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Think Twice It's a Good Time for Quiet Radicals

October 25, 2001
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You know that classic philosophical question: If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, did it really make a noise? Let's change it: If no one notices something you do, and it doesn't change the world, is it worth the effort?

No, and yes. No, most of us don't feel like it's worth it. And yes, it's not only worth it, it's the only way to get things done.

Stanford business professor Debra Meyerson spent much of the last decade studying what she calls "Tempered Radicals." In her new book by the same name (Harvard Business School Press, 2001), she found that many changes in management -- work/life benefits in particular -- were instituted by a new kind of workplace activist.

These are non-revolutionary people who work incrementally to create change. They do small things, in small steps -- often deeds that go unnoticed and are against the norm. But their acts make big differences in the workplace.

One large consumer-products company had few women in senior management. HR facilitated brown-bag discussions among employees to discuss the problem. Senior managers, including the CEO, learned about cultural impediments to women's success in the organization, and worked to remove the obstacles.

Brown bags aren't revolutionary, nor is the idea of sharing information about a company's culture. But in this company, the informal conversations were small but significant steps toward change.

In another case, Western Financial was having trouble recruiting non-white employees. Senior vice president Sheila Johnson created a much bigger pool of candidates by launching a job-posting campaign in minority communities. It was the company's first outreach program of its kind.

How can you become a "tempered radical"?

Here are some of my ideas:

  • Use this down economy to invest in technology that your company, however techno-resistant, could use to cut costs in the long run. This could run the gamut of applicant-tracking systems, benefits-administration software, or e-learning.

  • Point out to your CEO the negative potential of a proposed merger or acquisition before it's final. Or, recommend an acquisition candidate that has a similar corporate culture and values. Too often, a company's top brass finds out after a buyout is completed that -- from a workforce standpoint -- the match was a failed blind date between two incompatible organizations.

  • Take a hard look at the extent of your layoffs, and ask tough questions about whether they've gone too far. If they have, put an end to it, and start hiring the talent laid off by your competitors.

  • On the other hand, take a look at your business needs. Do you still have a workforce that was sized up for the rapid growth of the 1990s? Could these fixed costs soon take a toll on your profits, stock price, and eventually, jobs? If so, you may have to slow down your hiring.

  • Tell the employees who are working their tails off that you appreciate it. Tell the ones who aren't that you don't. It's not a novel idea, but it's a tough one to pull off.

  • Before Congress goes home for a winter break, ask your representatives to work on changing one of the many onerous laws and regulations (OSHA record-keeping requirements come to mind) enacted during the litigation binge of the last few decades.

Finding yourself short on ideas? You don't have to come up with them yourself. One of the best things that quietly radical HR professionals and managers can do is to develop mutually trusting relationships with employees. When employees trust their managers, and can speak their minds without fear of retribution, ideas percolate.

If you're waiting for a better time to do this, don't.

"By facilitating a meaningful two-way dialogue with people, managers can tap a deep well of innovation," says Michael McLaughlin, of Deloitte Consulting in Chicago. "It's more important now than ever."

Why now? Because customer needs are changing faster than ever. Charles Schwab learned this from its employees, who recommended that the company start online trading. Schwab listened to these employees and beat others to the punch, giving the company an early and significant online-investing leadership position in the mid-1990s.

Your employees -- or you -- may see opportunities to make small changes. Go ahead. Making them will be worth the effort.

Workforce, November 2001, p. 80 -- Subscribe Now!


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