Navigating the Predictable Surprise of Social Activism

Key Takeaways

  • Contrary to appearances, social movements emerge only after a healthy gestation
  • Understanding their evolution can help managers avoid being blind-sided
  • The most important tool is already at hand – employees, especially those at the periphery

Among the more common sentiments expressed by leaders today is a sense of feeling overwhelmed. Buffeted not only by the pandemic, but by what can seem a fast-paced and unrelenting stream of employee, customer, and other demands for change, it’s understandable many are desperate for solutions. After all, pressures to embrace racial and gender equality, social justice, climate action and sustainable practice, while also addressing the “Great Resignation” with its call for greater responsiveness to employee needs and interests is difficult. Each and every one of these challenges is complex. But are they unexpected? In point of fact, social movements are slow to emerge. Understanding their gestation can help leaders not only prepare for impact, but avoid major setbacks.

My research, and the broader social movement literature, shows the seeds of any movement are sown long before any demonstrated activism. The process begins with low lying grievance. Experienced individually at first, grievance percolates (in this fashion, separating itself from the many trivial nuisances we endure every day). Only through shared exchange and interaction can the discovery of common grievance emerge, setting the stage for a social movement to take root. In fact, all data point to the commonality of grievance (i.e., shared sense of disquiet) combined with motivation born of protracted frustration that are essential for the laborious process of movement building (i.e., organization, resource-gathering, frame development) to develop. All told, what often appears to movement outsiders as spontaneous action is in fact the result of a lengthy evolution.

How can leaders capitalize on these findings? Clearly, disruption poses a grave danger to organizations. In some cases, such as the pandemic, advance clues are few. Yet in case of the movements referenced earlier, each experienced a long fomentation. The missing piece of the puzzle: mechanisms for sensing broader changes not only in customer and societal demands, but also the needs and interests of employees.

Time and again, surveys reveal many leaders have little appreciation of the issues confronting employees, including their most urgent needs, such as flexibility. Opening lines of communication to glean information into critical challenges – factors impeding not only performance, but job satisfaction – is an important step. So, too, pattern tracing. Employees’ needs are often diverse. Yet recurring or systemic grievances should raise a red flag -- something true not only regarding employees, but also customers and other stakeholders.

How to take their pulse? Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, was keen to note “snow melts at the periphery”. Restated, temperature changes are most acutely felt at the boundary. For immediate insight into changing needs and demands, the front-line – including members in HR, sales, service and other boundary spanning positions -- should be engaged directly. Their insights, derived through daily interactions, are an invaluable (yet under-utilized) tool in navigating a changing world.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.