Hoping to drive social change at work? Here’s a tip.


So what is the impact of using these types of identifiers when movements try to gain allies? “Are these labels mobilizing people or actually causing a bit of conflict?” asks Cynthia Wang, clinical professor of management and organizations at Kellogg. For people who already support the cause, the familiar words could energize them. But for those who are lukewarm, the labels could backfire.

In a new study, Wang and colleagues, including Brayden King, professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, conducted online experiments to gauge participants’ support for a hypothetical gender equity policy in an organization. Among those who identified strongly as feminists, seeing politics labeled as “feminist” bolstered their support. But the opposite was true among people who did not consider themselves feminists.

For the latter group, a more effective strategy for gaining support was to label the policy more generically with the name of the target organization. For example, the Proposed Changes might be called a “Google Policy” or a “Walmart Policy.”

So activists might recruit more allies if they don’t stick to a movement-specific term. “You have to be much more flexible in the type of language you use,” King says. “You can’t assume that all of your potential supporters will be feminists.”

But avoiding a label does not mean avoiding social change. “We certainly don’t tell people to be afraid to be an activist,” he says. It’s more about how to be “a smart activist”.

Look beyond CEOs

Social progress often involves pushing for new policies in organizations. For example, activists can pressure a company to release data on the salaries of male employees compared to female employees or to take steps to address gender bias in hiring. These calls for change may come from employees within the organization or from outside activists posting on an external platform such as Twitter.

Many previous studies have focused on gaining support from executives, Wang says. But she and King, along with Jennifer Whitson of UCLA Anderson School of Management and Rachel Ramirez Dubbireddi, then a graduate student at Kellogg and now at the United Parent Leaders Action Network, wanted to explore the challenge of engaging employees across the organization. . The CEO can tell people what to do, “but there still needs to be implementation,” Wang says. If staff members do not agree with the changes, they may neglect new tasks associated with the policy or postpone.

“Real change requires high levels of support from top to bottom in an organization’s hierarchy,” King says.

From negative to neutral

To explore how people responded to motion tags, the team set up experiments on the Amazon Mechanical Turk online platform. For the first study, they recruited 394 people who were currently working. Participants were asked a few questions to determine the extent to which they identified as feminists.

Next, they were asked to imagine that their organization had sent them an email announcing that the CEO wanted to implement a policy to improve gender equity. For half of the participants, the email called it “a new feminist politics”; for the other half, it was simply called “a new policy”.

Next, participants were asked if they were likely to take actions such as joining a task force, researching diversity practices, and openly endorsing the policy at a company-wide meeting. . Based on their responses, each person was assigned a support score from 1 to 6.

Predictably, people who identified strongly as feminists were more supportive of the policy if it was labeled with the name of the movement. Their support score averaged 4.2 for “feminist” politics and 3.9 for no-label politics.

Among people who did not identify strongly with feminism, the effect was the opposite. Their support score averaged 3.1 if the policy was unlabeled and only 2.5 if the policy was labeled as “feminist”. Similar patterns emerged in another experiment, in which the proposed policy was aimed at addressing sexual harassment and was either unlabeled or described as “based on the principles of the MeToo movement”.

In both studies, non-feminist support for label-free politics was still not as high as that of feminists. But Wang notes that the omission of the label seemed to push the first group from a negative to a neutral position. While they weren’t enthusiastic about the changes, at least they may not have actively opposed them, she says.

Sloppy execution

When a new policy is implemented, it often comes with a long list of tasks. A person’s support can be gauged not only by what they say about the changes, but also by how effectively they perform these tasks. A person who disagrees with the policy could do a shoddy job.

So, could the label of a new policy actually affect people’s performance when they have completed the tasks associated with the policy?

To find out, the researchers conducted an experiment in which 428 participants were given the names and departments of 22 hypothetical staff members who wanted to be kept informed about gender equality policy. The participants received a company directory and for each department had to select the e-mail addresses of these employees. The researchers then counted the number of email addresses that each participant had correctly added to departmental lists.

People who did not consider themselves feminists performed better when politics was unlabeled, on average making one less error in selecting email addresses. These improvements, added to many employees in an organization, could have substantial collective benefits, Wang says.

Tapping into company pride

Finally, the researchers wanted to test whether an alternative label would garner more support from non-feminists. One possibility was to appeal to employees who identified strongly with the organization.

For this experiment, the team measured participants’ feelings toward their employer. For example, people were asked if they considered their organization’s successes to be their successes and whether they usually used the term “we” or “they” when talking about the organization.

Next, the team presented the same email announcing a gender equity policy, but for half of the participants, the name of the organization the participant worked for was inserted. For example, if the person worked at Starbucks, the email called it a “Starbucks policy.” For the other half of the participants, the policy was described as “feminist”, without the name of the organization.

Among people who identified strongly with their organization but not as feminists, their support for a feminist-labeled policy was 3.5. But when the name of the organization was attached to the policy instead, their support averaged 4.2. This score was even higher than that of strongly feminist participants who did not identify strongly with their employer.

Triggering this organizational identity “is going to be most important for people who identify very little as feminists,” King says. “That’s where you’ll get the most bang for your buck.”

One ally at a time

Activists should consider the “micro-mechanisms” behind gaining allies, Wang says. “People often think of social movements as one big thing,” she says. “But we also need to understand the psychology of individuals who can help implement change, one person at a time.”

Some activists may be reluctant to avoid language that is integral to their movement. But King suggests viewing change as two parallel processes. In public discourse, when activists create legitimacy for their cause, movement-specific labels can be important. But in one-on-one conversations with members of an organization, activists may want to tailor their message to resonate with their audience.

The strategy is similar to those used by politicians trying to gain broad support among voters or colleagues across the aisle. A Democrat would likely have a better chance of passing a new health care program if they emphasized that it “helped the middle class” rather than calling it a “progressive” or “left-wing” policy.

Likewise, activists may need to take into account the political leanings of the employees of the targeted organization. “You have to build a coalition,” says Wang. To do this, “you have to understand that sometimes some languages ​​will be more appealing than others.”


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