What Would It Mean to Be an Activist at Work?

activism at work, leadership

Sometimes things happen at work that seem just plain wrong. Most of us stand by, hoping conditions will get better. But all too often, they don’t, and we continue waiting, meanwhile becoming more and more worried or disengaged. When we see something going wrong or not working well, it can be hard to know what to do. Is it appropriate to say something? And if so, who should we tell?

You don’t need to suffer in silence. If your boss isn’t stepping in, there are things you can do to lead yourself and others — without going all the way to a job action. So if you sense that something’s wrong, don’t brush it away as “just an uncomfortable feeling.” Here’s how you can flip the scenario from waiting and hoping to strategizing and moving forward.

Don’t Back Away. Step Forward!

When you see something that doesn’t make sense or is going undone, look for a way to fill the gap and take care of it. Consider calling others together, offering alternative scenarios, or piloting a new process. That way, you can build a reputation as a committed member of the workplace community — and perhaps eventually earn a promotion.

If your boss isn’t taking action, don’t assume that they don’t know what to do — or that they don’t want to do anything about the problem. Start from the premise that they’re waiting to see how you’re going to step up, so they can empower you to take action. Why not make a proposal for how you could do something — either together with your boss or by yourself?

Just make sure it’s a robust proposal with a real plan of action, so your boss has something concrete to respond to, rather than a general idea that might sound either too risky or not inspiring enough. Include the plan’s pros and cons, costs and benefits, timing, and a clear statement of why you feel the recommended action is important for the business, team, and/or customers.

Don’t Topple Structures, Build Bridges

On the other hand, if you’re dealing with siloed departments and results are suffering due to barriers and obstacles between and within these cross-functional groups, look for opportunities to build bridges and share information. Make sure that all those involved get to know each other better on a human level. You can do this on an individual-to-individual basis or by finding opportunities to bring groups together for intentional collaboration.

Try not to think in terms of exploding the silos or knocking them over; instead, start with the orderly transfer of data, encouraging creativity, and shining a light on the possibility of joint purpose and shared results.

Keep Confrontations Calm and Creative

If you’re encountering or observing bullying or other bad behavior of any sort, use the New York Times test to determine whether you need to act: How would it look if that comment or action were to be reported on the front page of the New York Times — or if it went viral on social media? If you don’t like the answer to this question, consider initiating a calm and straightforward intervention with the party who’s the source of the problem.

You don’t have to accuse anyone of outrageous behavior or stir up drama. Try a simple statement of the situation: “When you do/say things like X, the negative impact on the business/team/customers/me is Y.” Or you can challenge an incipient troublemaker more directly: “When you leave me out of the discussion about reorganization, it affects my team. It looks like a lack of respect at best, and as if you don’t care if we have any say or not. Is that your intention? If not, it would be much more effective if you did A, B, or C instead.”

So whenever you see something that you disapprove of, or something which could have a damaging outcome that no one else seems to anticipate, don’t just wait for someone else to see what you see — or to blow the whistle. Being an activist doesn’t necessarily mean storming the barricades. You can make a deliberate decision to put an issue on the table in a professional way.

And if you need help framing the issue or rehearsing what to say, please get in touch.

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