Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Speaking Up on Behalf of Resistance

Bert A. Spector

A new hierarchical authority has been put in place: a supervisor, manager, CEO, and yes, a President.  In his classic 1938 study, The Functions of the Executive, Chester Barnard insisted that for organizations to achieve their goals, individual members would be required, to some extent, to subordinate themselves to the collective.

Barnard’s phrase, “to some extent,” is a powerful one.  As I wrote in Discourse on Leadership, the expectation that individuals subordinate themselves to the wishes and directions offered by a leader is not and should never be universal and all-encompassing.  Inevitably, leaders and non-leaders will struggle, a struggle that can be positive for the organization or social unit.

It must be recognized, of course, that the playing field is uneven.  Leaders have more hierarchical power than any individual.  Individuals, however, are not without options. They may find a common and united voice of opposition.

There is a tendency in hierarchical organizations to label oppositional voice as “resistance,” and then attach a negative connotation to that resistance.  Leaders often perceive themselves as leaders for everyone.  It is time to bind wounds, overcome disagreements, and get together.  Resistance to such sought-after unity may be framed in negative terms: it is a bad thing, disobedient, obstructionist. Noncompliance is repositioned as deviance, a force to be overcome with the goal of getting everyone “on board.”

In fact, the very use of the term “resistance” carries with it pejorative implications.

It should not be so.

The outcomes of resistance may be positive for the organization or social unit.  People may come to believe that the newly empowered leaders are either not capable of carrying out the espoused goals and values of the unit or not sincerely committed to those goals and values.

Resistance does not necessarily arise out of lack of commitment to the organization and its goals.  It can be just the opposite.  Meaning is reproduced regularly.  A multiplicity of voices and diversity of perspectives can enrich internal dialogue and enhance organizational responsiveness.  That, at least, is the potential of resistance.

Bert Spector is the author of Discourse on Leadership, out now from Cambridge University Press.


About The Author

Bert A. Spector

Bert A. Spector (PhD, American History) is Associate Professor of International Business and Management at Northeastern University's D'Amore-McKim School of Business. His research ...

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