How Leaders Can Respond to Increasing Employee Activism

Rising generations of employees are demanding that leaders engage on topics such as climate change and racial equity. Leaders must understand how to respond.

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MIT Sloan Management Review’s recent Work/22 virtual symposium invited a range of experts to share their insights into the challenges leaders will face in the year ahead. Among them was Megan Reitz, a professor of leadership and dialogue at Hult International Business School, who discussed how organizations can develop a plan for encouraging employee voice and acting on issues raised by workers.

Reitz and her research partner, John Higgins, have spent seven years exploring the experience of speaking truth to power in organizations — what gets said and what doesn’t, and who gets heard and who doesn’t. She has observed activists who are seeking to influence their organizations’ policies on wider social and environmental issues and found that the process is upsetting the power dynamics: When it comes to activism, leaders are not in control, and they often don’t know the answers.

Her first point: The word activism brings specific images and judgments to mind. In some countries and on some issues, it’s cool to be labeled an activist; in other regions and on other topics, it’s life-threatening. Activism is in the eye of the beholder; as author Ruchika Tulshyan has said, “What looks like rebellion to you might be another’s human fundamental right.” All of this matters because leaders will take actions driven in part by their assumptions about this loaded term.

Reitz’s second point: As leaders become more senior level, they become more optimistic. Younger employees might say that those leaders are more deluded: They overestimate how well they listen to employees, and they’re often taken by surprise because of the bubble of optimism they live in.

In the past, leaders would say, “We’re neutral. We’re apolitical.” That doesn’t cut it anymore, Reitz said: “What we’re discovering is that that excuse is getting pretty difficult to say now. You can’t sit on the activism fence. Inaction is as political as action.” Leaders don’t have to be engaged on every issue, but they do have to show curiosity about understanding more. They need to invest some humanity and some relationship capital in that process. How leaders make their choices matters.

Reitz uses a taxonomy to describe how leaders react to activist overtures, ranging from nonengagement to full engagement.

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