Robert Phillips

Expert Adviser; Visiting Professor; Author & Commentator

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"The future lies in what we do, not what we say"

Employee Activism: Regular People Rising

27th September, 2012 in Article

Trust-on-the-Brink1

This rise of ‘regular people’ has been well charted, not least by the Edelman Trust Barometer which, this year, saw ‘regular employees’ find level pegging with NGOs in the credibility of spokespeople – and surge ahead of more traditional voices, such as those of the CEO. People trust people like themselves and can easily find them within their own networks. These networks are of course not confined to shared interests around sport, poetry, knitting or porn. They exist in the workplace, too, on issues as diverse as executive pay, supply chain ethics and environ- mental protection. Employees are building coalitions with other employees and these coalitions are based on shared values, not imposed rules. Expectations are changing; the clamour for greater transparency, accountability and responsibility continues to rise. Meanwhile, increasing job insecurity, widening pension gaps and falling real wages decrease company loyalties and make challenges to the managerial status quo more likely.

All this also sits within a wider framework where businesses are no longer expected ‘just’ to deliver great products and services and to make money in return. Businesses are increasingly expected to do good and be good – to play a more influential societal role. The employee demand for this is equally a critical component and will most likely only increase in intensity as more Millenials – better connected and more activist-minded – enter the workplace. Businesses consequently need to think, work and organise themselves from the inside out.

Within business, the opportunity exists for leaders to fully embrace the employee as advisor; the employee as advocate; the employee as agent for change.Be Do Employees coming together around shared interests – and possibly co-funded by the employer – will help drive better internal communications; find richer ideas; embed true innovation; protect the social and environmental bottom-line; and ultimately deliver a more genuinely accountable system of governance. New communications platforms will be formed by real people, not detached marketers – and it is around such platforms that active coalitions and NGO partnerships can be built.

The truth, however, is that in many organisations, a fundamental conflict exists between the prevailing hierarchies – which have historically been built as vertical silos – and the horizontal, more fluid and slightly amorphous spread of employee networks. This has all the potential for painful tension. Smart organisations will be those which fully embrace the Be Do Employees activist and harness this energy, rather than fight it. In this scenario, the employee ceases to be a passive recipient of corporate dictats or centralised initiatives; and instead sits at the centre of a de-centralised and empowered network of likeminded souls who, collectively, can be a reforming force for good. Internally, this is a network that sharpens the accountability of business leadership and therefore makes the business itself more stable and robust. Externally, it is also is a network that can spread the (good) word to the outside world of citizen consumers, through family, friends and their communities beyond. ‘Marketing’, too, is all the better and more authentic – and therefore more credible – by being built from the inside out.

This is still a world in transition. The old pyramid that let influence drip down to the masses has not been completely usurped by a wholly inverted pyramid, where the crowd is the start-point for everything. Not everyone is digitally native, nor are all markets born equal. ‘Conventional’ power structures still apply and direct democracy remains more myth than reality. There is still a lot of advertising that seeks to drive mass awareness and mass consumption, even in an increasingly resource-constrained world, just as there are countries where communications remain partly at the say-so of governments (even with Sino Weibo boasting 300 million users). Globally, the power pyramid model is in fact a hybrid one and will remain so, so long as the transition continues.

Social Advocism (a mash of ‘advocates’ and ‘activists’) is therefore the entry point for many but not all. Those who participate in this way, though, will find activist employees right there alongside them; and they, in turn will reach out to the citizen consumers who, in their turn, will inform the elites. The process then can work one of two-ways: downwards, to the masses in an old model of command and control; or upwards, again, in a capillary action that reinforces and re-informs the employees and wider activists. This duality is best represented by the ‘hourglass pyramid’ (with thanks to Richard Edelman), in which both worlds happily co-exist and neither exerts supremacy. Each government; each corporation; each brand; each individual has to find its own way in and its own way through, in order to interpret and deliver its own reality. Demographic shifts will only accelerate change as ‘old’ authorities’ grip on power inevitably is weakened. Progressive business leaders will get ahead of the change curve and begin to govern by tomorrow’s rules, not today’s.

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Copyright 2015 Robert Phillips. Jericho Chambers