Throughout the organisations we work with, we see people noticing, commenting upon and perhaps even trying to Oppose or offer correction on issues of concern to them. The act of offering correction or Opposition in conversation is critical and yet the challenges associated with doing so are complex and many.
To Oppose or not to Oppose, that is the question…… And it is a question we also see many individuals, teams and organisations struggling mightily over.
There are many people for whom Opposition presents a significant challenge or they simply avoid it altogether even when it is genuinely invited and welcomed. Systems often seem incapable of effectively extracting Opposition or correction from their staff or using it for good. Instead, and all too commonly, an environment gets fostered in which concerns go ‘underground’ or get vocalised covertly. When this happens, the concerns fester and spread virus-like over prolonged periods of time making it very difficult to engage constructively with them.
A perception exists that to entertain the idea of either Opposing or proactively engaging with Opposition risks opening Pandora’s box and the accompanying fear is that untold damage will be done as a result. The paradoxical reality however, is that the opposite is actually true. Creating opportunities for open dialogue in which Opposition can be freely and skilfully expressed can be the single most constructive thing to do.
Skilful expression of Opposition is quite something to behold. It is powerful, assertive, considerate and clear. It is most often preceded by expressions of support. In other words, the person authentically articulates what they support about what is being expressed and offers a neutral perspective about it before offering correction through the Oppose.
More commonly though, we hear repeated accounts of the distressing experiences people have on the receiving end of Opposition. Being Opposed, particularly when it is done clumsily, is relentless, or coming from someone you value and respect highly can be incredibly frustrating and bruising. It can also result in an unexpected high stakes reaction in which the person being Opposed lashes out verbally or simply cannot hear or take on board what is being offered to them.
So, it can feel risky to invite Opposition and to Oppose. Equally it can feel risky to be on the receiving end of a lot of Opposition.
When the tendency to avoid Opposing or doing so covertly becomes established, we hear people saying things like;
‘This is just the way things happen around here’
‘There’s no point in trying to disagree or offer a different point of view because no-one listens’
‘He’s a complete pain in my side, he never has anything constructive to say, all he ever does is whinge and complain’
It is self-defeating when power dynamics at the top of the system, either intentionally or otherwise, stifle voices further down; those voices being a vital part of what helps to regulate that system. When this happens, what it points towards is a whole system failure that stems from a lack of communicative competency within the organisation.
Often the dominant ways of working become so engrained that those who hold different views are ignored or rejected and eventually either leave that system or feel compelled to collude with it. Healthy systems not only understand difference but encourage it; using it to fuel powerful, productive dialogue which capitalises on the collective intelligence of a team, an organisation and even a whole system.
By equipping people to develop communicative competence, teams and individuals can become acutely aware of patterns of behaviour, including that of covert Opposition, and are able to make choices, which release them. In turn, this creates an environment in which decisions are made consciously and transparently and where stuck patterns that don’t serve an organisation or team so well are identified early and transformed.
Ensuring that warning calls come from within the organisation has to be better than situations where an issue comes to public attention because a voice from within has broken through the power dynamic, labelled as a ‘leak’ or a ‘whistleblower’. But often, by then, it is too late and in the aftermath of most events of this kind, once public, the search for culpability begins in the belief that, once blame can be attributed, structures, actions and policies can be put in place to prevent something ever happening again. It is a well-rehearsed repetitive pattern and it has some merit, but it ignores the reality that, over time, physical barriers lapse or human instinct finds its way around them.
What really addresses an issue in the long term is a change in behaviour within that system. It is this behavioural dimension, which is so often ignored in organisations; perhaps because of its complexity and a belief that it is intangible and therefore impossible to measure or successfully change. Kantor’s theory of Structural Dynamics makes those behaviours tangible and therefore possible to change in a way, which is quantifiable, whilst Generative Dialogue enables the behaviours that really matter to people to be surfaced and explored in the first place. The organisations that take time to do this work begin to set new cultural norms which regulate that system far more effectively. These are the organisations that don’t revisit or re-enact the mistakes of the past.