What Social Movements can teach Organizations?

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On the surface, popular protest movements and corporate entities seem worlds apart. Over the past decade, numerous social protest movements have emerged – from the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and our tent protests, to Black Lives Matter, MeToo, global climate change rallies, and the ongoing demonstrations for democracy in Israel. Surprisingly, these modern protests, with their deep-seated ability to incite collective action without a formal leadership structure, offer invaluable lessons for organizations.

Ask yourself – how, in a world where organizations use the phrase “quiet resignation” to describe certain employees, these very individuals passionately invest overtime into protests? Why is it that they resist office mandates but are instantly available for causes they believe in? Organizations struggle to draw attendance for Zoom meetings and training sessions, yet protest webinars overflow with participants. The challenge of fostering leadership in a remote work environment seems vast, yet our employees eagerly follow unappointed leaders, some unknown till just a year ago. These individuals receive compensation for their work, yet their drive for voluntary causes surpasses all.

What is it about protests that ignites such fervor, a passion seemingly absent from their professional lives? What lessons can organizations glean from this phenomenon?

The Power of Purpose – building authentic communities

Harnessing energies solely around shareholder profits or merely because the CEO decreed it, is insufficient. Most of the organizational reward and motivation mechanisms fail to tap into that primal drive we witness in protests: an uncompromising dedication to a genuine mission, without remuneration, conditions, or systematic oversight. If your organization is guided by such a mission, you possess a potent force that fosters connectivity, unity, and motivation not just for employees but for all stakeholders, including suppliers, investors, and clients. This purpose acts as a collective compass, steering individuals through objectives and values in ways that goal-driven management cannot emulate. With a shared mission, employees will exceed expectations, leading to improved retention, heightened job satisfaction, and a culture where individuals consistently surpass their responsibilities. However, this purpose can’t be artificially constructed or reduced to a mere slogan; it must resonate with the company’s core values and operational ethos.

If such a mission is absent from your organization’s core activities, it can be instilled through its social values or operational approach—be it community engagement, value-based leadership, or significant social endeavors. A case in point, albeit a risky one, was NIKE’s 2018 decision to feature NFL player Colin Kaepernick as an ambassador after he was released from the league for refusing to stand for the national anthem, protesting racial injustice. This ignited a wave of protest energy—initially negative, with the hashtag #NikeBoycott and images of incinerated products, but eventually translating into a 10% surge in sales, applauding a brand that took a stance against racism.

The Power of Transparency – Rapid Responsiveness

Social activism doesn’t abide by multi-year strategic plans anchored in extensive research and lengthy deliberations. The unpredictable landscape in which these movements thrive necessitates swift adaptability, recalibrating actions based on emerging information, evolving scenarios, and real-time feedback. A crucial instrument for this agility is open, fluid multi-directional communication, epitomized by the 2019 Hong Kong protests’ mantra: “be water.”

Organizations too, undeniably, benefit from this adaptability. However, it’s rarely practiced. The higher up the ladder you are, the more filtered the information becomes, having passed through numerous perspectives. The multiple layers of hierarchy harbor individuals quick to dismiss with responses like “the legal team won’t approve,” “there’s no budget,” “it’s not a priority,” or, at best, “it needs planning; we’ll consider it next year.” Contrast this with social protest movements. There’s a clear purpose, accompanied by the liberty to innovate and an openness to initiatives. An idea like “Marching to Jerusalem”, which recently brought hundreds of thousands out of airconditioned homes at a day’s notice in the middle of summer, isn’t halted by logistical concerns; rather, it’s propelled by those believing in its feasibility, trusting that solutions will emerge on the journey, and recognizing that even if they falter, there might be others ready to step in and carry the torch.

Of course, not every aspect of an organization can function in this manner. Nor does it imply a free-for-all environment. Yet, with a guiding mission and an engaged workforce, there are undoubtedly countless ideas and initiatives poised for progression. These may be initiatives you haven’t even thought to solicit or, worse, ones you inadvertently stifle. Consider how your organization can cultivate an environment that not only welcomes such initiatives but also entrusts their proponents with the responsibility to garner support and resources. Even if an endeavor doesn’t pan out initially, the key is to channel that energy to ensure they’re emboldened to try again.

The Power of Digital – Leveraging Technology for Engagement

Modern activism is intrinsically linked with digital platforms. Movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too began with a mere hashtag, enabling individuals to unite over shared personal tales and grassroots campaigns on social media. Yet, the organic nature of these movements’ digital engagements starkly contrasts the more structured approach organizations adopt with online networks, highlighting a significant disconnect.

Since 2006, Edelman’s trust studies have shown that “someone like me” ranks highest in terms of trust, far surpassing government officials or organization spokespersons. Yet, when organizations aim to, say, establish a brand—even one rooted in their employees’ personal stories—they curate and package these narratives within the confines of corporate websites or social media pages, complete with polished images and logos. In stark contrast, protest movements release a hashtag into the wild, offering complete creative liberty for its utilization. While these movements may have logos, advocacy factions, and even press statements, the bulk of the content shared online is crafted by individuals in an uncontrolled, unstructured, and unbranded manner.

If the idea of “freeing” your employees to discuss the organization online gives you pause, you might be ignoring reality. If they have something to say, especially critiques, they’re already expressing it online. Platforms like Glassdoor, Indeed, Blind, and others exist precisely for people to anonymously share their experiences with employers. High-budget employer branding campaigns won’t salvage your reputation if employees don’t enjoy working for you. However, if your brand genuinely stands out, empower your employees to share their stories authentically. Let them creatively express themselves within a defined boundary that protects the organization’s IP, leveraging the “someone like me” principle to convey the narrative most convincingly.

Power to the People – Adaptive Leadership

One of the emerging trends in popular movements, likely due to the capabilities offered by online platforms, is their growth without centralized leadership. The 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, concurrent with Israel’s tent protests, signified the inception of movements not directed by a traditional top-down hierarchy but by fluid leadership distributed across diverse individuals and groups. This value of decentralized leadership was evident in the 2017 Women’s March in the USA, one of the nation’s largest-ever demonstrations, amassing approximately 4-5 million participants. Such impressive turnout was attributed to decentralized leadership, enabling the march to encompass and represent a myriad of issues and identities from various communities under a unified banner.

Decentralizing leadership shifts the paradigm, redirecting allegiance from individuals to ideas. Instead of managers dictating actions, actions seek out those willing to undertake them. Various tasks find different leaders, ensuring leadership naturally emerges from those poised to champion specific causes at given moments. This approach allows individuals to step into leadership roles upon identifying unmet needs. As it often encompasses local initiatives, this mechanism not only cultivates local leadership but also galvanizes their communities into active collaborators.

This approach enables individuals to align with leaders who resonate with their beliefs and mannerisms. Observe, for instance, how current protests operate across distinct factions. Leadership style, activities, messages, and even focal points greatly differ between groups—like the reservists’ protest, the tech professionals, or the women’s rally. It’s plausible that a leadership focusing predominantly on the women’s movement wouldn’t have garnered the same traction as the reservists’ demonstration. Leadership decentralization broadens the array of styles and messages, appealing to a more diverse audience. It allows individuals to connect with the overarching cause, even if they might not rally behind a single figure or someone outside their peer group.

Within organizations and their subcultures, this principle holds true. Often, in many meetings, discussions revolve around a project or challenge, with the leadership deciding who should take it on, thereby imposing top-down leadership rather than nurturing it organically. Alternatively, promoting transparency around tasks and challenges and eliminating barriers can enable the apt individuals to gravitate towards the right initiatives when needed. Such a model can foster dynamic teams, yield innovative outcomes, maximize individual strengths, and grant the organization enhanced adaptability and flexibility.

As the work landscape evolves, there’s wisdom in studying how social movements galvanize individuals with immense vigor, devoid of monetary incentives or conditions, driven by profound emotional engagement that propels them to exceed expectations. It’s noteworthy that protests frequently emerge in response to external shifts, yet they adeptly craft strategies, devise tactics, delineate tasks and roles, and manage communications, behavior, and deliverables. And they accomplish all this with unparalleled flexibility and creativity—qualities we all aspire to instill within our organizations in an ever-changing world.

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Nirit Cohen

Nirit Cohen is an expert in the future of work, bridging the gap between emerging trends and practical solutions, providing valuable insights for careers, management, organizations, and broader societal systems.

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