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Vol. 4, No. 1, 1991
Rights and Responsibilities of Dissent:
Cooperative confiict research supports the value of the right to dissent and self-expres-
sion as contributing significantly to organizational effectiveness. Through confiict,
problems are identified, and solutions created and accepted, and a sense of justice and
fairness established. Research also proposes a corresponding responsibility that
employees and employers should establish a strong cooperative context for managing
confiict. Structuring a confiict-positive organization is a powerful way to capture the
benefits of confiict and support the right of dissent.
KEY WORDS: conflict, rights, dissent, cooperation and competition.
Have you learned lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and
learned great lessons
from those who
against you, and
with you? Walt Whitman
When two men in business
one of them is
William Wrigley, Jr.
Conflict often is a constructive force in organizations. It is through conflict
that frustrations are channeled to change outmoded procedures. By expressing their
irritations and dealing with grievances, employees put their complaints behind them
and focus on productive work. Debates explore issues and create solutions. Conflict
exposes unethical conduct, and moves the organization toward justice. For formulat-
ing strategy, avoiding disasters, and strengthening relationships, conflict has proved
The idea of positive conflict is just beginning to reshape management thinking
and practice. It challenges traditional assumptions that effective designs minimize
conflict and transaction costs, a rigid authority hierarchy is needed to maintain
order, and effective leaders decisively end disputes. Successful teams are multi-
skilled with diverse perspectives, not harmonious sameness.
Positive conflict research has important implications for rights, especially the
right to dissent and self-expression. Dissent, I argue, breathes life and energy into
^Faculty of Business Administration, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia V5A 1S6.
0892-7545/91/0300-0013$06.50/0 © 1991 Plenum PubUshing Corporation
groups and organizations. The right to speak freely, to be respected and valued,
and voice one's interests and aspirations very much promote the common organiza-
tional good. It is through conflict that the organization discovers where to go and
how it is going to get there, and creates the unity necessary to get there. Especially
in a turbulent competitive marketplace, positive conflict helps organizations develop
the continuous improvement needed to generate new competitive advantages.
Research on positive conflict also suggests a corresponding responsibility for
employees and organizations. Conflicts have been found to be constructive when
discussed in a cooperative context where the protagonists believe their goals are
positively related, rather than "win-lose" conflict where goals are considered com-
petitive. The right to dissent implies the responsibility to develop a cooperative context
for its expression.
The right to dissent and freedom of speech have been considered fundamental
in democratic societies because they help preserve and realize other rights by draw-
ing attention and correcting injustices. Freedom of speech promotes the conflict
needed to safeguard other rights and interests of individuals. This article extends
this argument by presenting research that shows that dissent, when responsibly car-
ried out, contributes to organizational effectiveness as well as to individual protec-
RIGHT TO DISSENT IN COOPERATIVE AND COMPETITIVE
Employees today are asserting their rights through legal action, grievance pro-
cedures, whistle-blowing, and informal threats to leave the organization. They have
targeted dismissals, lack of minorities in the workforce, sexual harassment, and cor-
rupt practices. Osigweh (1988) has argued that we are in the midst of a rights
Since John Locke, rights have been defended in terms of the natural rights
of individuals as they pursue their legitimate self-interests. Rights are personal
claims grounded in the rules and laws that protect people from the excesses and
power of the majority (Keeley, 1988). Employees often assert their rights because
they believe management considers them instruments to succeed in the
marketplace, and not valuable in themselves. Rights are defended in organizations
in terms of values, laws, and implicit and explicit employment contracts (Ladenson,
John Stuart Mill and others have also defended rights for their social benefits.
Research has shown, it is argued here, that the right to self-expression aids or-
ganized effort. Management has a vested interest in people speaking out, for con-
flict contributes very significantly to an effective organization. A conflict-positive
culture stimulates the innovation and commitment necessary for companies to sur-
vive and prosper. Individual and group self-expression is useful and needs to be
protected, not because dissenters are always right or should always be accom-
modated, but because a confiict-positive climate serves the long-term interests of
Rights and Responsibilities of Dissent
the organization. Protecting others' right to speak out not only protects one's own
right, it contributes to the success of the organization.
However, self-expression and speaking out must be appropriately carried out
to be constructive; research documents that it is well-managed confiict that con-
tributes to organization. Considerable evidence indicates that to the extent people
believe their goals are cooperative they are able to make their confiicts constructive.
They understand that their goals are positively related so that they can be successful
together; they seek "win-win" solutions that promote mutual advantage. Competi-
"win-lose" confiict, in contrast, is either avoided or escalated; competitive con-
fiict interferes with problem solving, finding a common ground, and strengthening
This research suggests then that individual rights of self-expression will be
most constructive, most valued, and supported when it is asserted within a coopera-
tive context. Here rights are defended and claimed because they promote the in-
terests of others as well as the individual.
Traditionally, rights are asserted in opposition and as a check on the power
of others; free speech counteracts the potentially coercive force of others. This
perspective assumes that individual rights are incompatible with the goals of the
collective. Asserting rights in this way creates a competitive context and works
against a productive resolution; the organization believes it has had to lose some-
thing to protect the right of dissent.
Positive confiict suggests that, in addition to protection from the competitive,
potentially hostile power of others, the right to dissent builds a confiict-positive
climate critical for joint success. A cooperative context supports the right to dissent.
DYNAMICS OF POSITIVE CONFLICT
Research has documented underlying processes and outcomes of positive con-
fiict. In well-managed confiict, protagonists elaborate their positions and the ideas
and information that support them, question their own position, and search out
and explore the positions of others, and work to combine and integrate perspectives
to create new, workable solutions. This section briefiy reviews these findings. See
Cosier and Schwenk (1990); Johnson, Johnson, Smith, and Tjosvold (1990); and
Tjosvold (1985) for comprehensive reviews.
Employees, as they begin to confiict over a decision, elaborate and explain
their own position and ideas. Employees outline the facts, information, and theories
that validate their theses, and provide a logical structure that links the facts to the
conclusion. Often people appreciate their own positions, assume that their positions
are superior, and want to prove that their ideas are correct and that their position
should be accepted. As the confiict is engaged, other employees elaborate their
own opposing views and this clash interrupts decision making and movement.
People critique each other's arguments, point out weaknesses and possible
strengths in the arguments and rebut counterarguments, but they also come to
doubt the wisdom and correctness of their own position. The ideas and logic of
others create intemal, cognitive conflict challenging whether their original position
is as useful and sensible as they had assumed.
With this conceptual conflict, they actively search for new information. They
read more relevant material, gather new information, and ask others for informa-
tion. They ask their protagonists to clarify their positions, rephrase their arguments,
understand the opposing position, and take the perspective of their opponents.
The elaboration and search leave people open-minded and knowledgeable
about the issue. They have approached the issue from several perspectives, and are
not rigidly fixed to their own. They can synthesize and bring together different ideas
and facts into a single position. They incorporate others' information and reasoning
into their own, and develop a position responsive to several points of view.
Repeated exposure to conflictful discussion fosters more sophisticated and higher-
level reasoning and cognitive development.
These dynamics have been shown to result in high-quality, innovative solutions
and agreements. The mix and clash of the discussion creates new positions not
previously considered. These positions combine the arguments and perspectives of
several people in elegant ways.
People are satisfied and feel they have benefited from the discussion. They
enjoy the excitement, feel aroused by the challenges of the conflict, and develop
positive attitudes toward the experience. They are committed to the new agreements
and positions because they understand how they are related to their own interests
and positions, and why the adopted position is superior to their original one. Well-
managed conflict then is critical for successful participation in which people "own"
and feel committed to decisions (Tjosvold, 1987).
CONFLICT AND MANAGING A COMPANY
Recent studies demonstrate that the dynamics and effects of positive conflict
contribute to an effective organization. Positive conflict helps organizations be in-
novative and improves the "bottom line."
Rights and Responsibilities of Dissent ^"^
The demands of the marketplace and workplace require organizations to in-
novate and adapt. They are experimenting with new procedures and management
and developing new products and services to respond to technological ad-
vances, competition, and consumer preferences. Confiict management is essential
for successful innovation.
Faculty members and employees of a large postsecondary educational institu-
tion were interviewed on when they were able to solve problems in new and creative
and when they were frustrated when trying to develop a new approach (Tjos-
vold & McNeely, 1988). When they discussed their opposing views openly and
forthrightly and considered all views, they were able to develop innovative solutions;
when they discussed issues from only one point of view and were unable to incor-
porate different views, then they failed to make progress and developed solutions
low on quality and creativity.
Managers have long complained that employees resist new technological in-
novations and, as a consequence, the investments do not pay off in the expected
productivity increases. Less recognized is that employees must identify problems
and discuss solutions to use the technology. Employees of a retail chain were found
to be able to use new scanning technology more efficiently when they exchanged
information and hammered out ideas about how to solve the many problems that
the technology created (Tjosvold, 1990b).
Managers are restructuring and transforming organizations. They are cutting
management levels, splitting up businesses, forming links across business units, and
using task teams and parallel structures to create synergy. A large, high-technology
telecommunications firm had undergone waves of restructuring without noticeable
improvement. Interview revealed that employees had to make use of any new order,
and to do this, they had to coordinate and manage their confiicts (Tjosvold, 1990a).
When they were able to manage their difficulties and reassure and support each
other, they were able to make use of new structures.
Costs of Poorly Managed Conflict
Janz and Tjosvold (1985) interviewed managers and employees in an engineer-
ing firm to identify specific ways that they mishandled confiicts and relationships
on the job. Employees in this firm refused to communicate directly with other per-
ignored advice and suggestions, did not learn from more experienced
employees, viewed problems just from their own points of view, involved only those
who supported their own position, embarrassed and blamed others, and let design
fiaws remain to make others look bad.
Managers then indicated the employee time, materials, and project days lost
because the confiicts were managed ineffectively rather than effectively. These es-
timates suggest that destructive conflict compared to productive confiict cost the
company $12,000 a year per employee in time and materials, and $30,000 if project
days lost were taken into account. These results are estimates and will vary depend-
ing on the company. However, they demonstrate that the failure to manage conflict
most assuredly impacts the "bottom line."
CONFLICT TO WORK TOWARD JUSTICE
Inevitably, employees have misgivings, complaints, and frustrations that if un-
attended can sap their energy and commitment. Positive conflict not only allows
"voice" in making these complaints, but also encourages open-minded responses
to them (Hirschman, 1970; Withey & Cooper, 1989). Grievances, when they are
discussed openly and within a cooperative context, were found to solve problems
and strengthen confidence of future collaboration (Morishima & Tjosvold, 1990).
Positive conflict helps an organization move toward a sense of justice and fair play
in the workplace that builds employee commitment (Koys, 1988).
Justice and ethical conduct are universal values, but people come to quite
different conclusions about what is just in specific situations. Justice is something
to be worked out and negotiated. For most organizational issues, justice is a matter
of resolving ethical disagreements (Beauchamp & Bowie, 1983).
courages people to work out their differences, to participate in developing a fair or-
ganization, and to deal directly with injustices.
Procedures and processes that involve and give people a voice are extremely
important for creating justice (Folger & Konovsky, 1989; Greenberg, 1987; Lind &
Tyler, 1988). Indeed, people sometimes value being involved more than how
rewards are distributed, even to getting rich rewards for themselves. Having a voice
and listening to others help people understand the reasoning behind agreements,
feel their questions have been addressed, and believe they have had some control
and influence over the outcome. They have directly confronted different interests,
discussed opposing positions, and understood the rationale behind the decision.
If removed from deciding the issue, people easily second guess the decision
and suspect its rationale. They are apt to be insensitive to conflicting, legitimate
interests and points of
When workers are uninformed about the financial state
of the company and its need to attract investors, they focus on their own claims
for higher wages, not company profits. Uninvolved people often feel they were un-
justly treated, and angrily want compensation.
Positive conflict promotes justice by providing the social support for people
to discuss their frustrations and sense of injustice openly. Unexpressed conflict and
frustrations are great threats to a group or organization. Without giving voice to
their issues, people harbor their sense of grievance, feel unfairly treated, and want
to leave (Withey & Cooper, 1989).
Positive conflict is needed to integrate the many and at times opposing claims
and ideals if people are to conclude that their organization is just and ethical It is
through the give and take, the back and forth, of positive conflict that people come
to understand everyone's contributions and needs and accept the rules that should
be used and how they should be applied. Perhaps people do not get all that they
hoped, but understand why the present agreement is mutually acceptable and to a
reasonable degree satisfies the legitimate concerns of all.
Rights and Responsibilities of Dissent ^^
CONDITIONS FOR POSUrS^ CONFLICT
Conflict does not inevitably solve problems, contribute to firm management,
and build employee commitment. Conflicts must be skillfully managed. Morton
Deutsch (1973) argued that how people believe their goals are related consistently
and dramatically affects the dynamics and outcomes of confiict, which he defined
as incompatible activities to distinguish it from competitive goals. His theory of
cooperation and competition has proved an elegant, powerful way to understand
confiict management (Deutsch, 1973, 1980; Johnson et al., 1990; Tjosvold, 1985,
People in confiict can conclude that their goals are cooperative or competitive.
In cooperation, people believe that their goals are compatible and positively related;
as one moves toward goal attainment that helps others reach their goals. They ex-
pect others will assist them because it is to their self-interest to do so; self-interests
suggests mutual collaboration. This trust encourages them to speak their minds,
reveal their frustrations, and talk about their anger. The protagonists welcome these
confrontations and realize it is important to work out settlements so that they can
continue to assist each other. They work for mutually beneficial solutions that main-
tain and strengthen the relationship. They explore each other's perspective, crea-
tively integrate their views, and are confident they will continue to work together
for mutual benefit. As a result, they are prepared to collaborate and discuss future
Competitive goals, on the other hand, make managing confiict very difficult
and often lead to escalating, debilitating fights. People have competitive goals when
they see that their aspirations and objectives are incompatible and negatively re-
lated; the progress of one interferes or prevents others from being successful.
Competitive goals create suspicion because it is in one's self-interest that
others perform inadequately. They doubt whether others are interested in their feel-
ings and frustrations, and fear others will ridicule or dismiss them. Although they
often prefer to avoid confiict, especially with their bosses and others with authority
and power, the underlying problems continue to frustrate. If they do decide to con-
front their protagonists, they often do so in a tough, dominating manner that es-
calates the confiict. Whether they choose to avoid or confront confiict, they usually
feel that they have lost and only hope that others have lost more.
SUPPORTING DISSENT THROUGH STRUCTURING POSITIVE
Research indicates that the right to speak out and dissent contributes to or-
ganizational success as well as protection of individuals. Yet this right has the cor-
responding responsibility, for both employees and the organization, to structure the
confiict so that it is cooperative and constructive. Dissent needs to be lived, and
individuals acting independently will have difficulty establishing dissent as a way of
working. This section proposes that structuring positive confiict is a powerful way
culture that respects
Tjosvold (1991a) recently proposed
model that both describes positive
make organizations more conflict-positive. Positive conflict
has four reinforcing components. People value their
conflict. They look
their opposing views
make their relationships productive. They seek
mutual benefit. People understand that they have cooperative interests
common ground. They
pursuing their shared vision
work environment fair
all. They feel
their colleagues have
They regularly take stock
their conflict handling. They realize that
becoming conflict-positive requires continuous experimenting, feedback,
Seek Mutuol Benefit
Managers express their commitment
concrete times that dissent forged
widely circulated. Research
cising their rights
his or her
hunches. Ideas should
dismissed because they first appear
too unusual, impractical,
undeveloped. Including people
ground, expertise, opinions,
outlook fosters conflict. Independent thinkers
organization make controversy more likely.
Rights and Responsibilities of Dissent21
Managers should structure conflict by forming small groups to develop and
defend their positions. A devil's advocate takes a critical evaluation role by attacking
what appears to be the group's solution. Managers can actively seek to encourage
various viewpoints and assure others that they are not rigidly fixed to their present
position. Requiring consensus decision making encourages full participation and
people with doubts to speak out. Majority vote can degenerate into attempts to
get a majority and force that decision on others.
Seek Mutual Benefit
Although they disagree, interfere, and frustrate each other and at times may
think they are working at cross purposes, employees realize and frame the issues
so that they believe their goals are much more compatible than opposing. They
focus on concrete, common goals that provide important benefits for all. They are
committed to the company's vision and want to serve its customers well. They want
to resolve the conflict for mutual benefit.
Employees communicate expectations that they will all work for a solution
that benefits all. Efforts to pursue individual objectives at others' expense are dis-
couraged. They say, "We are all in this together," and "Let's see a solution that is
good for everyone," not "I am right, and you are wrong." Financial rewards, evalua-
and prestige is given for the joint success, not for appearing better than
others, or proving that one is right. Employees avoid looking for winners and losers
but focus on a productive solution to the common problem.
People are confident and have identified their own and other employees' strengths
and skills to deal with conflict genuinely and effectively. Colleagues have shown through
workshops and working together that they want to deal with conflicts directly for mutual
benefit. Employees are developing their conflict skills and sensitivities, and have publicly
committed themselves to operating in a conflict-positive mode.
Scheduled sessions, informal meetings in the coffee room and offices, and
weekend retreats are used to deal with frustrations and develop strong relationships.
People feel free to telephone each other, stop by the office to discuss issues, and
deal with conflicts before they are allowed to grow and simmer. Although people
have the conviction and willingness to argue their positions forcefully, they avoid
domination and coercion. They say, "I want you to consider this seriously," and
"You will probably find this convincing," not "You must accept this point," or "You
have no choice but to agree."
People have been asked and rewarded much more for ignoring their differen-
ces and avoiding conflicts than for using them to get things done. They will need
successful experiences and assistance to refme these skills and feel empowered.
They structure times at workshops and meetings and informally discuss how they
are dealing with conflict and can handle future disagreement.
Conflict is a test of relationships and skills. Employees recognize the courage
and strengths they used to work out conflicts productively and how their ability to
manage conflict will help them greatly in the future, they appreciate that people
worked and took risks to resolve the conflict. They celebrate their success, and
throw a party or take a trip as a shared reward.
A reinforcing, beneficial cycle of managing conflict is created in which people
cherish their diversities, feel positively dependent upon each other, appreciate each
other's abilities and build upon them, and celebrate their joint success and set new
improvement goals. In this way, they value their diverse perspectives and respect the
right to dissent, seek mutually advantageous solutions, and integrate their positions.
Positive conflict reconciles different points of view and opposing tensions in
an organization into workable solutions. Positive conflict also suggests how the long-
standing assumption by management theorists and practitioners that there is a
trade-off between rights and organizational efficiency, between individuality and the
collective good can be further reconciled.
Organizational issues are often framed in terms of the individual versus the
organization. Do the requirements for corporate action take precedence over the
needs of individuals? Where do employee rights end and their responsibilities
begin? When does a company have the right to suppress the rights of individuals?
Though there are at times trade-offs, positive conflict asserts that the collective and
individual goods move together.
An orientation toward rights, it has been proposed, interferes with negotiating
agreements; instead, protagonists should disclose and promote their interests (Ury,
Brett, & Goldberg, 1988). Self-righteous indignation can certainly make resolution
difficult. Yet exercising the right to dissent contributes to a conflict-positive, effec-
But should dissent be protected if expressed competitively? Research indicates
that it is much less productive and welcomed. Yet even here asserting the right to
self-expression contributes to establishing a conflict-positive climate in which dif-
ferences and frustrations can be discussed openly. What remains compelling is the
responsibility and challenge for the organization and employees to create a coopera-
tive context that more fully supports the right to dissent.
The author thanks the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of
Canada for its financial support, Marx Wexler and Moto Morishima for their com-
ments, and Jenny Tjosvold for her research.
Rights and Responsibilities of Dissent 23
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