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A Leader’s Guide to Navigating Employee Activism

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Megan Reitz and John Higgins for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Illustration Credit:  Mariaelena Caputi

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How companies can choose when — and whether — to act on employees’ concerns.

During their strategy off-site, the executives at a global retail organization turn their attention away from the strategic plan to address a thorny issue. A junior employee has started vociferously criticizing, in meetings and on Slack, the organization’s commitment to sustainability objectives. The executives’ conversation has been precipitated by months of behind-the-scenes questioning by this person and others. In fact, senior leaders are concerned that this group is on the verge of speaking up publicly about their disappointment, highlighting what they perceive to be a gap between what the company espouses and what it actually practices. Within the executive team there is a divide: Some want to shut the employee down while others want to invite them into the strategic discussion.

Leadership teams around the world are facing similar challenges about how to engage with employee activism — whether in relation to their organization’s impact on the environment, commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, stance on the Middle East crisis, supply chain ethics, or the myriad other topics where businesses are seen, by some, to be contributing to problems or to have some influence on the solutions.

Our research conducted over the past decade has focused on “speaking truth to power.” Specifically, we explore “conversational habits” — what gets talked about and what doesn’t, who gets heard and who gets ignored, and the consequences for performance, innovation, ethical conduct, and talent management.

Noticing the rise of employee activism, we decided to quantitatively and qualitatively examine leadership responses to activist voices — why particular choices were made and what happened in the aftermath. As a result, we identified three key tools to help leaders make more-thoughtful decisions rather than simply reacting and leaving themselves open to the negative consequences of ill-considered claims and commitments. These tools include a taxonomy to help you understand your typical response to activism, an ACT IF framework for choosing when to do or say something, and suggestions for how to pause, pay closer attention to what’s happening in the world and what your employees care about, and learn from your successes and failures.

A Taxonomy of Leadership Responses

We’ve observed six common responses to activist issues, ranging from oblivious to proactive. As you read this list, consider various activist issues in your organization — and how your leadership team reacted.

  • Nonexistent (“Activism? What activism?”): Leaders are oblivious to activist voices or so distanced that they are unaware of these voices and thus do nothing.
  • Suppression (“Expel it before it spreads”): Leaders attempt to quash voices either through directives that certain subjects are not up for discussion or by making it clear (explicitly or implicitly) that if employees speak up they will face negative consequences.
  • Facadism (“Let’s just say the right thing”): Leaders respond with positive words but take no meaningful action, either because they never really intend to do anything or because they become distracted by the next hot topic.
  • Defensive engagement (“Do what the lawyers say we have to”): Leaders agree to engage on an issue but only up to the point of legal requirement — they do the minimum.
  • Dialogic engagement (“Let’s sit down, listen, and learn”): Leaders understand that they don’t know enough about certain issues, are curious to learn more, and take steps to share decision-making — marking a critical shift in the power dynamic.
  • Stimulating activism (“Let’s be the activist!”): Leaders identify themselves and their organization as activists. They publicly stand for a particular cause, and they recruit, reward, and retain employee activists.

We’ve found that the first three responses tend to lead to employee silence, arising from fear and cynicism, which hurts performance and retention, so we advise staying away from them. Another key finding of our work is that people in management perceive their responses very differently than others in the organization do. We’ve written about this tendency for senior leaders to overestimate how approachable they are, the quality of their listening, and the degree to which employees feel able to speak out. As a result, they are often taken by surprise when strong feelings on an issue surface, sometimes explosively.

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Here is a direct  link to the complete article.

Megan Reitz is an associate fellow at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, and adjunct professor of leadership and dialogue at Hult International Business School. She speaks, researches, and consults in order to help organizations develop more open, mutual, and creative dialogue. She is the author of Dialogue in Organizations (2015) and the coauthor of Mind Time (2018), Speak Up (2019), and the second edition of Speak Out, Listen Up (2024). Follow her on LinkedIn or

John Higgins is a researcher, author, and coach. He is a research fellow at GameShift and the director of research at The Right Conversation. John has worked in close collaboration with Megan Reitz for over a decade, and their latest book, Speak Out, Listen Up, is due out in spring 2024.




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