We recently hosted a pop-up conversation about Employee Activism – based on long-term, ongoing research by John and his research friend and partner, Professor Megan Reitz. In this blog we reflect on the experience of that conversation, and on what might happen next.
It felt important to hold this event. The conversation involved 20 or so energetic and engaged people, with lots of debate, contributions and questions. People were speaking up and busy in the chat. It felt vital, important work and didn’t shy away from the messy philosophical questions raised, but are rarely named, when it comes to debates about the future of the workplace and what does and doesn’t matter to people in their lives. There seemed little doubt that – to this group – activism matters personally and is very much on their agenda as pertinent to the organisations they work in and with.
We’re not going to rehearse the main thrust of the opening conversation as that’s in the recording. We’re more interested right now in what conversation emerged when we turned off the recording so people could feel free to speak off-the-record.
That conversation went into deep personal and conceptual territory. We were fascinated by how it was both ambitious and optimistic, while also being guarded and cautious. This was not your usual workplace conversation as people explored and tested what fitted within its boundaries – they couldn’t fall back on the comfortably familiar, which is in keeping with the experience of activists and managers of activists more generally. Activism is about challenging the status quo as to what gets talked about and how.
There was a sense that we are in a moment of possibility – that there could be a shift happening in the corporate agenda, with the established consensus as to what is and isn’t relevant to the workplace beginning to loosen its grip. Leaders at the top level of organisations are often showing themselves to be interested in more than the traditional priorities and are willing to listen to different voices; this may be from felt personal agreement, or from more instrumental necessity, but some are seeking to listen and learn.
But to go along with this glint of hope, there was also a sense of: “Ah yes, but can this beast of a machine really be changed by people speaking up? Or will the massive inertia, the sheer weight of the demands of capital, eventually silence the voices?” This felt like a central concern – and we didn’t experience this group seeking a glib answer even if John caught himself wanting to be the purveyor of slick, comforting words on occasion. Chris had a sense of this group “living the question”, in Rilke’s sense.
We were also struck by the wariness of activists throughout the organizational system trying to do good work, to speak up and voice things that really matter, in the face of seemingly insuperable forces that capture and imprison even the most powerful CEO or activist board member. Chris recalls working with the CFO in a FTSE company, a permaculture practitioner and organic farmer, really on the hook to promise perpetual growth to his investors. He said to Chris: “And if I don’t, I’ll be gone tomorrow and replaced by someone else who will. I speak up, but the demands of our investors shout louder”.
One of the participants on the call spoke of Indra’s Net – the Buddhist idea of everything being connected to everything in an intricate web. Chris loved that. It reminded him of John Muir: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” and an image came to him of just how distorted that net is right now. Yes, everything is connected, and an action here does affect consequences far away. But so much of the logic of our system still utterly favours (gives power to) some threads of the web over others. Capital and the owners of the capital, whose perspectives are written into the algorithms that shape the hidden hand of business life, drive the demands of large investors, with the fiduciary perspective enshrined in law …. By god, this feels like a heavy burden for activists to shift.
We’re also really conscious that power and privilege plays out in some strange ways here. Back in the day in environmental activism we used to talk about the danger of all the attention going towards saving “charismatic megafauna” – we’ll march to save tigers and puffins, but no one gives a damn about fungi and slime, equally intricately vital in the ecosystem.
Chris wonders about the same effect here. What is the charismatic megafauna of activism that gets onto the corporate radar and gets addressed, and what does that privileging make disappear? John spoke about the disability group who are part of the research inquiry, a Cinderella issue that never quite gets the attention that others do – that’s one example. Chris thinks of a working-class white boy with a behavioural or cognitive disability, where there’s no resource in the school and no referral to a specialist paediatric mental health service this side of puberty. That child is just about invisible in this rush to be ethical by addressing all the headline diversity issues. Tough stuff. Who is cool enough, powerful enough, to be worth bothering about? Not all activism is equal – and workplaces can find themselves doing a lot of the heavy lifting around social issues that we try and disappear when it comes to our public, big P, Political discourse.
The group wondered a lot about burnout and staying safe enough in this work to do the work. We know how easy it is to burn out, or be shot down, for speaking against the dominant corporate story – Chris from first hand. And it is even more important to pay attention to working with more skill, and to paying attention to self-care in all of this. We were reminded of Johanna Macy’s reminder to “never do this work alone” – there is something very important about making and nurturing the community of activists supporting each other. “Holding hands” in the work, as Helen Sieroda said on the call. If we need to reweave Indra’s Net, it will take lots of connected hands working together to do it.
Above all it comes back to this, as a Trade Union leader put it to John in an interview at an early stage of the research – we are in the midst of a crisis of civilisation. The machine is getting stronger, not weaker; AI, algorithms and automation are enshrining more of the received and taken for granted power positions and all of the dark consequences. Mere awareness and voicing changes little, it simply moves the frustration and sense of despair. We know executives who feel powerless, frustrated and voiceless too.
It feels like we are on a razor’s edge in the reshaping of things and it is not at all clear which way the reshaping will go. We don’t know if we are making progress, or merely painting a veneer – fiddling while Rome burns. The interconnected complexity and the entrenched power positions of our social-business-environment-workplace system are the ultimate in “super wicked” problems. Most of us want it to change, and yet we are all complicit in it not changing.
There is a shed load of work to do. Supporting those who are minded to listen to those who have been traditionally ignored or silenced; supporting those who would speak up so they can do it with the skill to be heard; supporting the capacity to explore and create collaboratively rather than rely on a cacophony of heroic individuals who make a lot of noise, but leave the patterns of the status quo undisturbed. As ever, we lean in. With all our vulnerabilities and fears and unanswered questions and we keep on working. Small steps, a conversation at a time. Not allowing the wish for perfection to stop the tiny hints of progress, the sparks in the dark, where something does move in the direction of hope.