Research & Thought Leadership

Activist voices and the organizational response

Megan Reitz

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A cluster of trends have been converging that suggest that we are entering an age of employee activism:

  • Millennials appear less willing than other generations to give up their focus on wider social and environmental issues.

  • Social media and technology enable collective voice and influence like never before.

  • Organizations are being pressed from all sides to claim – and then live up to - more ‘purposeful’ mission statements, not least by Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) focused investors.

  • Institutions and governments have been found lacking by some in relation to issues such as climate change and race, and consequently, organizations are being asked to fill the void.

  • An ever-increasing body of research points to the value of diversity in the workplace – and with diversity comes voices that disrupt the status quo.

As different voices speak up and get heard traditional power structures get questioned. The hierarchical model that so many organizations are invested in, is based on the assumption that the more senior you are the more you make the decisions, the more you are listened to, the more you ‘call the shots’, the more others are expected to obey.

However, we explain in our recently published research report, ‘The do’s and don’ts of employee activism’, that activist voices question and challenge this taken-for-granted power structure. They aim to intervene in decision-making around everything from internal policies on recruitment to which customers the organization should serve.

This has come as a surprise to some leaders and managers who are baffled – and often scared – at the prospect of having to speak up and listen to contentious issues that have previously been designated off-limits inside the workplace.

Our research identifies a spectrum of six responses we’ve seen from individual leaders and managers as well as organizational leadership teams:

1. Non-existent, or ‘Activism? What activism?’

2. Suppression, or ‘Expel it before it spreads’

3. Facadism, or ‘Let’s just say the right thing’

4. Defensive engagement, or ‘What do the lawyers say?’

5. Dialogic engagement, or ‘Let’s sit down, talk and learn’

6. Stimulate activism, or ‘Let’s be the activist!’

Our initial research with over 2,000 respondents indicates that a response might be perceived very differently – with senior employees more likely to think they are engaged in responses 5 or 6 and the junior employees more likely to see it as one of the first four categories. So one of the first traps we’ve identified for leaders here is that they are likely to be rather ‘optimistic’; they overestimate their approachability, listening, and response whilst underestimating both the challenges other employees face on issues such as race and gender, as well as the degree to which they feel and are silenced.

Another common trap is ‘the rush to quick fixes’, where leaders step forward and make promises to tackle the issues activists raise but they then either engage in no action to support these promises, or they engage in action which is similar to putting a sticking plaster on a gaping wound.

Strategies that enable (or force) leaders to encounter and engage with difference can be helpful here. Shadow boards, employee networks and reverse mentoring are becoming increasingly popular however having doesn’t mean they are listened to, so key questions for leaders are:

· How do you engage with being challenged? Do you see it as an opportunity to learn or a risk to your authority?

· How safe do you feel ‘not knowing’?

· How willing are you to be influenced on key issues and share decision-making?

· What wider social and environmental issues in the world do you care about? Are you an activist? If so, why? If not, why not?

Our report also examines the traps activists experience. Challenging norms in organizations is often risky and exhausting business. We are struck by just how many activist employees have, at some point, suffered burnout, no longer able to continue to struggle, every day, to be heard. Many explain the dangers of being labeled ‘trouble maker’ with some being passed over for promotion – or even forced to leave altogether.

Activists face a choice in how they seek change; they can be radical and openly and dramatically challenge such as in a walkout or telling their stories to the media. Or they might temper their action, seeking to question more subtly, operating within the cultural norms, whilst nevertheless challenging them.

Both leaders and activists (and of course there are activist leaders) choose their response according to a number of influences which we also outline in our report, using the mnemonic ‘ACTIF’:

  • Authority: how much power and status do I/we have in the system and how is power exercised (power with others, or power over others)?

  • Concern: how much is this issue concerning me/concerning stakeholders?

  • Theory of change: how do I perceive change happens? Using force? Within cultural norms? And is the organization bound intimately with change that is occurring in society or can and does it operate separately so that I/we can control what we pay attention to and how we act?

  • Identity: do I see myself as an activist? Do I/we see this organization as making the rules or taking them? What do I/we stand for?

  • Field: What is happening in our industry / our country / our society that we will need to respond to? What ‘movements’ are gaining ground or losing ground?

If we are indeed entering an age of employee activism, we must all ask ourselves what is it that we are prepared to take a stand for? And then, how far are we willing to go to influence others?

Organizations will be unable to step out of national and global debates in the way that they used to but engaging in them requires dialogic skills: the ability to mediate, listen, empathize, inquire. This represents a significant change in emphasis from the once-lauded leadership capacities of the heroic leader who was singularly in charge, inspirational, visionary, and could and should make the decisions whilst all others followed.

How prepared are you/your leaders?

Megan Reitz is a Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Hult International Business School and author of the recently published white paper ‘The do’s and don’ts of employee activism’. She is on the Thinkers50 radar of global business thinkers and is ranked in HR Magazine’s Most Influential Thinkers listing.

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