Why senior leaders don’t listen to activist employees

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Recent protests and political upheaval have highlighted the gulf between the attitudes of senior leaders and their younger employees. We need to find a consensus to create a sustainable workplace argues Megan Reitz from Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and John Higgins from The Right Conversation.

Over the lifetime of most current senior leaders of big organisations, a series of assumptions will have taken root about how the world works, assumptions that will have been reinforced by years of experience and will have turned into a well tried and tested worldview. 

When faced with a new generation of employees, who see the world differently, the temptation is to dismiss their perspective as something they’ll grow out of. 

One example is a partner of a professional services firm who, when his firm was getting very exercised about gender equality at more senior levels, observed: “Just wait for the next recession. Then people will worry about what really matters - i.e. having a job, any job”.

Some of these hard-won assumptions that shape how the current generation of leaders sees the world of work and the relationship between work, life and everything else include:

  • An organisation exists independently of wider society, as long as it complies with the laws of the land it is free to pursue its own interests.
  • An organisation can create its own culture, customs and practices that employees will comply with.
  • Employees who wish to be politically active citizens do so on their own time and don’t involve the good name of their employer (unless approved by HR).

Anything that can be seen as being part of a ‘big P’ (political agenda), including groups such as Occupy or Extinction Rebellion, have traditionally been seen as of no concern to senior leaders. 

Their attitude towards this is that what people get up to at the weekend is nobody’s business except the individual in question, as long as they turn up on Monday morning able to get on with their job.

How did we get here?

These assumptions by senior leaders and the older generation about the clear divide between the rights of people as employees and their rights as citizens have remained unchallenged for a number of reasons, which our recent research highlights:

  • Senior leaders are unaware of how out of touch they are with the views and experiences of others. They consistently believe that junior people speak up to them more than they do.
     
  • Board level and ExCo level leaders are the most optimistic (deluded?) group in terms of viewing themselves as free from bias, especially in terms of gender and ethnicity. Unconscious and/or inadmissible bias is rampant.

Historically the role of HR has been to work to sustain the standalone culture of the organisation, as mandated by its owners and senior executives. 

Dialogue across the hierarchy and generations has not existed in any meaningful form.

We are in imminent peril and younger people are more invested in having a sustainable future, and less interested in the benefits of the status quo and its executive perks. 

Indeed, it’s often reduced to no more than the annual employee survey, where the focus and priorities follow the organisation-specific agenda of the senior management, and town hall meetings that are usually a masterclass in how to create a context for silencing dissenting voices. 

The need to challenge this impoverished form of dialogue is now a matter of organisational urgency. 

Younger employees, especially those full of energy and ambition, are becoming familiar with forms of direct action alien to their older employers – and they’re voting with their feet, going to organisations that are willing to embrace the hurly-burly of a politically engaged workplace. 

What can be done?

There are three areas of action senior leaders can engage with, which will be challenging for them.

  1. Take the concerns of young (and old) activists seriously 

    As a senior leader you may think that Extinction Rebellion is going a bit far, but the body of evidence that drives their actions is sober and rigorous, and points to a clear and present danger to our current civilization. 

    We are in imminent peril and younger people are more invested in having a sustainable future, and less interested in the benefits of the status quo and its executive perks. 

    You may also think that issues to do with racism and sexism have been legislated away, but once again the lived experience of many challenges this. 

    The current organisational and world order may be comfortable for you, but it isn’t as comfortable for a generation frustrated by how little has actually been achieved.
     

  2. Realise that you don’t listen as much as you think you do 

    The more senior you are, the more you are part of the ‘in-group’ of your organisation (and all human groupings have in-groups and out-groups), and the more at ease you will be in the company of others.

    It can be hard to remember what it was like not to have the privileges of social and organisational rank and the psychological safety that gives you. 

    This means you will barely notice that you are talking more than others or that they are pausing before they speak to you, picking their words carefully, because they might well find you scary. 

    Town Hall meetings and formal events are not settings where more junior people or holders of alternative points of view will feel free to speak up.

    Think about settings where people will feel free to speak to you, not that suit you to speak at them. 
     

  3. Embrace the political concerns of younger activists as business concerns

    In the UK Chapter Zero, a coalition of NEDs (Non-Executive Directors), has been formed under the auspices of the World Economic Forum to bring to the attention of business that manmade climate change is a pressing business risk. 

    It is going to have an impact on ‘business as usual’ and fits within most firms’ strategic planning horizons.

    In the world of equality, women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds are working hard in all sorts of industries, from insurance to hospitality and healthcare, not just arguing their case from a moral point of view but also in terms of the scandalous waste of human ability that discrimination results in.

As a senior leader you will know when you are really hearing news of difference when it gets under your skin, when it gets an emotional reaction from you and gets your defensive reactions flying. 

If these (mostly) young activist employees are not unsettling you, then you’re not listening. 

Your job is to pause and respond with thoughtfulness to what they are saying - not to react with a kneejerk response that comes from your spontaneous habits of mind. 

Your job is to hear more and then work together to explore what can be done to address a situation our organisational practice has never faced before – creating sustainable workplaces in a world of profound existential threat.

Interested in this topic? Read HR in a heatwave: what role do we play in climate change?

This article is co-authored by Megan Reitz and John Higgins.

About Megan Reitz

Megan Reitz

Megan Reitz is Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Hult Ashridge International Business School. John Higgins is a research fellow at Gameshift, a coach and consultant. They are authors of Speak Up: Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard, (Pearson, £14.99).

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15th Aug 2019 16:13

This is such an important topic as intersecting happens externally to corporations (stakeholders, activists - environmental, social, economic, governments, suppliers, customers, citizens, investors) and internally (Boards, leaders, employees, social responsibility initiatives - all with their own viewpoints, agendas in a world that continues to be potentially divisive and polarised, and where the dangers of psychologically unsafe work spaces are becoming more apparent ... Well done for highlighting the challenge, and encouraging healthy debate.

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