RESEARCH
  • Managing people

Embracing Employee Activism

Hult Ashridge’s Megan Reitz and John Higgins identify the do’s and don’ts in harnessing activist sentiment to achieve good organizational outcomes

 

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Companies spend considerable energy and resource on maintaining their corporate reputation―aiming to protect and enhance their brands. The idea they should allow the mixed and multiple voices of employee activists to contaminate the corporate message can be anathema―the CEO’s nightmare. But, as our research suggests, employee activism is here to stay, and organizations need to address this perception of the ‘nightmare’―and help engage with it to achieve positive outcomes.

Today’s well-educated, informed, and social media savvy employees are often deeply concerned about the enormous societal and environmental challenges of our times, and are increasingly unlikely to tow the corporate line if it goes against their better judgement. With employee activism becoming a defining feature of the mid-twenty-first century workplace, business leaders can no longer avoid or superficially engage with contentious social and planetary issues.

Far from simply being a nightmare, activism speaks to a rich vein of energy and creativity. Embraced intelligently, employee activism can become a positive dynamic in shaping corporate culture, stimulating employee engagement, and supporting a progressive company’s sustainability goals (and the goals of the growing ESG investment community).

The challenge comes in genuinely engaging with activist sentiment, which may require leaders to accept fundamental changes to organizational hierarchy and power structures. It also requires leaders and employees at all levels to engage in a form of unscripted dialogue they may not be used to, that may reveal difficult truths, and require them to expect to have their minds changed.

In our recent research, with our colleague Emma Day-Duro, we, explored the reason why and how employee activism occurs, looking both at ‘productive’ activism―i.e. strategies that can be effective and work for the individual and the organization―and at activist ‘traps’, where individuals can suffer, and actions fail. We also delved into organizational leadership responses to employee activism and how these could be classed as ‘productive’ or as ‘traps’ too―including ‘advantage blindness’ due to living in a privileged ‘optimism bubble’, believing inaction is apolitical, superficial ‘facadism’, or falling victim to ‘cancel culture’.

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Read our full research report: ‘The Do’s and Don’ts of Employee Activism: How Organizations Respond to Voices of Difference’, Megan Reitz, John Higgins, Emma Day-Duro; Hult International Business School; 2021

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Activism is a term that exists in the eye of the beholder and evokes a broad range of positive and negative meaningsas Ruchika Tulshyan put it in our conversation together: “What looks like rebellion to you, might be another’s fundamental human right”. Even as it applies to employees it can range from the tempered action of BBC journalists seeking gender pay parity, to the more radical action of actors resigning and threatening strike action to force the Royal Shakespeare Company to cut its sponsorship ties with oil giant BP.

For this research, we understood employee activism to be “voices of difference that challenge the established status quo as to who gets heard and/or what should be included in the formal organizational agenda.” We examined activist influence and how voices of difference can be heard, how power imbalances can silence employees, and how confident managers, prepared to support agendas which play out over the long term, can engage with activism for the organization’s benefit.

Responding constructively to employee activism is important. Organizations that enable their employees to help guide them will be best able to adapt to the changing external environment. As the world changes―and we are in the midst or enormous social and technological change―organizations need to change as well. Those that fail to reflect the social values and priorities of their workforce and their customers are unlikely to thrive. This fits well with the increasing business focus on stakeholder value, ‘purpose statements’, and ‘integrated reporting’―the move towards measuring company performance against sustainability and societal goals rather than purely on financial profitability.

Not all activist causes need to be embraced. The important thing, as we have discovered in our previous research, is that organizational health and sustainability is greatly enhanced in an environment where employees at all levels are encouraged to ‘speak up’, and managers to ‘listen up’ and take heed. An environment where ‘speaking truth to power’ is expected and leaders know how to listen, is one where a productive dialogue can take place around activist issues and enable a genuinely shared organizational agenda to emerge.

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About the authors

Megan Reitz is Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Hult Ashridge Executive Education, where she speaks, researches, consults and supervises on the intersection of leadership, change, dialogue and mindfulness. Megan is on the Thinkers50 radar of global business thinkers and is ranked in HR Magazine’s Most Influential Thinkers listing. She has written Dialogue in Organizations (2015) and co-authored Mind Time (2018) and Speak Up (2019). She is mother to two wonderful daughters who test her regularly on her powers of mindfulness and dialogue.

John Higgins is a researcher, tutor and coach specialising in how people use and abuse power at all levels in the workplace and society. He is widely published and has written and researched extensively alongside the faculty and students of the Hult Ashridge Executive Doctorate and Masters in Organizational Change.

John’s work is greatly informed by a long-term personal engagement in Jungian psychoanalysis and the experiences of his wife and daughters living in a gendered world. He is Research Director at The Right Conversation and Research Partner at Gameshift.


Hult Ashridge Executive Education helps organizations around the world improve their leadership talent, strategic thinking and organizational culture.



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