Based on Research By Scott Sonenshein, Katherine DeCelles and Jane Dutton

Advice For Employee Advocates About

Changing the World

  • More and more U.S. firms back social equality movements as a way to attract top workers.
  • But it’s still hard to be an activist from the workplace – especially on the issue of climate change.
  • Assessing personal strengths and weaknesses helps employees (and potential employees) be better advocates for their causes.

A few decades ago, it would have been unheard of to think of corporate America as a leader in social justice. Wasn’t the bottom line the only line that mattered?

Recently, however, several U.S. corporations have entered the fray on the side of the less powerful. For example, Dow Chemical and other firms were among those lobbying against the North Carolina bill limiting public restroom access for transgender people. In Georgia, the Disney Corporation helped persuade the governor to veto a similar bill. Even corporations that are controversial on one cause, such as Monsanto, have taken stands on other issues, such as what they see as discriminatory legislation.

There’s a reason some companies are looking out for the underdog: Firms that operate in states with discriminatory laws are struggling to recruit the best and the brightest. Talented employees, these companies know, are often motivated by social and environmental causes from LGBT rights to fighting climate change. In other words, it’s workers themselves who are pushing corporate America toward social activism.

How can they best harness this power?

In a recent paper, Scott Sonenshein, a professor at the business school, Katherine DeCelles of the University of Toronto and Jane Dutton of the University of Michigan explored how employee activists could maximize their often taxing efforts.

Some causes, the scholars found, are more daunting than others. Advocacy for LBGT rights, for instance, can be difficult, but at least the issues are clear-cut. The Supreme Court can make a ruling, and voila: same-sex marriage is legal in Texas.

Battling climate change, however, is trickier. First, as one research subject put it, the issue itself “is probably the most difficult and complicated challenge humanity has ever faced.” Second, at the same time that green advocates are wrapping their own minds around the problem, they must deal with others, including coworkers, who don’t share their passion. Some simply don’t care. “I’m going to make my couple hundred thousand dollars creating money for rich people,” a study participant imagined a coworker declaring. Others, of course, deny climate change is real.

Environmental advocates also face internal doubts. Do they have the wherewithal, some quietly wonder, to tackle climate change’s complexities? Even for individuals, living green can be pricey and inconvenient. Depending on the industry, convincing a company to go green can seem impossible.

Sonenshein and his coauthors propose ways for green activists to take heart. They can start by assessing their “self assets” – all the personal attributes an individual can call on for strength. A person’s values, knowledge and experience can all be assets. So can the ability to adapt. Over time, for example, one study subject learned to adjust the way she talked about climate change to match a given audience, even within the same workplace. The more you can put environmental issues into coworkers’ own language, she told the researchers, “the more you can get them to see the benefits to them” of effecting change.

Curiously, the authors found that practical constraints actually strengthened activists’ ability to promote their causes at work. Self-doubt, for example, often brought out activists’ resolve to improve their technique and turn weakness into strength – with an important caveat. They also needed to recognize their self-assets. That was especially true for those who could look at their overall lives and see that a perceived failure at work could be balanced by success in the same issue at home. If you can’t get recycling going in the office, in other words, don’t give up. Recycle more in your neighborhood.

“Know thyself” is one of our oldest injunctions. By looking at themselves in a multifaceted way, and acknowledging strengths alongside weaknesses, employee activists can appreciate their triumphs where they find them. Just as important, they can muster the courage to fight another day.

Scott Sonenshein is a professor of management in the business school at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Sonenshein, Scott, DeCelles, Katherine A., & Dutton, Jane E. (2014). It’s not easy being green. The role of self-evaluations in explaining support of environmental issues. Academy of Management Journal, 57(1), 7-37.