The Courage To Act As Employees

In the 21st century, the most powerful venue for principled action — for voice and dissent — has shifted from the places we reside to the organizations in which we meaningfully participate and especially the organizations where we work. Most of us no longer live out our lives in places. Instead, our most meaningful interactions with other people happen in markets, networks, and organizations; and, among family and friends. Of these five contexts, organizations are the main one where meaningful aspects of our fates — jobs, status, daily affiliation, opportunities to pursue meaning — depend on other people who are not necessarily friends or family yet we know by name and interact with daily. Beyond friends and family, these are our thick we’s and, therefore, if any of us wishes to act on and perpetuate the democratic heritage of our nation, we had best learn to do so in these new thick we’s in our lives.

Among the most claimed aspects of that heritage are voice and dissent. From the late 18th to late 20th centuries, our traditions for voice and dissent happened in places where we lived with other people — towns, neighborhoods and so forth. The prime context for this may have always been elections. Today, however, elections are market phenomena — they are far more subject to the markets, networks, and organizations of electioneering — including the distribution channel popularly called ‘mainstream media’ — than the daily, persistent and intensive action of citizens in local places. As noted in Bowling Alone, such place-based citizen action – complete with reasonable percentages of participation — still happen in very small towns as well as some places where the traditions are extremely strong. New Hampshire and Vermont fit both criteria and, as you’ll see from a careful reading of Bowling Alone, these towns continue the traditions of a world of places as opposed to markets and so forth. Robert Putnam’s ‘warning signs’ of the deterioration in civil society do not apply to these places — they are the exceptions.

This is confirmed by other observations. For example, analysis of get out the vote efforts in the 2004 election indicated a much easier challenge in Vermont and New Hampshire than, say, New Mexico where that lack the two centuries old traditions or California where the world of markets, networks, and organizations is more firmly rooted.

Practicing voice and dissent within thick we’s is essential to democracy. But, in our new world, that means doing so in our organizations. A 19th century American risked much in his or her town by having the courage to dissent from a popular view. For tens of millions of us, this is not the case in the 21st century. We can, of course, attend town meetings and raise our concerns. And, we should. But, the personal risk and exposure in doing so bears no relationship to taking the same action in our organizations. In our towns, most of us most of the time — if we act or speak at all — do so in the role of ‘customer’ and are treated accordingly. In our organizations, by contrast, if we have the courage to act and speak out and dissent, we do so as employees and we risk making a lasting impression — especially if our voice extends beyond the water cooler.

Go ahead, Try this out. Even if only as a thought experiment. Imagine going to a town council meeting and voicing your concern about some current topic in a manner opposed to popular opinion. Say, for example, you would like to encourage the town council to raise property taxes or give teachers more benefits — or, the reverse if that’s counter to prevailing winds. Or, to test this more precisely in an emotional context, speak in favor or against teaching evolution or intelligent design. If you live in a town or city of greater than 10,000 people (let alone ten times that), the absolute worst reaction you might imagine is getting shouted at that evening and, perhaps, attracting the attention of some press person who hopes to get some attention by writing about you. If you have friends and family who seriously disagree with you, they probably already know about, and have formed their responses, to your position. Again, worst, worst case, you might risk some ‘nut job’ from the other side screaming at you in the blogosphere or a letter to the editor.

In contrast, imagine for a moment that you choose to voice dissent — real, challenging dissent — about matters of real importance to the organization where you work. Ah. What a difference! In this case you must consider beforehand the risks to your job, to your friendships and acquaintances, to your relationship with your boss, to your career prospects and more. Unlike the town context, here you are far more likely to risk some persistent and enduring response. Some memory — near as well as medium and even long term — of your action.

Acting as an employee takes far more courage than acting as a citizen. In saying this, I do not mean to trivialize in any way the efforts of citizens who actively participate in local, regional and national affairs. Clearly, the more who participate — and vote — the better. But I do mean to point out that courage itself is best tested in the actual thick we’s of our lives.

Consider, then, this comment:

Stand Up

As treason charges against the New York Times (but not, oddly, the Wall Street Journal) are getting thrown around on various “respectable” news outlets by people working in “journalism” I think it’s probably time for the serious reporters at those outlets to inform management that their resignations will be forthcoming if it doesn’t stop.

Silly people like me have been trying to warn you for years – you created, cultivated, nourished, and promoted these people. They’re one of you. Take a stand, because pretty soon it’s going to be too late.

The mainstream media are a crucial distribution channel that determine the nature, content and opinion bias upon which folks in our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and family depend. If you or anyone wishes to dissent from how the mainstream media handle their responsibility, you can do so as a consumer (purchase or not purchase; provide feedback positive or negative), as a competitor (offer a different or the same product), as a litigant (sue them), as a family member and friend (speak up at the dinner table) — or as an employee of mainstream media corporations.

Of these, there is simply no question that the most courageous — and the most pragmatic, near term and impactful — choice belongs to employees who ask and answer the question, “What do we, the people of this enterprise, really stand for?

If you want to ‘make a difference’ — if you want to pass along to your children and their children — a world that is safer, saner and more sustainable, then you must act as an employee in the thick we of your organization because organizations are the driving crucible for the markets and networks that determine the fate of the planet.

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