feedback will be perceived as adversarial and will lead to some form of retaliation. This dissent is communicated to an audience that is either outside of the organization, inside of the organization but lacking any authority, or composed of employees at a similar level. External audiences include spouses, non-work friends, or family members. Internal audiences include fellow co-workers who lack the ability or authority to address the concern. These audiences are chosen because of the low risk for retaliation and for the sense of community that comes from shared displeasure. Displaced dissent involves expressing disagreement without confronting management directly. It is a common predictor of employee exit because employees internalize their disagreements without communicating them to those with the power to help. The physical exit of the employee is preceded by a psychological exit — the employee “checks out” and loses his or her commitment to the organization. 

Understanding Dissent Strategies

An effective risk management program must consider the dissent strategies used by employees. How employees choose to express their constructive challenges can have a material impact on a risk management strategy. When a control is designed using a risk-based approach, the design process often omits an understanding of how the employee tasked with implementing it will receive the instructions.

Because risk responses are performed by front-line employees, dissent that is unknown or unseen by management affects the efficacy of the strategy. When employees engage in a displaced or antagonistic dissent, their interpretation may differ from that of management; they may view the internal controls to which they are assigned as restraints on their ability to work effectively. If this perception is coupled with a lack of effective communication channels, the employee is left with dissent options that are disadvantageous to the organization (antagonistic or displaced dissent). This dissent action can result in key controls failure because the employee feels unable to express concerns about the control, itself, or its impact on other job functions. 

Internal control failure may be misinterpreted as a failure in design when the breakdown stems from a lack of avenues for employees to express dissent. Employees who believe they have no reasonable means of communication with management redirect their dissent toward their assigned duties, resulting in a negative impact on the organization. 

Managing Dissent

To mitigate the negative effects of dissent on risk management, management should evaluate communication channels available to employees. Does the organization provide reasonable outlets for employees to communicate disagreements and disputes? Do these outlets provide the support and confidence to empower employees? Communication channels are the formal and informal mechanisms in place for capturing and addressing employee concerns. 

Organizations with a focus on governance, risk, and control are likely to have the formal aspect covered, whether through third-party hotlines, official human resources policies, regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings, or a combination thereof. What is missing is a recognition of how organizational culture influences their use and effectiveness. When the culture set by management through formal and informal policies includes an openness toward opposing viewpoints, employees then view the reception of dissent as positive and are more likely to express it in ways beneficial to the organization. 

Managers and stakeholders should recognize their organization’s culture in strategic decision-making. A better understanding of the culture can come from surveys of employee attitudes, a formal audit of information flow between organizational levels, or other assessments of communicative effectiveness. 

Appropriate communication channels for the expression of dissent must be supplemented by training for managers on the types of dissent and how each should be addressed. Additionally, strong organizational policies should formalize the organization’s attitude toward dissent. These policies should provide clear direction to managers and employees on how the organization approaches the expression of dissent and specific procedures for the expression and management of these opinions. 

Communication Is Crucial

It is important for employees, managers, and auditors to understand the communication channels employees use to express dissent, and how each of these may affect the organization’s strategic goals. Ultimately, the role of dissent in employee attitudes and behaviors is a key component in determining if a risk management program can succeed. 

Andrew Topa
Internal Auditor is pleased to provide you an opportunity to share your thoughts about the articles posted on this site. Some comments may be reprinted elsewhere, online or offline. We encourage lively, open discussion and only ask that you refrain from personal comments and remarks that are off topic. Internal Auditor reserves the right to remove comments.

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