Speak up and Listen up power


We were recently inspired by Brené Brown's brilliant podcast on employee activism called: Dare to Lead in which we learned more about what is referred to as a speak up, listen up power culture. She’d invited Megan Reitz, professor of leadership and dialogue, and John Higgins a researcher and author of several books, to talk about the article they'd published in MIT Sloan’s Management Review called Leading in an Age of Employee Activism. One of the findings in their report was:


“There is no one definition of employee activism and no single organizational response. How activists influence and organizations engage with them is a function of personalities, individual and collective experiences, perceived pressures and an organization’s political and speak-up culture. It is also a matter of how in-touch leaders are with experiences outside of their own, often privileged, perspective.”


We think that while there is a lot of attention for leaders of organisations to become aware of and adapt their perspectives, you - the employee activist - are often alone and unsupported. Given the courage it takes to speak up and challenge the status quo, we feel you could use some support!


This is why we started our online course on Positive Workplace Activism. Which if you want to join, starts this week. You can still subscribe! It's last one before the summer.


How we speak up and show up

Of course, making leaders and managers more aware of how they show up will indirectly help you speak up and be the voices of difference your organisation so desperately needs. But you need more than managers to instigate change, besides we don’t have the time to wait for them!


Megan Reitz and John Higgins provide many reasons why employees, now more than before, are raising their voices in organisations. Some of the developments that make employee activism more prevalent now are:

  • increased access to social media and technology;

  • the perceived lack of action by governments and unions on climate change and discrimination;

  • the focus on stakeholder value (dating from Milton Friedman’s focus on shareholder primacy) which has resulted in a separation of our values from our workplace;

  • the presence and influence of millennials in the workplace and;

  • the increasing body of work identifying the benefits of workplace diversity.


And although they say that there is no one definition of employee activism, they use the following definition in their work:


" voices of difference that challenge the established status quo as to who gets heard and/or what should be included in the formal organisational agenda. "


This definition helps us understand one of the most important aspects that lies at the heart of all activism, namely power. Power is a big topic and one we could talk about it for hours. In the words of the influential scholar Michel Foucault, : "Power is everywhere: not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere. It is not an institution, nor a structure, nor possession. It is the name we give to a complex, strategic situation in a particular society."


Power comes to the fore in many guises and takes on different kinds of behaviour. Activists we have spoken to have experienced power in the form of bullying, othering, ignoring, scapegoating, withholding resources and one I most dislike tone-policing. That’s when people say that what you are saying is fine, but that the way you said it isn’t.


Our course takes an approach that wants to contribute to ‘healthy power’. We look at three aspects that will help you recognise power and resistance and through this awareness start to become a resilient and positive changemaker.


We see leadership not as one person who changes something singlehandedly, but in the words of systems thinker Rachel Sinha, as someone who “cultivates the conditions that encourages a system to change itself. At the heart of systemic change is the assumption that it cannot be achieved alone. A system change agent will be able to facilitate, build partnerships and create coalitions and seek to influence and engage wider audiences in the change.”


Our view is that we can start the process of leading change on three levels, namely:

Leading self through Self-Reflection – knowing who you are, what you are good at and passionate about and why. To think about what role you want to play in change and how radical you want to be. This will help you understand your triggers and deal positively with resistance – which you will undoubtedly encounter when challenging the status quo.



Leading others by inspiring Collective Action, about going beyond our job descriptions and connecting to others on values, building coalitions and engaging others in opportunities for change. Initiating cycles of movement building, or in the words of We Rise through rising up, building up, standing up and shaking up.



And leading the system by Changing the Business, We need to build change on solid ground. It’s not about tweaking things here and adapting things there. But, when you challenge the system, the system will challenge you. There are many forces in the system that prevent change from happening and while this can feel personal, it usually isn’t. It is a system trying to maintain itself.



Speak up and listen up power

One of Megan Reitz powerful comments in the podcast is that “Millennials are more likely to hold their organisations to account on the topic of wider purpose, and gen z even more so. And what do you expect? They are the ones who have to clean up some of the mess – so of course they are there going: what do you mean, we aren’t talking about climate change? How can you be running a business and not be talking about it?"


A great article to read on how loud you want to be when you speak up is Tempered Radicalism: the politics of ambivalence and change, which is the work of Debra Meyerson and Maureen Scully. Their point is that, as an activist, it can be worthwhile considering a balance between being too tempered and too radical. Being too radical might make the system spit you out, but not challenging it will result in no change at all.


If you want your manager to understand more about what it takes to lead in a time of immense change and uncertainty, where employees no longer want to leave their values at the door, nor accept an organisation to not take a stand on societal issues, then send them the Dare to Lead podcast or ask them to sponsor your course with us!


For you, remember that you are responsible for how YOU show up. By becoming more aware of how you show up, you build personal resilience and become conflict-savvy. Knowing when to listen up and when to speak up is very powerful skill. So, stop waiting for others to change, take the bull by the horns! Sign up or check out some of the strategies and practise your speak-up and listen-up power today!


Author: Tessa Wernink, social entrepreneur, business activist and co-founder and coach at the Undercover Activist.