Brené Brown: Hi everyone, I’m Brené Brown and this is Dare to Lead. Very interesting conversation for us today. I’m talking with Megan Reitz, a professor of leadership and dialogue, and John Higgins, an independent researcher, coach, consultant, and author. They’ve published several articles together, including the one that we’re going to talk about today, which is “Leading in an Age of Employee Activism.” It’s an article that I came across in the MIT Sloan Management Review. I thought it was so interesting. And as an employer and an activist, my entire team is filled with organizers and activists, this is a really big issue, and mercifully, it’s not going away. Unfortunately, not a lot of leaders have the skills to lean into it and lead through it, and a lot of organizations are, how do you say, not walking the talk and leveraging kind of the goodwill of some really important movements, but not doing the work internally. And so we’re going to talk about that today. It’s such a compelling conversation. I’m glad you’re with us.
BB: Before we jump into the conversation, let me tell you a little bit about our guests. Megan Reitz is a professor of leadership and dialogue at Hult International Business School. She is on the Thinkers50 ranking of global business thinkers, where her work with John Higgins on activism was recently shortlisted as one of the year’s breakthrough ideas, and is ranked in HR Magazine‘s Most Influential Thinkers listing. Her recent books are Dialogue in Organizations: Developing Relational Leadership which draws on her doctoral thesis: Mind Time. And her most recent book is actually with John called Speak Up: Say What Needs to Be Said and Hear What Needs to Be Heard, which was short-listed for the CMI Management Book of the Year.
BB: John Higgins is a researcher into the use and abuse of power in the workplace, woo-hoo-hoo, and how it shapes who has a voice and who gets silenced. He’s worked alongside Megan since 2013 or so, exploring the realities of how truth gets spoken to power and what leaders can do to create and sustain speak-up, listen-up cultures. God, I love that. Speak-up, listen-up. Really, for the past several years, they’ve been working together to really try to understand what people mean by activism and how it plays out in the workplace. Alongside with Megan, he’s co-authored a number of books, including The Change Doctors: Reimagining Organizational Practice. His most recent piece is Leadership Unraveled: The Faulty Thinking Behind Modern Management, and he wrote this with Mark Cole. Oh my God, listen to this great title, his latest research with Mark has the working title, The Great Unheard. It takes a look at what it takes for those who find themselves marginalized by mainstream habits, to have a meaningful presence. Let’s jump in.
BB: So, Megan and John, welcome to the Dare to Lead Podcast. I am very excited that y’all are joining us from the UK.
Megan Reitz: We are extremely delighted and excited to be joining you from the UK, Brené.
John Higgins: It’s lovely to be here.
BB: Okay, so I came across this article in the MIT Sloan Management Review. The title of the article is “Leading in an Age of Employee Activism.” And, oh my God, every company I’m working with right now, this is the question, this is coming up every time I do work inside of an organization. So, I want to start with this… I want to understand more about this. This is part of a bigger project that y’all have been working on about the experience of speaking truth to power. Is that correct?
MR: That’s correct, yeah. We’ve been working together for years now, John, haven’t we, about eight, nine years, something like that.
JH: So, 2014 is when the Truth to Power Project really started.
MR: Yeah, exactly. So, we’ve been looking at and examining what we call conversational habits, like who says what and what doesn’t get said, and who gets heard and who doesn’t get heard, and how do those habits that we all have as individuals and in our teams and in our organizations, how do they service, how do they get in the way, and how do we speak up in systems of power? So, both John and I have a great deal of interest in how power is constructed, how we understand status and authority, and how that then impacts our habits around what gets said and who gets heard.
BB: This is so interesting, so the context for your work for these past eight or nine years has been organizational, what’s happening inside organizations for the most part?
JH: Almost completely, I mean, that’s where… Our focus has really been on workplace experience; how can people make a difference and make sense of what’s going on there. Because quite early on in our work on that, in 2015, the VW emissions scandal hit the thing, and so it moved… The corporate agenda suddenly crashed into the wider political agenda. We sort of… Had some sort of perverse pleasure. While everybody else is saying, “The auto industry is poisoning people,” we’re going “Yeah, great! What a wonderful example!” But I think, more importantly, the shift that we had was, by and large, people thought about speaking up in terms of whistleblowing. And a lot of our work, and this is where Megan’s stuff about the conversational habits, is to try and shift from this quite legalistic, and let’s focus on the least powerful people in the system, who are usually the whistleblowers, bearing all the responsibility for raising the tricky topics. And so we actually wrote one article together recently, which is called “If Whistleblowing is the Answer, Ask a Better Question.” And we are actually trying to get people to shift this away into a more systemic perspective rather than just focusing on heroic or non-heroic individuals.
BB: Ooh, let me tell you two things I want to say. One, that shift that you’re talking about reminds me of a quote from James Clear: “We do not rise to the level of our goals. We fall to the level of our systems,” which I think is really true when it comes to speaking truth to power. The other thing I want to do, just for people listening, can you just say a word or two about what the VW, the Volkswagen scandal was for people that are not familiar with it, they’ll have that context?
JH: Well, it was the idea that… It unraveled over time, but VW had found a way of evading the tests on whether their emissions given out by the cars was always not complying with legal requirements. And what happened was that they had a clever bit of software that could tell when the car was being in evaluation mode, and it suddenly got into then producing very low emissions. And when you began to dig into it, it got really interesting. What was the system that was going on there? And one of the stories that was out, was that someone at a very senior level in VW said, “Look, we want to launch this particular new engine. We want to hit this deadline,” and some poor software engineer was just told, “Just make this problem. Fix it.” And the problem was actually quite a fundamental one to do with the engine, and they found a way of gaming the system. And that’s what you find more and more is that people get encouraged to game the system because that’s easier than actually paying attention to the underlying problem. In this case, there was a problem with the emissions rate associated with this engine.
MR: What we found Brené, is when you look at the front page of the newspapers and you see organizations on the front page of the newspapers for all the wrong reasons, it’s usually the case that somebody knew something but didn’t speak up, or somebody did speak up and they weren’t heard. And I think VW really hit home because they were put on a pedestal. And for a moment there we had a lot of organizations that we were working with in shock going, “Oh my goodness, what’s going on in my organization?” But as John said, there was an initial real interest in the kind of compliance issues. Let’s get people to speak up if there’s problems out there, otherwise they’re going to bring down our organization. But of course, it’s much bigger territory than that.
MR: So, if you haven’t got people speaking up with ideas in your business, and you haven’t got people challenging or offering different perspectives, there’s no hope for innovation or agility. And of course, if you haven’t got people speaking up, you’ve got no inclusivity as well, which is a major focus over the last couple of years. And what we’ve found is one massive mistake that’s happening, is that we’ve got leaders who are out there and they’re making these fabulous invitations, well, stroke commands. They’re saying, “Speak up, everybody. Bring your whole selves to work.” We need that. And right at the beginning of our project, we were working with a leader that wanted people to speak up, and he knocked on our door and he said, “Megan and John, got a bit of a problem. We’ve asked everybody to speak up and they, over there, they are not speaking up. Can you go and kind of make them speak up, please?”
BB: Nudge them, yeah.
MR: Nudge them, yeah. “Do what you need to do, they need to speak up.” And so off we went, and we spoke to they, and the very first quote we gathered in our research pretty much was what we were told straight off from they, and that quote was, “Last time somebody spoke up around here, they disappeared.” [laughter] And so of course, immediately…
BB: It’s not funny, but it’s funny.
MR: Immediately, you realize, “Okay, speaking up and listening up is relational.” In a wonderful interview I just had with Iain Wilkie, who is chair of an organization called 50 Million Voices, which looks to transform the opportunities of the 50 million people of working age that stutter, he said in his interview with me, he said, “How you show up affects my voice.”
BB: That’s right.
MR: And so, although our work is around speaking up, actually what John and I really explore in a lot of detail is how do you create the environment? How do you listen up? How do you show up in a way that others can find their voice? And if they can’t find their voice, maybe should we just look at ourselves and figure out, “Well, what am I doing that means that this person’s voice is not coming?” And I think that’s still one of the biggest issues we have, linking it to activism. Of course, again, now we’ve got leaders going, “Speak up. Bring your whole selves to work,” and then we’ve got some employees listening to that invitation and they’re saying, “Oh, okay then, I will speak up. Let’s talk about climate change. Let’s talk about gender and race equity. Let’s talk about sexual harassment. Let’s talk about modern slavery. Let’s talk about executive pay.” [chuckle]
MR: And you’ve got leaders who are sort of going, “Oh, hell. When I said speak up, I kind of didn’t really mean that.” But we’re opening up a much wider territory with these invitations that we’re giving.
BB: It’s so funny, because I was a union organizer for a while. It seems like a different life. But in my wild path to where I am now, and I remember someone asking the question, “Was it hard to give voice to the voiceless?” and I said, “No, there are no voiceless. The problem is finding ears for the ear-less.”
BB: That’s the challenge, is the ears for the ear-less.
BB: Okay, John, I cut you off. So, tell me what you were going to say, I’m curious.
JH: No, no, I’m now bowled over. I love the ears for the ear-less. But this whole thing of the dynamic of who’s listening and who’s speaking, and I was just reminded of one of the people we interviewed early on which was just on the Truth to Power work, was a lay Benedictine Monk, which is a particular Christian order based in about the 14th century. It was the Rule of St. Benedict. And this guy ran a headhunting firm based in the city of London, so this is a pretty hardcore operation. But his idea was, he ran his business by the Rule of St. Benedict. And in the Rule of St. Benedict, you always listen to the youngest monk in the monastery.
JH: And he said, “You always therefore go to where that youngest monk is most comfortable.” And so, one of this whole notion of when you’re wanting to listen up rather than thinking me as a senior person, “Where am I going to feel comfortable?” We’ve written a piece recently about, well, some years ago about, “My door is always open,” and what a loaded phrase that is. But that whole sense of, “Actually, I need to think about where other people are going to feel comfortable, rather than sitting there in my executive suite and wait for people to knock on my door.”
BB: There’s just nothing bad about the Benedictines, I’m going to say that right now. The only part that I don’t like is we have to be nice to people knocking on our door, and as an introvert, I’m always like, “Oh,” but you fail me there, St. Benedict. Alright. I want to read some quotes. Let’s jump into this article. This is… Look, I’m a CEO and an activist, and this shit is hard for me. So I can’t imagine… And I’m very out with my political opinions and, “What the hell’s going on at the border?” and, “What about gun reform?” So, this is tricky. Here’s what you write in the article. “We are entering an age of employee activism that may well upend our assumptions about power within organizations. Over half of the 1500 employees we surveyed said they usually or always speak up to influence organizational action on wider societal or environmental issues. In a 2019 survey by the global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, over 80% of companies predicted a rise in workforce activism.” Do you see it everywhere? Are you working with global companies?
MR: Yeah, we work across the globe. I think it’s fair to say that there are some industries in some parts of the world that are seeing this more than others. And the US and tech industry in particular, I think has really been faced with employee activism in a different way than organizations in other parts of the world and in different industries. But in pretty much every industry, and we have worked with I think, pretty much every industry, there are signs that employees now are much more willing to speak up, and there are multiple reasons for that. We have obviously access to technology and social media, that means that people can speak up collectively now. And when you can speak up collectively, the felt risk goes down generally. So social media and technology has helped voice, it’s helped that organizations haven’t just faced pressure from employees, they face it from their other stakeholders, and there’s significant pressure from investors around ESG goals. And so, organizations have, and leaders have tended to start to make commitments on things like gender equity, race equity, climate change, and most organizations have felt like they really need to make commitments and statements in some of those areas, and employees won’t forget it.
MR: So, we’ve got employees and other stakeholders saying, “Hang on a second. You said you’re doing this, but we haven’t seen the action.” And that I think as well has led more employees to challenge and they’re willing to leave their jobs if their organizations and their leaders aren’t kind of true to some of the commitments that they’re starting to make. And that’s why we say it’s a kind of power shift. Leaders, I think very traditionally in the past, leaders… Good leadership has all been about knowing the solution to things, telling employees what to do and in a defined area of business, and then employees go off and do it. And that has shifted. Leaders now don’t know the answer to many of these, as we call them, wicked problems. They don’t know the answer. They’ve got employees that aren’t willing to just toe the line. They will speak up. And so it’s fascinating for researchers like John and I to explore, “Well, what’s going on with power?” Because power and status and authority really influence the voices that get heard in organizations, and that’s where we’re seeing things really shift.
JH: Can I just comment saying, there was one slight nuance on that, is on the geography side, is that actually employee activism, say, in China is not quite such a thing. In particular, I remember we had one of our culture inquiry groups, we had someone from Singapore, and again, activism was not a word that they would remotely ever use or want to have associated with. And I think, if I got it right, Megan, you were once interviewing someone in Hong Kong who suddenly said, “I cannot continue this conversation,” because again, the surveillance culture is very extreme over there. So that particular rub needs to be taken into consideration. And I’m just thinking about recent things that have happened with, I can’t remember his name now though, a very senior US banker making a statement about, that his bank was going to last longer than the Chinese Communist Party, and then the next day him making a public apology, because again, it’s that we forget that we use a language that plays well in the Global North, and activism, I think, is very much a Global North phenomena, and we forget just how influential things over in China and Russia are at the moment.
BB: So, I have a couple of questions that I want to set before we dig into some of these things. These are the questions I had reading this as an activist and as a leader, who’s leading, thank God, a team of… I don’t think there’s anyone on our team that doesn’t have activism work, which is great, employee activism as a bucket, does it include, “I want to know what you’re doing about this pressing issue.” Does it include also accountability. “Boy, you were quick to jump on that Black Lives Matter co-branding logo but let me look at the stats here in our company around representation, promotion.” Does employee activism include, “I’d like to have time off to go do this, and I’ll make it up somewhere here?” What all’s in the bucket, or what is the definition of employee activism? Okay, y’all can’t see John, but he’s laughing.
JH: [laughter] Megan, do you want to jump in there and then you’d move on to the taxonomy of our six types?
MR: Oh yeah, so this is one of the most interesting questions, Brené, was to ask thousands of people when I say the word activist, what comes to mind? What images? And this is something that really does vary across the world, and activism brings all sorts of things to people’s minds, and in fact, this is one of the things that we advise leaders think about, first of all, it’s like, “Okay, as a leader just pause a second, when I say the word activist, what happens?” And what we find is that some people go, “Okay, really positive change, dynamic, influence, courage,” got all these positive words. And then what you’ll find that some people do is like, “Protest, violence,” it’s got very negative connotations.
JH: My favorite is Marxist is in here.
MR: Yeah. We’ve had all sorts of things. And it’s actually really important for people to just pause, first of all, in this conversation on activism and say, “Okay, this word means so many things to different people.” And of course, there isn’t a definition that everybody’s agreed on. Something that we came up in our research is we describe employee activism as voices of difference that seeks to influence organizations on wider social and environmental issues.
BB: Okay wait, can you say that again?
MR: Yeah, I’ll say that again.
BB: Tell me how you define it. It’s really good.
MR: [laughter] So we define it as voices of difference that seek to influence an organization, their organization, on wider social and environmental issues, and actually the extra bit of that is, and they are disrupting the status quo. They are disrupting power in the way that they’re doing that. And the other thing I would bring in here, which we might refer to a bit later as well, because I love this, you may have heard of Debra Meyerson and Maureen Scully, they’re two academics, they, back in the ’90s, wrote wonderful work on a concept that’s called tempered radicalism. And they talk about change in organizations, and they say, “Well look, you can be radical.” And to put it in our language as activists, “As activists, you can go in your organization and you can try and be really radical.” So maybe you’ll go out and protest, maybe you’ll do something quite explosive.
MR: Now, the problem is, is if you’re so radical, the system that you’re in might actually spit you out and you’re may be less able to influence, so what we sometimes do when we’re sometimes seeking change is we temper it, so we seek to… Okay, pull back and we act in ways that challenge, but not so much that we get kicked out of the system altogether, and in terms of your question around, “Does this count as activism? Does this count as activism?” Well, everything on that scale counts as activism. And if you are an activist, what you’ve got to watch and what you’ve got a choice around actually, is how radical do I want to be here or do I need to be? If I’m too radical, I might not last. But on the other hand, if I’m too tempered and my radicalism is, “Oh, by the way, I was just wondering have you heard of climate change?” That might make absolutely no difference in the system whatsoever, and so I think we’ve talked to activists that are all along that spectrum and cover all sorts of issues but there really isn’t a single definition, there’s no right definition, but what you do need to do as a leadership team in particular, is you need to ask one another, “What’s our definition and what judgements and assumptions do we hold when we come to this topic?” Because of course, that will color our response.
BB: Why interrogate? Why do we have to interrogate ourselves as leaders around what our gut reaction is to activism?
JH: So, it ties us back to your… If you haven’t got ears.
JH: So, it’s this idea of not owning the definition. And let’s say I as a leadership group, I’m drawing on some work by some people, Smith and Berg wrote a really snappy paper called “A Paradoxical Conception of Group Dynamics.” Just flew off the shelves. [laughter] You can’t stop people reading it. But it actually said a really important point, which is in any group, people get recruited into it for their difference. So, if I’m an executive team, I’ve read the news, we read about the Me Too Movement, the Black Lives Matter Movement, I’d better find somebody who’s well versed in that. So, I invite that different voice into the group. Now, the trouble is that in group dynamics point of terms, in order for that person to stay in the group, to stay credible in the eyes of that executive team who have not questioned their definition of activism or anything, I have to dial it down, I have to in fact, go native, and that’s the whole point, is that unless the group pays attention to its definition and that it has to do work in order to accommodate this voice of difference, you don’t get anywhere.
BB: Jesus, I see this all the time. Oh my God, literally, I see this all the time, and that’s why I love being external when I do organizational work, because I’m like, “This is why you brought me. I don’t understand why you’re wanting me to tamp it down a little bit.” Let me read a couple of examples to you that I thought were so interesting, and then I have a question for you and I want to get to your taxonomy and I love… Let me just take a pause and say, I love, “Hey, leaders, a little self-awareness here, interrogate your own reaction to activism before you respond.” Understand what it means to you, so you can understand how you’re showing up in these conversations. It’s so smart. So, a couple of things, these are examples from your article, in 2020, Brian Armstrong, the CEO of cryptocurrency trading platform, Coinbase, wrote in a blog post, this is the quote, “I want Coinbase to be laser-focused on achieving its mission. We don’t engage here when issues are unrelated to our core mission.” He suggested that employees who wish to be activism-focused and wanted the company to be that might be better off elsewhere. 60 people quit. Basecamp, April 2021, CEO, Jason… Is it Fried?
BB: Yeah, wrote to employees that there would be quote, “No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account.” Explaining that quote, “It became too much. It’s a major distraction.” This prompted an enormous backlash and roughly a third of Basecamp’s employees quit. [chuckle] I’m not making any assumptions about who quit, that’s just a hard stop, an, “Oh wow, holy shit, these people are not messing around,” but let me ask a question related. Tell me about the millennials.
MR: Well, the millennials make up most of the workforce, and what we know about millennials is that they are more likely to hold their organizations to account on the topic of wider purpose, and that’s nothing compared to the Gen Z’s that are following them and the Gen Z’s are even more likely to expect organizations to pay a more participatory role in wider social and environmental issues. And let’s face it, the Gen Z’s are the ones that are going to have to clean up some of the mess that’s happening at the moment, so of course they’re there going, “What do you mean we’re not talking about climate change here? How can you be running a business and not be engaged in climate change and not think that that is part of our role and responsibility?” So, there is a generational shift that comes along with the social and environmental issues that we are now facing.
MR: So, it’s certainly a change, and of course, for some perhaps older managers and leaders, this is quite a turn. They didn’t go to business school and learn about gender and race equity and climate change, they learned about shareholder value. And sometimes we have leaders that feel quite un-practiced in conversations around this wider area. And actually we’re asking a lot of managers and leaders in many ways to be able to respond to some of these questions, but one thing that we mentioned earlier is rather than the leader thinking, “Oh God, I’ve got to have a solution here. I’ve got to decide what to do.” There is a need to lean forward and be able to say, “This is a really wicked problem. I don’t know, Let’s get around the table and let’s just… Can we just share information and start understanding what we’re facing here?” But as I said, that’s a counter-intuitive response, and that comes into the taxonomy that we’ve also written about in the article.
JH: There’s one of the… I had got into a really interesting conversation with an old school friend who is terribly senior in one these big global consulting firms. And so he’s a Brit, and he was trying to make sense of what was playing out in the Black Lives Matter Movement in the States, and how that was playing out then within the corporate agenda that he was experiencing, and he found himself, because again, he’s not as literate in the political sensitivities and linguistic sensitivities, he took me to one side and said, “Look, I can’t talk to any of my colleagues about this, because I know I will be clumsy.” And again, that’s one of those… We got the silencing of senior executives who, one because they think they should be expert, and should know the answer, and the other one is they’re being invited into something where they know that they don’t have the language or the felt skill about how to even begin to embrace or talk about some extraordinarily sensitive issues that if you get wrong, you’ll have the living daylights trolled out of you.
BB: But let me ask you this question, do we not believe that good leadership is about being a learner, not a knower? You’re smiling, John, you have to answer it, now you’re… I wish y’all could see John, again, he’s laughing and now he’s not only laughing, but he’s taking a very deep breath, [inhales] that kind of breath, but don’t we think about leaders as learners, not knowers?
JH: We’re into this espoused versus actual divide. We have this thing that the learning organization, for instance, have be knocking around for what, 30, 40 years?
BB: 30 years at least, yeah.
JH: And it lives for about a nanosecond in any organization I’ve ever come across, it just has a brief flowering and then goes away. That, in terms of what it takes to learn, this is what makes this all such a tricky subject is, this is about fundamental mental constructs. This is about deep held assumptions about how the world works, and I’d say that most of the leadership learning that is encouraged is in the Vlaklovich stuff is Type 1 versus Type 2. So Type 1 change, Type 1 learning is the stuff that fits within my established world order which is, it’s got to be represented, it’s got to have a bottom line impact, I’ve got to be able to work out a causal connection. The nice thing with the Vlaklovich stuff was the identified Type 2 change, which is Type 2 learning, which is the stuff that doesn’t make any sense. And it’s like, this is why the diversity and inclusion stuff is so challenging for so many executives, which is… I’ve suddenly got to learn the language of sociology; I’ve suddenly got to become properly psychologically literate. I’ve suddenly got to engage with things like class conflict, for instance.
JH: Now, these are things that I’ve never encountered before, and I don’t even know how to learn about them, because in many ways, I’ve almost got pre-conditioned, like you’re always in the film The Matrix, which is, learning is a technical activity that it just can be downloaded, and if you think that learning is actually something that happens in relationship, the lovely Joyce Fletcher work about growth-in-connection stuff, if you think that learning is a social activity, rather than something that is individual skills, I think for a lot of executives, that’s a huge shift, I don’t know, Megan, have I… Sort of completely gone off on one there?
BB: Wait, I want to pause for a second and I am dying to hear what you have to say Megan, I want to think about this for a second.
BB: I guess what I’m wondering right now is, is it about acquiring a sociology language or a deeper psychological understanding or a sociopolitical grasp on class, or is the pain point about learning new things that leaders have not had exposure to? This is where I might challenge a little bit, or is it about… Unlearning assumptions that prevent us from seeing the humanity in other people, in any transactional relationship around these hard issues, if you get caught using the wrong word or the wrong turn of phrase, you could pay miserably, but in real relational transformational relationships between leaders and folks, isn’t what’s really scary for leaders is kind of the shame of privilege or the guilt about not knowing? I just think as an emotions researcher, when I go into organizations, what I see a lot, is your activism is something that if I dig in and acknowledge it, I’m going to be faced with grief, I’m going to be faced with guilt, I’m going to be faced with things I don’t want to feel. I don’t know.
MR: Yeah, I agree. I think some of these issues open up areas where that shame and that guilt definitely exist. I think what we need… Part of what we need is a leader to have a kind of insatiable curiosity, a knowledge, a knowledge that their perspective on the world is their perspective on the world. And rather than panic about that, feel, “Oh my goodness, so what don’t I know? What is it that I can’t see? And how can I go and find that out?” But it’s so easy to say, Brené, I think what you’re getting at is the courage that’s involved in being able to open up territory and to know that… Admit you don’t know, but also go into territory, which may bring up all sorts of challenges and impossibilities as well. So, we can talk about listening so easily, the doing of it, the authentically doing of it, is an entirely different matter.
BB: That’s interesting, John, what do you think? That’s really interesting.
JH: It is, I think the shame, it was a thing. And actually, I was just remembering a guy called Ben Fuchs, who we did some work on advantage blindness with. And he told us this great story of some global senior executive who went on these things, and he said, “Okay, what are all the attributes that give you advantage that have nothing to do with your professional competence?” And it was all to do with great things like height, gender, ethnicity, what university you went to. One of the things that gave advantage was, did you have a stay-at-home wife, which meant that you could move around the globe and she would… Normally, she would take care of all those sort of domestic things, and he went and joined in this particular know your advantage blindness stuff, and he lined up with everybody else, and at the end of the exercise, he was at one end of the room, because he’d taken a step forward every time when you had something that gave you an advantage and everybody else was behind him. And Ben told the story that six months later, the guy phoned him up and said, “That was the most shameful thing I’ve really experienced,” because up until then, he had thought that everything he had achieved had been solely down to his own efforts, and certainly he worked hard, he was ambitious, he was bright, but it was a real shocker for him to realize quite how much of a head start he had, and it had nothing to do with his hard work or anything like that.
BB: Take us… And just as a qualitative researcher, I was like, “Damn, I nerded out on this… This was so good!” The six ways that companies respond to employee activism… So, number one: “Activism? What activism?”
MR: So, this is the first time that we looked at the responses that leaders and organizations seem to have had to employee activist voices, and as you say, we identified six kind of categories. The first is non-existent. So I, for example, was interviewing a chief executive from a big, quite a big organization in Europe, and I asked him about activism, I asked him about where was the organization on things like Black Lives Matter, climate change, and I was astounded because he looked utterly baffled. [chuckle] And this was about a year ago, this wasn’t very long ago. And he was like, “Well, you know, it’s just not when… Well, we’re not really… ” It honestly just wasn’t on the agenda, so it’s kind of “What activism?” It’s not here, it’s just what? Why would it be? So that exists, believe it or not.
BB: So, one is non-existent, so “What activism?” made me laugh, I don’t know why that made me laugh. I love qualitative. I love thematic analysis where it’s named and then parenthetically, there’s an example of what it sounds like, that’s like my favorite qualitative trick. Number two, suppression, expel it before it spreads.
MR: Yeah, and this is really interesting. There’s the kind of very obvious suppression. “We’re not going to talk about this, you’re not allowed to talk about this. We are focused on our business mission and anything else we won’t speak about.” And then there’s this sort of suppression that happens through avoidance or through, this is really uncomfortable, or through, actually, “We have a feeling if we speak up about this, we’re going to be labeled the troublemaker.” It’s that vibe you get in so many organizations that suppresses and silences, whether it’s meant to or whether it’s inadvertent. So, suppression is a fairly big category.
BB: Yeah, and you know, whether it’s overt or covert. As an employee, when your livelihood depends on it, you know, yeah, you know. Number three, I’ve never even heard of this word before, at first I thought it said fascism. I was like, “Oh, yes.” I was so excited, I was like, “We are going there.” But is it facadism?
BB: Putting up a facade?
MR: Yeah, you haven’t heard the word because we made it up. [laughter]
BB: Damn it, I love that too. Y’all are after my own… This is like, these are my people right here. Facadism, let’s just say the right thing. The next is defense engagement.
BB: Pisses me off.
MR: So facadism is, something that we’re hearing a lot about is, we say the right things, but there’s no actual action, so it’s a facade, and that’s where organizations have been called out quite a lot at the moment, and lots of organizations called out around Black Lives Matter.
JH: There was an interesting one actually just happened during the Olympics, which was… I was listening to an interview with a CEO of a manufacturer of snowboards. And on the company website, the company said “More than a business.” So the good solid interviewer then said, “So how come you’re snowboarding in the Uyghur area? What’s the company’s stand on the imprisonment and slave labor of Uyghurs?” And you could see the poor guy had no idea, because obviously someone had popped it on to the website and said, “Look, this sounds good.” But he was then going, “Well, we’re a business.” And he said, “But your website says, ‘We’re more than a business.'”
BB: Man, let me just tell you this. This is where I tell people all the time when I’m working with companies and they’re like, “Oh man, we are into the vulnerability thing.” I’m like, “You’ve got to be really careful, because the fastest thing to bite you in the ass is kind of this faux vulnerability.” No one likes a liar. If you’re not going to care, we respect you more if you just say, “Look, we don’t give a shit about that kind of stuff, we’re looking at market cap, we’re looking at our investor call, we don’t give a shit.” We respect that more than… What does that tag line mean exactly? Oh, what tagline. Facadism, I’m going to start using it, I will send you a quarter every time I quote you on it.
MR: [laughter] Yeah, and again, Brené, there’s a purposeful facadism. There’s genuinely, we’re just going to say it, but we’re not going to do anything, and then we’re going to say it and we kind of mean it. But you know what? We just don’t get around to doing anything about it. There’s that sort of facadism as well, which again, is being called out.
BB: And that gets tricky too, because that facadism can be very difficult. So I had this incredible conversation with Aiko Bethea, who is a facilitator in our work and does a lot of work at the intersection of kind of daring leadership plus belonging equity representation, and she didn’t use the term facadism because… She will next week, because I’ll introduce it, but she said when you have things like employee groups like ERGs, but the time that people spend dedicated to leading those is not compensated. So that’s facadism to me in a big way. If you say you value something and the currency of the realm around how you value or not value something is money, then I expect to see resources dedicated to it, I expect time to be given to it, so facadism is sneaky, or can be.
JH: On that showing dedication on money. We came across a real… I don’t know if you come across a fascinating operation called One Young World, which is a global outfit, they’re all under 30, and it’s people who want to have a corporate career and want to be activists, and we just heard too many stories from them, of companies saying, “Yeah, we’re going to promote people who take on board these activist things.” And then actually when the rubber hits the road, the people who get the promotions or everything are the ones who stick to the knitting and just deliver on the numbers.
BB: Stick to the knitting.
JH: It’s a fascinating organization, they are trying to push against the facadism, and that’s the generational stuff kicking in as well.
BB: I have a 22-year-old and a 16-year-old, so I’m knee-deep in Gen Z, and I just cannot wait until I’m driving like a Winnebago around visiting grandkids and watching them change everything. Okay, I want to get to these because I want to have time to get through your framework. Defense engagement, what do the lawyers say? Which is, you write here, “Leaders undertake the bear minimum of activities such as training and DEI and reporting on diversity numbers.” This is the legalistic… John, you made a reference to this before, kind of like boo. Dialogic engagement, let’s sit down, talk, and learn. I’m warming up to these as we get higher in the numbers. So dialogic, here’s what you write “Leaders recognize that their perspective is incomplete and seek out different views and experiences from employees throughout their organization, decisions on social issues are made collectively with employees.” I love that.
MR: So there’s a big step change that’s where the step change happens between this defensive engagement and then dialogic engagement, there’s a real one… It suddenly it becomes more proactive, it becomes actually… Stop a second. Let’s really… I’m now really interested, let’s get together, let’s learn, there’s stuff to be learned and shared here, let’s share some of that information and let’s actually, in many cases, share decision-making, in other words, what are we going to do about this? Let’s decide. And we’re doing quite a lot of research, and how do you create spaces in… So I don’t just mean physical spaces, I mean spaces inside organizations where those sorts of conversations happen. Because those are the conversations that get squeezed out in our busy-ness and our seeking to kind of get to the solution really, really quickly. So that’s kind of around dialogue.
BB: I love that. And the last one, how does that lead to stimulating activism? This is a big one. “Let’s be the activist.” Now, when you say that…
BB: I think of Ben & Jerry’s, who y’all mentioned in the article. But is there something that’s not as Ben & Jerry’s as Ben & Jerry’s? Are there any examples? I mean Patagonia… Who else?
MR: Those two are the poster organizations for stimulating activism, and we come across kind of teams or particular individuals that are stimulating activism, but those two are the ones that often come to mind, and this is where their identity, the organizational identity and the identity of people in leadership roles, is as activists, it’s sort of proudly worn and they show it by what’s going on in their organization, so they’re promoting activists, they’re recruiting activists, they’re keeping activists. And as we put in the article, they’re sometimes paying the bail for activists, and it’s not that we’re saying with the taxonomy that you’re supposed to get…
MR: To that stage, I think that’s important to say. It’s important for organizations to kind of take a pause and say, “Actually, what is that? What are we actually doing? And where should we be here?” And can I make one really important point on this, Brené? If you ask the more senior people in an organization, “What’s your organizational response to activism?” Guess what? They tend to be rather more optimistic than if you ask junior members of an organization, so in other words… The more senior you get, the more likely you are to say, “We’re in dialogue. And even we stimulate activism,” whereas when you tend to ask more junior people, they kind of look at you and go, “Call that dialogue? That’s not dialogue.”
MR: And that brings up one major area in our research, which is… We call it the optimism bubble, as you get more senior, you think people are speaking up, you think that you’re approachable more than they are and more than you are, so you underestimate the unspoken challenges and differences that are out there, that’s kind of a big issue. It’s a big issue because leaders think, “You know what, we’re doing alright, we’re in dialogue, so we don’t need to do anything further, we don’t have more work to do here,” and meanwhile that antenna that picks up how the organization, the rest of the organization is, isn’t working. And so, you get this rift, and we’ve seen this with so many organizations we’ve worked with, we’ve got a gap between perspectives, which is a real trap, and one to watch out for.
BB: God, that scares the shit out of me as a leader, I’ve got to tell you for sure. I mean that can really scare me because I want to sink into everything is good, it’s all good… I’m listening, I’m the most listening person. I’m the listening learner, I defy all of the learning things, but I’m in my game.
BB: Okay, I really love this article, and for those of you listening, you’ll want to read it, I will link to it, and it’s really great because you can buy the PDF, it’s a very nominal fee, and you can buy the PDF, I think it’s like seven bucks… I don’t know exactly what MIT Sloan’s revenue mechanism is, but it’s not this article, I can tell you, because it’s inexpensive and accessible. This is the kind of article that would make for an amazing Lunch and Learn. Let’s all read it. Let’s talk about it. We’re going to end with the ACT IF framework. So, this is a framework that you all came up with this together?
BB: Absolutely, okay.
MR: We like our mnemonics [chuckle]
BB: And it identifies the factors that affect personal and organizational responses to employee activism. So it’s ACT IF, A-C-T I-F, authority concerned theory of change, and then IF identity field. Let’s quickly go through because I really try to keep these Dare to Lead kind of short, so people can listen to them on lunches and do them as teamwork, and this is an especially good one that will push out for that reason. So authority.
MR: So the ACT IF framework, actually, you can look at it from the activist perspective and also the kind of response to activism perspective.
BB: Love that.
MR: A stands for authority, so if you’re the activist, one issue to consider is, “How much authority do I have in this system? Where is status and power?” And from a kind of leadership perspective, again, “Where is the authority? Where is power? And how will that power be exercised?” That’s a really important part of it. So if I’m in a situation where I have authority, how will I be using that? And we use a quite well-known concept, which is called power over, which is when you kind of compel others to do things or power with, which is more around, “How do I share voice? How do I use my power to amplify other’s voices as well?” So, our authority and status in a system is a big determinant on whether we’re on how we’ll act as an activist, but also what our response is as well to activism.
BB: So, I love this so much because I’m not talking to anybody else about organizational change or leadership theory that does not have an active understanding of how power works. Anything that doesn’t look at power is bullshit in my mind, just to be honest with you, like power, over, power with, power to, power within. Where is power and how is it used? I love this.
JH: The other important thing and we’re both heavily influenced by the French school of thinking on this with Michel Foucault, and the relationship between power and truth is so important, and we obviously can run a three-day seminar on that, but the whole notion of it. Somehow what people will say, what counts as truth, is somehow separate from power is absolute BS. The point is that power and truth in social settings are completely entwined, and that is why it really matters what senior people say because they are influencing what counts as real around here.
BB: Damn! Boom!
BB: And Foucault like, all in one like, yes.
MR: I knew we wouldn’t get through the conversation without John mentioning Foucault. [laughter]
BB: I would hope not but yeah, Foucault is like the cornerstone of my dissertation like, yes, like truth and power, who defines what’s real here? And then if it’s real for you and it’s not defined as real, it’s crazy making. Okay, C is concern whether the specific issue matters to me, us, or stakeholders, and whether I or we even know whether it matters, there will be more energy for some issues and less for others.
MR: Yeah. So, I like that caveat on that, so concern is what matters to who in our stakeholders, and don’t assume you know. That’s back to that optimism bubble, one of the biggest traps is that we speak to executive teams that think they know what their employees care about. But actually, they’ve just been looking at the pulse survey. [laughter]
BB: Oh my God.
MR: That doesn’t tell what matters.
BB: You have a line in here about the pulse survey and maybe even quoting someone else where you said something like, “Don’t say you’re listening, and then be like, because I read the pulse survey.” Yeah, this is so good. And I’ve been thinking a lot about, in my work, we talk a lot about employees and leaders and values alignment, and I think one of the things that we underestimate is concern alignment. We don’t talk about, “Do my concerns align with the concerns that are getting the space, the time, the funding, the conversation,” like its concern is huge. Do you have more Foucault for us, John?
JH: Well, I was just thinking, it’s interesting you said concern alignment, and part of this is actually, “How do you listen… How do you engage with dissonance?” Because actually, there are very different priorities, these are value clashes, so it’s actually how do we have difference nice, and actually, part of the challenge that I think we really face is the last, again, last 20-30 years, we’re hammering on about alignment in organizations, and all it’s done is push a whole load of the concerns under the radar, and so there’s a whole lot of hidden conflicts, which is there, and what we are now doing, I think, is that this conflict is now becoming visible and there’s a side…
BB: That’s good, right?
JH: Yeah. Because it’s been rutty. I tend to think that if concerns sit there and rot people, it means you’ve got this internal dialogue going on the inside you the whole time, which means that you’re not listening to what else is going on. So at least when things get aired, it means that I’m not having the fight internally, I’m not investing all this energy on keep pretending, doing that job of yeah, “I’m going along with everybody else says,” but actually inside me, I’m saying, “This is BS, this is nonsense, this is nonsense.”
BB: There’s some very serious alignment here with Esther Perel and how marriages work. About that kind of underground conflict that gets worked out in really scary ways. Yeah, just human systems in general, the conflict needs to come up so we’re not ingesting it and metabolizing it in ways that are really, I love this. Alright, let me get to theory of change, you’ve got to have some Foucault for me here. Come on.
JH: Great stuff. So I read a…
MR: Go for it.
JH: We’re not necessarily Foucauldian on that. It’s more of a critique of the Milton Friedman stuff, which is to say, do organizations exist independent of society or are they part of society, and that is people… And I have a very strong view. I don’t understand how an organization can not be seen as part of society, but there is a considerable body of people who do have a belief that an institution… And much economic theory is predicated upon the idea of the company, the institution being basically an independent entity that just operates without external context or external consequence, and that has been the dominant theory, and I think that is what a lot of the activism stuff is beginning to challenge, which is to say, actually ‘Where does an organization begin and end? Where do I as an employee begin and end?”
JH: Because actually, I arrive with all sorts of social experience, all sorts of economic experience, and traditionally we’ve said, “You leave all your baggage at the door as you walk in.” And that’s the theory of change. And that allows people to get into quite an instrumental approach to change, and then they wonder why… Because I’ve instrumentalized you into this thing to fit in with this very narrow-bounded view of what an organization is, then I wonder what’s happened to all your discretionary energy. Because I’ve treated you as an object to be treated as this asocial, ahistorical being. And then we wonder, “Well, you’re now confused because you don’t seem very enthusiastic about this organization.” But you’re saying, “Well, I’m not enthusiastic about it because it’s pretending, that it has no wider social purpose. And you create this ersatz purpose instead, which somehow again, exists outside of complicated political discourse.”
BB: Yeah, it’s that counterfeit purpose that I think is so… Yeah. God, this is so good. Identity.
MR: So identity from an activist perspective, do I regard myself as an activist? Do I wear that label? Am I proud of that label? Interesting, most of the activists we interviewed kind of don’t call themselves “activists.” But we look at them and go, “You’re so an activist.” And they’re like, “Oh no, in order to be an activist, I need to be protesting, or I need to be doing this, that, and the other.” Actually, so what’s called to how you think of yourself? Are you somebody we say in the article? Are you a rule-maker or a rule-taker? Do I fit in? Do I rebel? How do I see myself? And of course, this is also a question for organizations. Do we see our organization as a rule-maker or a rule-taker? Do we stick to generally the rules of the game here, or is our identity á la Ben and Jerry’s, Patagonia? Is our identity around being the kind of rebel or being the participative organization in the world and with some of these issues? So, identity is, again, I can say that really quickly, but it’s a massive question for individuals and organizations to grapple with.
BB: The last one in our ACT IF… In your, not our, I’m just inserting myself. The three of us have been working on this for years. In your ACT IF framework, is field. What has happened or what’s happening globally, locally, and organizationally that’s influencing our agenda and license to operate, whether an issue is prominent in the news, and whether we expect to have to paid attention to activists in the future? So, what is field? Is this vision?
MR: It’s what’s going on in the world, what is going on right now that affects whether we’re going to act or not going to act. From an organizational perspective, the Black Lives Matter movement is a good example following George Floyd, the killing of George Floyd. That was going on in the world. That has to impact many leaders’ choices around “Right. Do we take a stand here or don’t we take a stand?” In different parts of the world, so you’ve got… In South Africa, we’ve interviewed people that obviously have the history of Apartheid, and that, of course has a bearing on whether they make a stand on race equity issues. The reduction of union power in the UK means has an effect on organizations and power structures that mean… That have implications of what we make a stand for and what we think we have to get involved in. So, what is going on in the world and what has been going on in history, of course, affects the choices that we make right now. And similarly, if you are an activist, “What’s going on in my territory right now, and have I got a capacity to act? Do I need to act? Have I got the right opportunity suddenly in front of me to act?” So, what’s happening that affects our choices?
BB: You know, and I think, too… I think if people are listening and thinking, “Yeah look, I lead a small team. I’m not the leader of this multinational corporation that I work for.” I think this ACT IF framework is still important, and I’ll give you an example. The day after George Floyd was murdered, or the first time we were back together as a team, it was the first thing I talked about as the leader. Because what we say here is, “What a leader brings into the room is allowed in the room. What a leader does not bring in the room is not allowed in the room.” And so, whether it’s Breonna Taylor’s murder or it was… If you don’t bring that into the room as a leader, it’s not like you’re, “Oh, I’m not going to bring it up, but I’m happy if someone else… ” It doesn’t work that way. It’s what we bring into a room, especially if there’s a power differential, is what’s allowed in the room. And if it’s another Tuesday at work for you, and that makes me sad, that after that murder it’s another Tuesday at work for you, but if it is, that is. But for the Black people in the room, who are afraid for their children, and who barely got out of bed, and who looked at yet another dead person at the hands of police violence, this is not another Tuesday at work. And so, I don’t want people who are listening to think, “This doesn’t have to do with me.” This has to do with every single one of us. This is huge.
MR: I would really emphasize that Brené, and what we know is that probably the most important thing about whether an employee feels like they can speak up and feels like they’re heard is their direct line manager relationship.
BB: Say that again.
MR: When you ask employees, “Are you able to speak up around here? Do you have a voice? Do people listen?” Yes, of course, it’s important what the top leaders have said in the press. But actually, what it comes down to, how people formulate their response to that question is, “What’s my manager like? Does my manager… Is my manager interested in me and my voice?” That’s how they come to understand whether they can speak up and whether they get heard, and therefore, whether they stay and whether they’re going to contribute ideas, and whether they’re going to speak up with a problem that might bring the organization down. So those line managers listening, it’s a big, big, important role.
BB: Okay. Last word, John, before we get to the music.
JH: It’s actually, it was tying back to the way the issues rise. I was really struck by this thing of, what either the manager or the leader bring into the room, because one of the areas we’ve stumbled into was, for instance, the role of domestic abuse. We went into an organization that had about 4000 people. And they’d suddenly discover, when you look at the stats, how many people are in abusive relationships. I don’t know. It’s somewhere between one in 10, one in 20, but it’s a significant number. So there’s this idea of, “That’s walking in the door every day.” If you’ve got 4000 people, you’ve got tens of people there who are living with the consequences. More worryingly, of course, you’ve got people who are the abusers of these abusive relationships.
BB: Perpetrating. Yeah.
JH: So it’s this idea that, actually, in terms of what’s in the field, you don’t know as a manager, and it can be quite scary. Because suddenly, “Do I have to become a domestic abuse expert?” No, but do I have to realize that, how do I make it okay for people to bring up an issue like domestic abuse, and actually say, “There are going to be days where, quite frankly, I can’t function in the moment because things are really bad at home.”
BB: I talk to teachers about this a lot. The number of millions of kids coming back to school after COVID having lost a parent. We’ve got to bring humanity in the room. Alright, I want to ask each of you one rapid fire question, and then get to your playlist. Okay, you ready? You have to fill in the blank for me. Megan, you’re going first. Fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is?
MR: Vulnerability is surrendering to what it is to be human, and it’s the doorway, actually, to understanding the depth and possibility of human relating. I think.
BB: It’s beautiful. I love it. Okay, John, vulnerability is?
JH: The word butterfly is coming to my mind. It is that sense of butterfly in the stomach, and it’s also that sense of being a butterfly in motion and knowing that, around you, there is the risk that some bugger is going to try and pin you down.
BB: Oh, God, that’s beautiful imagery. Thank you both. Okay. So, I always give you… You can listen to all the old archives; I always give academics this qualifier. I don’t want a run-on sentence here, no semicolons, em dashes. A simple sentence. Megan, you first.
MR: Oh God. Okay.
BB: You gave us five songs you can’t live without. “Santa Maria,” which is the music for the tango in Shall We Dance? Oh my God, we could be best friends. “Amazing Grace,” by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, oh my God. “Waterfalls,” by TLC. I’m smiling. “Imagine,” by John Lennon, and “Dancing in the Street,” by David Bowie and Mick Jagger. In one sentence, what does this playlist say about you?
MR: Can I put lots of punctuation in the sentence?
MR: Well, aside from being very eclectic, there’s all sorts of manners of expression in there, from wonder through to imagination, through to presence, through to sheer passion, and a big theme on dance. And for me, dancing has always played a really important role in my life. It brings me alive, it brings me into this moment. And so that’s the theme there.
BB: I gave you a lot of leeway, but that was worth it. It was so beautiful.
MR: I know. I know you did. Thank you.
BB: Okay, John. “Heroes,” by David Bowie. “Hurt,” by Johnny Cash, you’re just flirting with me now. “I Want You to Want Me,” Letters To Cleo version. “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” again by Joy Division. And “Locomotive Breath,” by Jethro Tull. One sentence, what is this playlist say about you?
JH: The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.
BB: And let me tell you how Foucault that actually is. That is just perfect.
MR: He nailed it. That was a lot more succinct, John, than me.
BB: [inaudible] Jung in the end. It’s so perfect. Thank y’all so much for joining us on Dare to Lead.
MR: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you, Brené.
JH: Thank you.
BB: Thank you. And thank you for your good work, and we’ll have you back.
JH: Oh, yes please.
BB: Look, any conversation that has a mention of Foucault is gold for me. I loved this conversation; I love the thoughtfulness. I do really think we need to think about, is activism really about giving voice to the voiceless, or is the bigger problem ears for the ear-less? And as someone who’s been an organizer and activist for a long time, I think the ears part is way tougher. You can find Megan and John’s book, Speak Up: Say What Needs to Be Said and Hear What Needs to Be Heard, everywhere you want to buy books, or you like to buy books. We love the Indies. And you can find the article that we talked about today, “Leading in an Age of Employee Activism,” on the MIT Sloan Management Review site. All the links that you need for books and articles are on the brenebrown.com episode page for this podcast. Really appreciate you being here. These are the conversations I think we need to be having. I’m so grateful that I get to have them with y’all. We are definitely a learning community, here to get it right, not to be right. And I’m grateful. Stay awkward, brave, and kind.
BB: The Dare to Lead podcast is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and Tristan McNeil, and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil and Andy Waits, and the music is by The Suffers.
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