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Act your way into new ways of thinking!

Sometimes it takes time to make sense of things. And attending a conference can be like reading a poem. On a certain day you read it, it doesn't speak to you, and on another it clarifies everything you’ve been struggling to find the words for. 

That’s what co-curating the track on corporate activism (with the kindhearted Pawel Nizinski) at the Business for Good Leaders Summit in Rome a few weeks ago did for me. It was through the people I met, more than the speakers on stage. It was through what was not said and done, as much as through what was, that I could articulate this call to to business leaders.

We need to support disruptors; people who raise their voice and lead by example. So, I thank Caroline Rennie, who co-authored the three ways to take action below and so eloquently articulated how to support an activist mindset at work:

We need to take on and support an activist mindset and start "acting our way into new ways of thinking, and not think our way into new ways of acting."  Caroline Rennie - BoTZ

Call to action

My call to action for business leaders, is to better understand what it takes to welcome an activist mindset. It's time to look beyond purpose and start creating a culture that allows for people to disrupt the way we socially construct power at work. To not leave it to the dissenting voice to be brave, but to question and change the cultural context that requires people to be brave in the first place. 

Overcrowded corporate activism track - B for good leaders summit Rome June 2022

Many of the people I met and worked with during the summit, like Lucy von Sturmer founder of Creatives for Climate, Caroline Rennie & Helen Kuyper from Bring on the Zoo, Jon Alexander, author of Citizens, Kwame Ferreira podcast creator of Midnight Cuddles and Eline Le Menestrel, rock climber and planet activist, to name only a few, have helped reinforce this belief.

An activist mindset

By being brave and using an activist mindset, we can go to the edge of what is feasible and then go beyond. The people I met are doing this by bringing their humanity to business and, by reminding us we are more than employees and consumers. We yield power, individually and collectively, as citizens to drive real change.

“Culture is a clear precondition to enable the development of any activism behaviour, it needs to be fully ingrained in the company - an important element of the culture required is also to continuously challenging the status quo and keep raising the bar; also it is important to link activism to what really matters to the company people, what is really meaningful.” participant Business for Good leaders summit. 

So, thank you to everyone who joined the corporate activism track for your courage, insights, your questioning, vulnerability, inquisitiveness and listening. And to Nativa's ‘harvesters’ in our track Silvia and Mathilde for collecting insights and making sure they will end up as part of the B For Good declaration.

Three ways to act now

As organisers and campaigners, we are all about action, and so Caroline Rennie and I have collected some clear actionable outcomes for people in business - to start to be more activist - now! 

ACTION 1. Lead with a moral stance

When you lead with a moral stance, you link people to purpose and bring urgency and meaning to their work. Your organisation needs to stand for something, and for particular values. These values come alive when you can see them in practice.  

  • Capture stories of how the value/values are lived in practice in the organisation, and share those widely! 

  • Make this a routine request in meetings - that people consider what recently required a values-based response/decision, how they took it and what happened.  

ACTION 2. Invite disagreement

When you invite differing views you enrich the picture and allow for richer decisions that bring everyone along. Inviting different views is an active step, and it needs instruction. So, here is a method presented by Caroline, which they often use in their practice at Bring on the Zoo. 

  • Start by appointing someone to be "the voice of dissent", or invite a round where everyone expresses a different, alternative opinion.  

  • Once the voice(s) of dissent have been heard, each person is asked to consider - what has changed in my view of this in light of what I heard, and other doubts I may have held? Each person is invited to speak this into the room.  

  • You can now request a proposal that takes all these points into account and can strengthen the original statements/proposals. And if there is a decision to be taken, ensure that the decision is based on whether or not it puts the organisation at risk, not on whether this is the best of all possible alternative actions.

ACTION 3. Act your way into new ways of thinking

While companies favour training to bring people along (assuming that we think our way into new ways of acting), a more powerful way of helping change is to invite people to act their ways into new ways of thinking. This means acting with new rules (including no rules!) and inviting people to behave differently and think differently. 

Here are some ways for leaders to act your way into new ways of thinking - many taken from the excellent podcast Leading in an age of employee activism - with Brene Brown, Megan Reitz and John Higgins. See if you can put some of these into practice! 

  • Interrogate your definition of activism! Are you showing up in a way that supports that? Make it possible to talk about topical, social and political issues by starting the conversation.

  • Invite people to discuss what's not working: recognise that you might live in an optimism bubble (just cause people don’t come to you, doesn’t mean nothing is bothering them). 

  • Accept that there is no such thing as a neutral organisational stance. So, what do you stand for?

  • Accept differentiations in organisational responses: from denial to activism stimulation.  Support those who are working well and help their story spread.

  • Support activist employees with trainings they could benefit from (political acumen, ability to listen, resilience and self-care)

  • Make it safe to bring up alternative points of view and explore dialogue that is important for both/multiple parties (see action two). 

  • Less ‘us against them’ language and more conversations about the solutions we need.

On Purpose

And finally, a few words on the concept of purpose. Participants at the conference noted that corporate activism can also limit our personal agency and ability to organise within a company setting. That when companies defer to purpose as the answer to our responsibility, we outsource our moral leadership and can revert to collective inaction.

Eline Menestrel, the radical, young activist who took to the stage when I invited a dissenting voice, asked all the leaders present to question:

“What do we do that the world would miss if we were not in business? If we can’t answer the question perhaps we should shut down.”

A company is NOT a person. It is a collection of voices, interests, drivers big and small, controlled and uncontrolled flows in a larger environment. It is part of a bigger system. An economic system that despite our best hopes and hard work, is still trying to maintain itself.

We cannot rely on companies alone, even with the best intentions, to drive the change we need to see. In a world of complexity and wicked problems there is no one answer, the answer is the process.

And so, we need to embrace the tricky journey of figuring out how to deal with dilemmas that arise on a daily basis. In a Volatile Uncertain Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world, dealing with moral dilemmas isn’t limited to the top management, it requires leadership from the entire organisation. Train people throughout the organisation! We have the perfect courses!


Tessa Wernink, co-founder, trainer and coach at the Undercover Activist.

Caroline Rennie. Managing partner of ren-new and partner at Bring on the Zoo.


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