After all these hours behind laptops and the countless virtual encounters we finally came together to meet in person. There’s still nothing like it - meeting real people, beautiful people! The first Undercover Activist Meet-up took place in Amsterdam on February 2nd 2023, with professional activists and activists professionals alike coming together to share and learn.
What became clear again is in order to make employee activism more impactful, there is a need for systems change with different responsibilities in different parts of the system: employees, leadership, culture, structure, finanance. Preferably these parts of the system are developed simultaneously and employees are the connecting elements.
What we learned is that we want companies to live up to their values and that most employees want to be part of making that happen.
What we learned is that we want companies to live up to their values and that most employees want to be part of making that happen. That only when we are truly open to disagreement and voices of difference can companies hear how they can improve and take action. That this is both the role and responsibility of senior leadership and junior employees. But that role modelling behaviour on a senior level, like creating safe spaces and welcoming dissent influences culture in a way that helps more junior employees be part of the solution. When employees want to put things on the agenda, it is wise to organise. Find allies, step-by-step, grow support and gather facts.
Based on these findings, we have developed a new in-house half-day workshop for organisations about nurturing cultures of disagreement. Creating safe spaces is a big part of our online course. If you are interested - join our next cohort from 5th May - 14th June.
We are truly thankful for everyone who came through the rain that night to join us with inspiration and active participation. And we are grateful to be part of the cooperative Veem, where we hosted the event and will definitely be back at the end of the summer - sign up to our newsletters to stay up-to-date.
Here’s a more detailed summary of how we unravelled the following question:
How can Workplace Activism be more impactful?
Using a facilitation tool we call a Spectrometer, we checked-in with the group. Standing on an imaginary line in the room, we went through a few statements - asking everyone to take a position between on the one end agree and on the other disagree. One of the questions was whether people felt safe to speak up in their organisations. In general people dared to speak-up (perhaps not a random crowd). But it was not always easy and the outcome of speaking up was not always satisfactory.
There are clear messages;
Employees can start but leaders must define and implement the right structure for change;
Leaders must make it possible, but the end goal must be shared;
There is a need for safe spaces for disagreement, in which disagreeing doenst get put on the person, but is a role in the group;
There were complaints about mixed messages on important topics in some organisations, what is real and what is false;
A few people did say they hesitate to speak up in their organisations, due in part to their position and sometimes their age in the group, feeling they had to earn it;
The values are in place but there is a need to truly activate these values through behaviour and action;
Some topics are easier, because they fit well in the business strategy and culture. But when it comes to topics that are personal to you,it's harder to define your boundaries;
There isn’t just one kind of activism, some people need activism to survive (Rosa Park), others can speak up because of privileges (Extinction Rebellion NL). Do not compare yourself, look for what is your role is;
Privilege defines your responsibility, take the visible role if others cannot take it.
How can workplace activism be more impactful
Based on what was alive in the room in our initial conversation, we selected 4 areas for further exploration - each of these within the larger question: How workplace activism can be more impactful:
What must I do to improve myself?
What do we need from leadership?
How do we create safe space?
How could values help?
We got into groups and used a world café method in which participants rotate from group to group, each building on the previous group’s input, the following collective intelligence emerged.
WHAT CAN I DO TO IMPROVE MYSELF?
-> The good thing about improving oneself is you do not need permission. You can change today. But being or becoming an activist in an organization is not an easy role. So don’t take it too lightly.
-> It is all about setting priorities right and truly caring about the subject. The activist energy has a strong connection with the relevance of the topic to you personally.
-> It is important to just start and organise co-workers around you who have a common goal. Take the first small step. Small steps in the beginning are equally important to larger steps later on. And look around and learn from others. What has worked in the organisation and what has failed?
-> If you are an activist, it is important to take care of your personal health. Too many people start with a lot of energy and end in a burn-out.
-> Too often there are no clear indicators for success. And success is important. Projects should be made measurable. And the context should be made clear directly with factual information.
-> Big topics and ambitions can become too overwhelming for co-workers to believe in. Empowerment of colleagues is more important than a bling bling end-goal. A step-by-step approach shows progression. Feasible alternatives need to be researched as well. Wherever possible, co-create!
-> Celebrate success. Small successes are successes as well. Even if the results are intangible. Those are the hardest.
WHAT DO WE NEED FROM LEADERSHIP?
-> Leadership is an important lever for the effectiveness of individual workplace activists. Can we change our perception of leadership? In our view we are all leaders. Some leaders have the power to bring change directly in the context of their responsibility. Others must build a network, connections and become influential. We see direct power versus indirect power, hard power versus soft power.
-> We need leadership that creates a culture that allows for positive activism and disagreement . To create trust and transparency on how decisions are made. Organise countervailing power, counter management teams, young boards. Some companies are organising regular meet-ups between young generations and senior management.
-> People in leadership positions are important role models. When they show healthy work/life boundaries, this will be mirrored in teams. Other positive behaviours such as inviting disagreement, making sure microaggressions are addressed and changing roles and tasks regularly have a huge influence on the rest of management.
-> It is important for leadership to really show how they live the values of the company. Show what the values mean; less words, more action.
-> Voices of difference coming from the base of the organisation need to be actively invited. They tend to express themselves more easily if leadership gives up some space, and shares power. Holacracy is a form but there are other possibilities too. There are forms of consensus driven decision-making that can be explored.
-> Going a step further in shared responsibility in decision-making brings us to democratically run companies. Co-ops have a different business model where ownership of a company is at employee level
-> We would like to see more urgency at the board level. Leadership needs to show they are serious. That they want to be a frontrunner. To be more ambitious than the industry rules and regulations.
HOW DO WE CREATE SAFE SPACES
-> Safe spaces are spaces where people feel safe to speak, disagree and experiment. These must be explicitly created, not assumed. It can be a physical space where people come together or it can be in the form of a team agreement.
-> Safe spaces need clear rules that are agreed on in advance.
-> It is so important to be able to express yourself. To say the things you would like to say, and finding the words without having to be brave!
-> Take time for the relationship. People need to feel seen and heard. And there needs to be trusted functions and places people can go to when they need to voice their worries and needs.
-> Train on disagreement and feedback loops built into the organisation. Operate from a place where there is no monopoly on the truth. Disagreement is not initiated by a person, but part of team responsibility.
-> An organisation starts to feel safe when there is clarity on shared norms and values, when these are congruent - ie. that what is said is how people behave and act.
HOW COULD VALUES HELP?
-> The values of a company can help in challenging power and advocating for positive change. But these values must be translated into action that people can live up to. Simple rules and norms.
-> An important challenge with values is they can lead to false activism. The values become marketing words or false lobby claims or social and greenwashing. Bit by bit the company values represent the appropriation of social civil society words. They are stealing the words of activism.
-> The social movements dispute the claims made by businesses, wondering whether a business can be ethical or sustainable? Because the real costs for society of many businesses are much larger than are being covered by taxes, income or profit.
-> To improve company culture, we all need to call out the bullshit instead of joking about it.
-> Ask for constant reviews of the values (1 step forward, 2 steps back). It is a process of co-creation, starting with values and stories that prove their aliveness.
Examples of best practices:
From values to simple rules
Support courageous conversations
If it does not help us to go forward, it won’t help change the business
Transparency, ask for feedback.
Put the values front and centre in your website
To be continued
A big thank you to all participants. We will continue the conversation on employee activism during our monthly meet-ups every first Thursday of the month.
Next session is ONLINE
How to be an activist consultant.
6th April from 16:00 - 17:00 CET
Sign up here: