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Leadership Lessons: Activism and the Workplace


The world we share continues to shift before our eyes.

  • Some shifts are widely seen as positive ...
  • Some shifts are widely seen as negative ...
  • And some shifts require peeling back a few layers to see what's going on ...

Long-time readers know that my intent is to improve the state of leadership by challenging conventional wisdom, exploring alternative strategies and promoting independent thought.  

Perhaps that's why the following topic caught my eye when it crossed my desk ... seems that even the most 'virtuous' ideas can hide an unpleasant reality.

Beyond companies being more socially responsible, diverse, etc. now they're expected to get more involved in cultural debate, too.

From a recent article

"Gartner research shows that 74% of employees expect their employer to become more actively involved in the cultural debates of the day."

The 'logic' behind why companies should acquiesce to their employee's cultural expectations?

'To hopefully make the employer more competitive in attracting and keeping talent.'

With more jobs that need filling yet fewer people with real-world skills to fill them, this is a legitimate concern.

Job seekers have expectations, obviously, and according to the report: "Employees’ desire to work for organizations whose values align with their own..."

  • Of course, the job skills that companies need to operate have nothing to do with someone's attitude about a cultural issue, but I'll save that for another day.

More concerning is that along with every cultural debate is the insidious need to divide and label everyone by the position they hold.

  • The proliferation of 'silos' and 'battle lines' created by this trend is astonishing, dangerous and un-sustainable.

Who in the world thinks that's a good idea??

However and unfortunately, a collectivist mindset is the cause célèbre of the moment. At least until society runs out of people to divide and label.


Solutions, Part 1

So, how should leaders try to balance politics and company purpose?  Or should they?  How political should a team or organization be?

Or perhaps most importantly, how does a leader keep people focused on the work in front of them instead of the alluring distraction of social discourse?

Well, I can't think of a better reason or a better time than now for a company to have clarity in their mission and substance to their objectives.

NOTE:

The CEO sharing their personal belief's from the pulpit of their position is NOT the same thing, by the way.

I'd argue that knowing our co-worker's position in a cultural debate takes more away from a productive work relationship than adds to it.

Remember: when it comes to resilient leadership:

Program > Person

Learn more about becoming a more resilient leader, here. (opens in new tab)

Let's say for instance that your organization believes and supports productive behavior instead of unproductive labels

Once broadly supported and communicated, repeat it often and implement decisions that reflect this position.

  • You know, bake it into the organization's culture through successful repetition.

In so doing, when a cultural issue develops, simply refer to your organization's over-arching position and expectations on productive behavior. The outcomes are far more sustainable than hopping head-first into a silo of "us versus them" and drowning in the ensuing acrimonious bile.

Consider the following example:

Or

Let's say that society becomes embroiled in a public debate about "which animal makes a better pet: dogs or cats?"

Your organization believes - and has historically demonstrated - their advocacy for the benefits of strong and healthy relationships with others.

  • That's a belief in the organization's culture that everyone supports.

Examples of this position may be a history of hosting employee picnics with their families, sponsoring employee assistance programs, offering mentorship opportunities, etc.

  • That's the reinforcement of the culture that everyone supports.

Therefore, to respond to the public cat and dog debate, the organization on behalf of it's employees can publicly affirm their well-documented position:

"Establishing and maintaining healthy relationships is central to the organization's mission.

Furthermore, pets make ideal companions for humans that further enrich our employee's lives as well as the lives of the pets.

Because of the wide variety of individual preferences and the wide variety of pets to choose from, there is a suitable and loving option for anyone choosing a pet's companionship."

That position leaves plenty of room for disagreement among 'dog' and 'cat' people but nothing that rises to the level of destructive rancor.

I can't say it enough:  support and agreement are different.  We can disagree and still support the grand plan.

In the above example:

The goal was to: 

  • Affirm the organization's purpose. Never miss an opportunity to do that!

The objectives were to:

  • Acknowledge and address the social justice interests of some employees by making a public statement.
  • Clearly communicate the organization's position on options for a healthy relationship.

The strategy to achieve those objectives was to:

  • Publish a statement affirming the organization's overarching beliefs on healthy relationships - without needlessly taking a position.

Note that "taking sides in the debate" was NOT an objective. Re-affirming the organization's over-arching beliefs was.

Organization's are free to take sides in a public debate of course. Some do that now. And they will undoubtedly attract job seekers who share that same position.

It's irresponsible to promote that model as a best practice, however.

I'd argue that the moment that a position in a public debate becomes a factor for employment, the focus shifts from the organization's purpose to those of the cozy 'silos' they seek.  

Other pitfalls include:

  • Exposing the organization to legal consequences for biased and unfair hiring practices.
  • Stifling the growth potential of the employee (organizations are not sustainable when they employ workers with a non-organization focus.)
  • Fomenting a toxic work environment among workers that don't feel safe for having a dissenting belief.

Sadly, the resulting carnage from the last issue - toxic work environments - is seldom reported when articles extoll the virtues of 'taking a stand at work'.

According to the legal minds at law.com, the costs of a toxic company culture cut deeply and are felt widely:

"Unlike more quantifiable organizational risks—e.g., poor financial performance—bad culture is generally insidious.

It lies undetected in financial statements and public records, and then reveals itself without warning in the form of sexual harassment, high employee turnover, workplace bullying, illicit sales tactics and other reputation- and value-destroying behaviors."

Yikes. 

Once the fibers of an organization rip apart, it requires a costly and Herculean effort to repair the damage.

Let's explore some preventative steps.

  

Solutions, Part 2

Deploy these additional strategies and watch your outcomes improve:


Clearly communicated expectations.

I have a different take on research suggesting that companies should be more involved in trending cultural debates.  

Let's take a closer look at the research statistic to see why:  

"74% of employees expect their employer to become more actively involved in the cultural debates of the day."
  • Yes, that's 3 out of 4 people expecting their boss to not only support their belief's in a cultural debate but to also share those beliefs in a public way.  

Regardless of how many are on each side of the line, make no mistake, this collectivist dynamic is the insidious root cause of the severe divisiveness we see and experience in society.  

Particularly over incendiary public debates around politics and its many tentacles. 

Using the same 4 people from the example above, here's a simple test to demonstrate why this is a bad idea:

  1. What is the 4th person's experience when their belief differs from their co-workers and their boss?
  2. What are the experiences of the 3 people who expect the boss to mirror their beliefs ... but the boss dissents?
  3. Who's completing the actual work responsibilities while the different sides of the public debate are being drawn up?

Again, we're not talking about debates based on beliefs about favorite foods or vacation destinations (tacos and a lake cabin, duh).  The issue is a ripped-from-the-headlines 'cultural debate' which includes hot-button issues such as immigration, public health policy (global pandemic anyone?), elected officials, censorship, etc.

People stand on different sides of these issues for ingrained reasons (a post for another day, for sure.) 

  • If these ingrained beliefs are allowed to run amok in your company, there is sure to be friction (or a collision) with people running amok with opposing beliefs.

And the toxicity created by this friction will fester until there's an explosion, implosion, lawsuit, or worse.  

Perhaps it seems predictable based on my breakdown.  Perhaps not.  The difference in how effective we are are predicting the aforementioned train wreck will also determine how effective we are in communicating our expectations.

And that requires thinking beyond a surface reaction, a/k/a: 2nd level thinking. 


2nd-level thinking.

There's little question that much of today's populace has an enthusiastic opinion about ... everything. And regardless of the drumbeat surrounding those opinions, they are still just opinions.  

And lest we forget, opinions are like, uh, nostrils.  Everyone has at least one.

Additionally, effective leaders understand that useful strategies are not properly nourished by drinking from the fire hose of public opinion.

To avoid being held hostage by an activist workforce, insight and anticipation is needed.  And 2nd level thinking starts with asking questions.

  • How could this end?
  • What could happen if do this or that?
  • Why are they doing/saying that?

Answers to one question may lead to additional questions, which is great.  Eventually, a more complete picture which includes the back story and multiple logical perspectives can reveal what emotional gerrymandering concealed.

With a clearer picture of the present it's easier to start to look ahead and around corners, too.


Scan the horizon.

Both at the individual and the organization level, maintaining a mechanism that gathers and filters information, everyone's Situational Awareness (SA) increases.

When everyone has adequate SA, identifying potential future friction points is easier and empowers leaders to make quick and informed decision.  

Properly implemented, a robust SA program supports and benefits the entire organization, not just small factions of workers who seek to carve out their own fiefdom from within.


Hire right.  

Okay, story time.

Not long ago at a big tech company a high profile manager we'll call "Pat" was let go when the company didn't agree with or support Pat's activist influence over the company's product.  

Pat wrongly expected that their activist belief's would be supported by their employer.  Instead, the company believed in their own higher purpose (a/k/a their "goals" and "objectives" ) over Pat's activist opinions and parted ways.

Pat went off the rails.  

The ensuing media coverage and legal maneuvering revealed Pat's employment history.  A sordid history which highlighted a pattern of inflammatory, destructive interactions and a trail of BYOAATW (Bring Your Own Activist Attitudes To Work) collisions.

Staying with the train analogy ... this story is the workplace equivalent of a runaway train headed for the train station full of bystanders.

So, if you could prevent this predictable train wreck from occurring, would you??

Remember this tried and true parable?

"History is a reliable indicator of future performance."

In the rear-view mirror, most would conclude that hiring Pat - or anyone with a history of destructive workplace interactions - was a bad decision that should have never taken place.

Yet, here's another organization who didn't seem to check any of the boxes addressed in this article.

And now they're wrestling with thorny press coverage and are putting in effort for a legal defense.  Efforts that could instead be used to hire people who are a better fit.


Final thoughts

  • Want someone who supports the organization's greater good?  
  • Want someone who finds healthy and constructive ways to disagree?  
  • Want someone who has a history of being useful as a team member?  

Then do this:  Explore those attributes using the above strategies before hiring them.

Also,

  • If your organization is intentionally created to advocate for one side of a debate (abortion, political affiliation, Yankees v Red Sox, etc.), this article's lessons may not directly apply.
  • I'm also aware that readers who strongly embrace a collectivist mindset will predictably take umbrage.  If the accuracy of my statements inspires you to actively or passively lash out, perhaps this will help?

If others in your network could benefit from this article, please pass it along.

To receive more insights and tools to help you navigate your leadership journey, follow along below.

Mike McKenna

About the author

Mike McKenna is the founder and president of TEAM Solutions. He helps public and private sector leaders improve their outcomes before, during and after a planned event or unplanned crisis.Please contact Mike via the Contact page.

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