Strategies for Change
Week 4: "Radical Change, the Quiet Way"
I was told by a manager years ago that “no one likes to hear someone screaming that the Emperor is naked”. At the time I had no idea what he meant. I got the basic message that I needed to be quiet, but I didn’t fully understand the fable. Of course, after years of experience it became clear. No one likes to be criticized, or to have their leader criticized. This means that even if our beloved leader (company, friend, whatever the object of the complaint is) appears naked with a kingdom full of people able to see them, it is simply not polite or respectful to begin screaming to point it out. You’ll likely accomplish more productive change with tempered, timely, and respectful communication.
Initial Post Instructions
Read “Radical Change, the Quiet Way” then think of a time when you felt compelled to yell out that the Emperor is naked (metaphorically speaking). Use the actions described in the “Ideas in Action” section to describe possible actions you could have taken. What reaction would you likely have received if you had simply hollered out and identified loudly all the things that are wrong with the situation? How might the outcome be different if you used the actions described? How do the concepts discussed reinforce the need for effective communication? Use and cite a minimum of three scholarly references beyond the texts used in the course to defend your reasoning.
Follow Up Posts
After your initial post, read over the items posted by your peers and your instructor. Select at least two different posts, and address the following items in your responses:
i. Help your classmates expand on their suggested actions. Share additional ideas for actions they could take.
ii. Share some of your own experiences (good or bad) that helps reinforce the concepts discussed here.
Radical Change, the Quiet Way
by Debra E. Meyerson
AT ONE POINT OR ANOTHER, many managers experience a spang of conscience—a yearning to confront the basic or hidden assumptions, interests, practices, or values within an organization that they feel are stodgy, unfair, even downright wrong. A vice president wishes that more people of color would be promoted. A partner at a consulting firm thinks new MBAs are being so overworked that their families are hurting. A senior manager suspects his company, with some extra cost, could be kinder to the environment. Yet many people who want to drive changes like these face an uncomfortable dilemma. If they speak out too loudly, resentment builds toward them; if they play by the rules and remain silent, resentment builds inside them. Is there any way, then, to rock the boat without falling out of it?
Over the past 15 years, I have studied hundreds of professionals who spend the better part of their work lives trying to answer this question. Each one of the people I’ve studied differs from the organizational status quo in some way—in values, race, gender, or sexual preference, perhaps (see the sidebar “How the Research Was Done”). They all see things a bit differently from the “norm.” But despite feeling at odds with aspects of the prevailing culture, they genuinely like their jobs and want to continue to succeed in them, to effectively use their differences as the impetus for constructive change. They believe that direct, angry confrontation will get them nowhere, but they don’t sit by and allow frustration to fester. Rather, they work quietly to challenge prevailing wisdom and gently provoke their organizational cultures to adapt. I call such change agents tempered radicals because they work to effect significant changes in moderate ways.
How the Research Was Done
THIS ARTICLE IS BASED ON a multipart research effort that I began in 1986 with Maureen Scully, a professor of management at the Center for Gender in Organizations at Simmons Graduate School of Management in Boston. We had observed a number of people in our own occupation—academia—who, for various reasons, felt at odds with the prevailing culture of their institutions. Initially, we set out to understand how these individuals sustained their sense of self amid pressure to conform and how they managed to uphold their values without jeopardizing their careers. Eventually, this research broadened to include interviews with individuals in a variety of organizations and occupations: business people, doctors, nurses, lawyers, architects, administrators, and engineers at various levels of seniority in their organizations.
Since 1986, I have observed and interviewed dozens of tempered radicals in many occupations and conducted focused research with 236 men and women, ranging from mid-level professionals to CEOs. The sample was diverse, including people of different races, nationalities, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and people who hold a wide range of values and change agendas. Most of these people worked in one of three publicly traded corporations—a financial services organization, a high-growth computer components corporation, and a company that makes and sells consumer products. In this portion of the research, I set out to learn more about the challenges tempered radicals face and discover their strategies for surviving, thriving, and fomenting change. The sum of this research resulted in the spectrum of strategies described in this article.
In so doing, they exercise a form of leadership within organizations that is more localized, more diffuse, more modest, and less visible than traditional forms—yet no less significant. In fact, top executives seeking to institute cultural or organizational change—who are, perhaps, moving tradition-bound organizations down new roads or who are concerned about reaping the full potential of marginalized employees—might do well to seek out these tempered radicals, who may be hidden deep within their own organizations. Because such individuals are both dedicated to their companies and masters at changing organizations at the grassroots level, they can prove extremely valuable in helping top managers to identify fundamental causes of discord, recognize alternative perspectives, and adapt to changing needs and circumstances. In addition, tempered radicals, given support from above and a modicum of room to experiment, can prove to be excellent leaders. (For more on management’s role in fostering tempered radicals, see the sidebar “Tempered Radicals as Everyday Leaders.”)
Idea in Brief
How do you rock your corporate boat—without falling out? You know your firm needs constructive change, but here’s your dilemma: If you push your agenda too hard, resentment builds against you. If you remain silent, resentment builds inside you.
What’s a manager to do? Become a tempered radical—an informal leader who quietly challenges prevailing wisdom and provokes cultural transformation. These radicals bear no banners and sound no trumpets. Their seemingly innocuous changes barely inspire notice. But like steady drops of water, they gradually erode granite.
Tempered radicals embody contrasts. Their commitments are firm, but their means flexible. They yearn for rapid change, but trust in patience. They often work alone, yet unite others. Rather than pressing their agendas, they start conversations. And instead of battling powerful foes, they seek powerful friends. The overall effect? Evolutionary—but relentless—change.
Since the actions of tempered radicals are not, by design, dramatic, their leadership may be difficult to recognize. How, then, do people who run organizations, who want to nurture this diffuse source of cultural adaptation, find and develop these latent leaders? One way is to appreciate the variety of modes in which tempered radicals operate, learn from them, and support their efforts.
To navigate between their personal beliefs and the surrounding cultures, tempered radicals draw principally on a spectrum of incremental approaches, including four I describe here. I call these disruptive self-expression, verbal jujitsu, variable-term opportunism, and strategic alliance building. Disruptive self-expression, in which an individual simply acts in a way that feels personally right but that others notice, is the most inconspicuous way to initiate change. Verbal jujitsu turns an insensitive statement, action, or behavior back on itself. Variable-term opportunists spot, create, and capitalize on short- and long-term opportunities for change. And with the help of strategic alliances, an individual can push through change with more force.
Idea in Practice
Tempered radicals use these tactics:
Demonstrate your values through your language, dress, office décor, or behavior. People notice and talk—often becoming brave enough to try the change themselves. The more people talk, the greater the impact.
Example: Stressed-out manager John Ziwak began arriving at work earlier so he could leave by 6:00 p.m. to be with family. He also refused evening business calls. As his stress eased, his performance improved. Initially skeptical, colleagues soon accommodated, finding more efficient ways of working and achieving balance in their own lives.
Redirect negative statements or actions into positive change.
Example: Sales manager Brad Williams noticed that the new marketing director’s peers ignored her during meetings. When one of them co-opted a thought she had already expressed, Williams said: “I’m glad George picked up on Sue’s concerns. Sue, did George correctly capture what you were thinking?” No one ignored Sue again.
Be ready to capitalize on unexpected opportunities for short-term change, as well as orchestrate deliberate, longer term change.
Example: Senior executive Jane Adams joined a company with a dog-eat-dog culture. To insinuate her collaborative style, she shared power with direct reports, encouraged them to also delegate, praised them publicly, and invited them to give high-visibility presentations. Her division gained repute as an exceptional training ground for building experience, responsibility, and confidence.
Strategic Alliance Building
Gain clout by working with allies. Enhance your legitimacy and implement change more quickly and directly than you could alone. Don’t make “opponents” enemies—they’re often your best source of support and resources.
Example: Paul Wielgus started a revolution in his bureaucratic global spirits company—by persuading the opposition to join him. Others derided the training department Wielgus formed to boost employee creativity, and an auditor scrutinized the department for unnecessary expense. Rather than getting defensive, Paul treated the auditor as an equal and sold him on the program’s value. The training spread, inspiring employees and enhancing productivity throughout the company.
Each of these approaches can be used in many ways, with plenty of room for creativity and wit. Self-expression can be done with a whisper; an employee who seeks more racial diversity in the ranks might wear her dashiki to company parties. Or it can be done with a roar; that same employee might wear her dashiki to the office every day. Similarly, a person seeking stricter environmental policies might build an alliance by enlisting the help of one person, the more powerful the better. Or he might post his stance on the company intranet and actively seek a host of supporters. Taken together, the approaches form a continuum of choices from which tempered radicals draw at different times and in various circumstances.
But before looking at the approaches in detail, it’s worth reconsidering, for a moment, the ways in which cultural change happens in the workplace.
How Organizations Change
Research has shown that organizations change primarily in two ways: through drastic action and through evolutionary adaptation. In the former case, change is discontinuous and often forced on the organization or mandated by top management in the wake of major technological innovations, by a scarcity or abundance of critical resources, or by sudden changes in the regulatory, legal, competitive, or political landscape. Under such circumstances, change may happen quickly and often involves significant pain. Evolutionary change, by contrast, is gentle, incremental, decentralized, and over time produces a broad and lasting shift with less upheaval.
Tempered Radicals as Everyday Leaders
IN THE COURSE OF THEIR DAILY actions and interactions, tempered radicals teach important lessons and inspire change. In so doing, they exercise a form of leadership within organizations that is less visible than traditional forms—but just as important.
The trick for organizations is to locate and nurture this subtle form of leadership. Consider how Barry Coswell, a conservative, yet open-minded lawyer who headed up the securities division of a large, distinguished financial services firm, identified, protected, and promoted a tempered radical within his organization. Dana, a left-of-center, first-year attorney, came to his office on her first day of work after having been fingerprinted—a standard practice in the securities industry. The procedure had made Dana nervous: What would happen when her new employer discovered that she had done jail time for participating in a 1960s-era civil rights protest? Dana quickly understood that her only hope of survival was to be honest about her background and principles. Despite the difference in their political proclivities, she decided to give Barry the benefit of the doubt. She marched into his office and confessed to having gone to jail for sitting in front of a bus.
“I appreciate your honesty,” Barry laughed, “but unless you’ve broken a securities law, you’re probably okay.” In return for her small confidence, Barry shared stories of his own about growing up in a poor county and about his life in the military. The story swapping allowed them to put aside ideological disagreements and to develop a deep respect for each other. Barry sensed a budding leader in Dana. Here was a woman who operated on the strength of her convictions and was honest about it but was capable of discussing her beliefs without self-righteousness. She didn’t pound tables. She was a good conversationalist. She listened attentively. And she was able to elicit surprising confessions from him.
Barry began to accord Dana a level of protection, and he encouraged her to speak her mind, take risks, and most important, challenge his assumptions. In one instance, Dana spoke up to defend a female junior lawyer who was being evaluated harshly and, Dana believed, inequitably. Dana observed that different standards were being applied to male and female lawyers, but her colleagues dismissed her “liberal” concerns. Barry cast a glance at Dana, then said to the staff, “Let’s look at this and see if we are being too quick to judge.” After the meeting, Barry and Dana held a conversation about double standards and the pervasiveness of bias. In time, Barry initiated a policy to seek out minority legal counsel, both in-house and at outside legal firms. And Dana became a senior vice president.
In Barry’s ability to recognize, mentor, and promote Dana there is a key lesson for executives who are anxious to foster leadership in their organizations. It suggests that leadership development may not rest with expensive external programs or even with the best intentions of the human resources department. Rather it may rest with the open-minded recognition that those who appear to rock the boat may turn out to be the most effective of captains.
The power of evolutionary approaches to promote cultural change is the subject of frequent discussion. For instance, in “We Don’t Need Another Hero” (HBR, September 2001), Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr., asserts that the most effective moral leaders often operate beneath the radar, achieving their reforms without widespread notice. Likewise, tempered radicals gently and continually push against prevailing norms, making a difference in small but steady ways and setting examples from which others can learn. The changes they inspire are so incremental that they barely merit notice—which is exactly why they work so well. Like drops of water, these approaches are innocuous enough in themselves. But over time and in accumulation, they can erode granite.
Consider, for example, how a single individual slowly—but radically—altered the face of his organization. Peter Grant1 was a black senior executive who held some 18 positions as he moved up the ladder at a large West Coast bank. When he first joined the company as a manager, he was one of only a handful of people of color on the professional staff. Peter had a private, long-term goal: to bring more women and racial minorities into the fold and help them succeed. Throughout his 30-year career running the company’s local banks, regional offices, and corporate operations, one of his chief responsibilities was to hire new talent. Each time he had the opportunity, Peter attempted to hire a highly qualified member of a minority. But he did more than that—every time he hired someone, he asked that person to do the same. He explained to the new recruits the importance of hiring women and people of color and why it was their obligation to do likewise.
Whenever minority employees felt frustrated by bias, Peter would act as a supportive mentor. If they threatened to quit, he would talk them out of it. “I know how you feel, but think about the bigger picture here,” he’d say. “If you leave, nothing here will change.” His example inspired viral behavior in others. Many stayed and hired other minorities; those who didn’t carried a commitment to hire minorities into their new companies. By the time Peter retired, more than 3,500 talented minority and female employees had joined the bank.
Peter was the most tempered, yet the most effective, of radicals. For many years, he endured racial slurs and demeaning remarks from colleagues. He waited longer than his peers for promotions; each time he did move up he was told the job was too big for him and he was lucky to have gotten it. “I worked my rear end off to make them comfortable with me,” he said, late in his career. “It wasn’t luck.” He was often angry, but lashing out would have been the path of least emotional resistance. So without attacking the system, advancing a bold vision, or wielding great power, Peter chipped away at the organization’s demographic base using the full menu of change strategies described below.
At the most tempered end of the change continuum is the kind of self-expression that quietly disrupts others’ expectations. Whether waged as a deliberate act of protest or merely as a personal demonstration of one’s values, disruptive self-expression in language, dress, office decor, or behavior can slowly change the atmosphere at work. Once people take notice of the expression, they begin to talk about it. Eventually, they may feel brave enough to try the same thing themselves. The more people who talk about the transgressive act or repeat it, the greater the cultural impact.
Consider the case of John Ziwak, a manager in the business development group of a high-growth computer components company. As a hardworking business school graduate who’d landed a plum job, John had every intention of working 80-hour weeks on the fast track to the top. Within a few years, he married a woman who also held a demanding job; soon, he became the father of two. John found his life torn between the competing responsibilities of home and work. To balance the two, John shifted his work hours—coming into the office earlier in the morning so that he could leave by 6 pm. He rarely scheduled late-afternoon meetings and generally refused to take calls at home in the evening between 6:30 and 9. As a result, his family life improved, and he felt much less stress, which in turn improved his performance at work.
At first, John’s schedule raised eyebrows; availability was, after all, an unspoken key indicator of commitment to the company. “If John is unwilling to stay past 6,” his boss wondered, “is he really committed to his job? Why should I promote him when others are willing and able to work all the time?” But John always met his performance expectations, and his boss didn’t want to lose him. Over time, John’s colleagues adjusted to his schedule. No one set up conference calls or meetings involving him after 5. One by one, other employees began adopting John’s “6 o’ clock rule”; calls at home, particularly during dinner hour, took place only when absolutely necessary. Although the 6 o’ clock rule was never formalized, it nonetheless became par for the course in John’s department. Some of John’s colleagues continued to work late, but they all appreciated these changes in work practice and easily accommodated them. Most people in the department felt more, not less, productive during the day as they adapted their work habits to get things done more efficiently—for example, running meetings on schedule and monitoring interruptions in their day. According to John’s boss, the employees appreciated the newfound balance in their lives, and productivity in the department did not suffer in the least.
Tempered radicals know that even the smallest forms of disruptive self-expression can be exquisitely powerful. The story of Dr. Frances Conley offers a case in point. By 1987, Dr. Conley had already established herself as a leading researcher and neurosurgeon at Stanford Medical School and the Palo Alto Veteran’s Administration hospital. But as one of very few women in the profession, she struggled daily to maintain her feminine identity in a macho profession and her integrity amid gender discrimination. She had to keep her cool when, for example, in the middle of directing a team of residents through complicated brain surgery, a male colleague would stride into the operating room to say, “Move over, honey.” “Not only did that undermine my authority and expertise with the team,” Dr. Conley recalled later, “but it was unwarranted—and even dangerous. That kind of thing would happen all the time.”
Despite the frustration and anger she felt, Dr. Conley at that time had no intention of making a huge issue of her gender. She didn’t want the fact that she was a woman to compromise her position, or vice versa. So she expressed herself in all sorts of subtle ways, including in what she wore. Along with her green surgical scrubs, she donned white lace ankle socks—an unequivocal expression of her femininity. In itself, wearing lace ankle socks could hardly be considered a Gandhian act of civil disobedience. The socks merely said, “I can be a neurosurgeon and be feminine.” But they spoke loudly enough in the stolid masculinity of the surgical environment, and, along with other small actions on her part, they sparked conversation in the hospital. Nurses and female residents frequently commented on Dr. Conley’s style. “She is as demanding as any man and is not afraid to take them on,” they would say, in admiration. “But she is also a woman and not ashamed of it.”
Ellen Thomas made a comparable statement with her hair. As a young African-American consultant in a technical services business, she navigated constantly between organizational pressures to fit in and her personal desire to challenge norms that made it difficult for her to be herself. So from the beginning of her employment, Ellen expressed herself by wearing her hair in neat cornrow braids. For Ellen, the way she wore her hair was not just about style; it was a symbol of her racial identity.
Once, before making an important client presentation, a senior colleague advised Ellen to unbraid her hair “to appear more professional.” Ellen was miffed, but she didn’t respond. Instead, she simply did not comply. Once the presentation was over and the client had been signed, she pulled her colleague aside. “I want you to know why I wear my hair this way,” she said calmly. “I’m a black woman, and I happen to like the style. And as you just saw,” she smiled, “my hairstyle has nothing to do with my ability to do my job.”
Does leaving work at 6 PM or wearing lacy socks or cornrows force immediate change in the culture? Of course not; such acts are too modest. But disruptive self-expression does do two important things. First, it reinforces the tempered radical’s sense of the importance of his or her convictions. These acts are self-affirming. Second, it pushes the status quo door slightly ajar by introducing an alternative modus operandi. Whether they are subtle, unspoken, and recognizable by only a few or vocal, visible, and noteworthy to many, such acts, in aggregation, can provoke real reform.
Like most martial arts, jujitsu involves taking a force coming at you and redirecting it to change the situation. Employees who practice verbal jujitsu react to undesirable, demeaning statements or actions by turning them into opportunities for change that others will notice.
One form of verbal jujitsu involves calling attention to the opposition’s own rhetoric. I recall a story told by a man named Tom Novak, an openly gay executive who worked in the San Francisco offices of a large financial services institution. As Tom and his colleagues began seating themselves around a table for a meeting in a senior executive’s large office, the conversation briefly turned to the topic of the upcoming Gay Freedom Day parade and to so-called gay lifestyles in general. Joe, a colleague, said loudly, “I can appreciate that some people choose a gay lifestyle. I just don’t understand why they have to flaunt it in people’s faces.”
A Spectrum of Tempered Change Strategies
THE TEMPERED RADICAL’S SPECTRUM of strategies is anchored on the left by disruptive self-expression: subtle acts of private, individual style. A slightly more public form of expression, verbal jujitsu, turns the opposition’s negative expression or behavior into opportunities for change. Further along the spectrum, the tempered radical uses variable-term opportunism to recognize and act on short- and long-term chances to motivate others. And through strategic alliance building, the individual works directly with others to bring about more extensive change. The more conversations an individual’s action inspires and the more people it engages, the stronger the impetus toward change becomes.
In reality, people don’t apply the strategies in the spectrum sequentially or even necessarily separately. Rather, these tools blur and overlap. Tempered radicals remain flexible in their approach, “heating up” or “cooling off” each as conditions warrant.
Stung, Tom was tempted to keep his mouth shut and absorb the injury, but that would have left him resentful and angry. He could have openly condemned Joe’s bias, but that would have made him look defensive and self-righteous. Instead, he countered Joe with an altered version of Joe’s own argument, saying calmly, “I know what you mean, Joe. I’m just wondering about that big picture of your wife on your desk. There’s nothing wrong with being straight, but it seems that you are the one announcing your sexuality.” Suddenly embarrassed, Joe responded with a simple, “Touché.”
Managers can use verbal jujitsu to prevent talented employees, and their valuable contributions, from becoming inadvertently marginalized. That’s what happened in the following story. Brad Williams was a sales manager at a high-technology company. During a meeting one day, Brad noticed that Sue, the new marketing director, had tried to interject a few comments, but everything she said was routinely ignored. Brad waited for the right moment to correct the situation. Later on in the meeting, Sue’s colleague George raised similar concerns about distributing the new business’s products outside the country. The intelligent remark stopped all conversation. During the pause, Brad jumped in: “That’s an important idea,” he said. “I’m glad George picked up on Sue’s concerns. Sue, did George correctly capture what you were thinking?”
With this simple move, Brad accomplished a number of things. First, by indirectly showing how Sue had been silenced and her idea co-opted, he voiced an unspoken fact. Second, by raising Sue’s visibility, he changed the power dynamic in the room. Third, his action taught his colleagues a lesson about the way they listened—and didn’t. Sue said that after that incident she was no longer passed over in staff meetings.
In practicing verbal jujitsu, both Tom and Brad displayed considerable self-control and emotional intelligence. They listened to and studied the situation at hand, carefully calibrating their responses to disarm without harming. In addition, they identified the underlying issues (sexual bias, the silencing of newcomers) without sounding accusatory and relieved unconscious tensions by voicing them. In so doing, they initiated small but meaningful changes in their colleagues’ assumptions and behavior.
Like jazz musicians, who build completely new musical experiences from old standards as they go along, tempered radicals must be creatively open to opportunity. In the short-term, that means being prepared to capitalize on serendipitous circumstances; in the longterm, it often means something more proactive. The first story that follows illustrates the former case; the second is an example of the latter.
Tempered radicals like Chris Morgan know that rich opportunities for reform can often appear suddenly, like a $20 bill found on a sidewalk. An investment manager in the audit department of a New York conglomerate, Chris made a habit of doing whatever he could to reduce waste. To save paper, for example, he would single-space his documents and put them in a smaller font before pressing the “Print” button, and he would use both sides of the paper. One day, Chris noticed that the company cafeteria packaged its sandwiches in Styrofoam boxes that people opened and immediately tossed. He pulled the cafeteria manager aside. “Mary,” he said with a big smile, “those turkey-on-focaccia sandwiches look delicious today! I was wondering, though . . . would it be possible to wrap sandwiches only when people asked you to?” By making this very small change, Chris pointed out, the cafeteria would save substantially on packaging costs.
Chris gently rocked the boat by taking the following steps. First, he picked low-hanging fruit, focusing on something that could be done easily and without causing a lot of stir. Next, he attacked the problem not by criticizing Mary’s judgment but by enrolling her in his agenda (praising her tempting sandwiches, then making a gentle suggestion). Third, he illuminated the advantages of the proposed change by pointing out the benefits to the cafeteria. And he started a conversation that, through Mary, spread to the rest of the cafeteria staff. Finally, he inspired others to action: Eventually, the cafeteria staff identified and eliminated 12 other wasteful practices.
Add up enough conversations and inspire enough people and, sooner or later, you get real change. A senior executive named Jane Adams offers a case in point. Jane was hired in 1995 to run a 100-person, mostly male software-development division in an extremely fast-growing, pre-IPO technology company. The CEO of the company was an autocrat who expected his employees to emulate his dog-eat-dog management style. Although Jane was new to the job and wanted very much to fit in and succeed, turf wars and command-and-control tactics were anathema to her. Her style was more collaborative; she believed in sharing power. Jane knew that she could not attack the company’s culture by arguing with the CEO; rather, she took charge of her own division and ran it her own way. To that end, she took every opportunity to share power with subordinates. She instructed each of her direct reports to delegate responsibility as much as possible. Each time she heard about someone taking initiative in making a decision, she would