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The age of deference to authority is over. What was once a natural, common instinct is in short supply. No longer is there an assumption that employers are laudable institutions with worthy intentions – or a sense of the need to bow down to managers and bosses. Employees want reassurance and proof of an employer’s commitment to a social and environmental ‘good’.

Protests by large numbers of Amazon staff in September 2019 led to action on making operations carbon neutral by 2040. Last year Wayfair employees downed tools over the company’s links to US border detention centres; Google staff walked out over responses to sexual harassment allegations. There have also been high-profile cases of individual activism. Tweets from a baker at Asda who’d lost his job after refusing to sign up to new contract changes went viral.

The trends towards activism is expected to have a substantial impact on engagement and organisational performance. Surveying board members and senior management in November 2019, the global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills found an expectation that employee activism will lead to a 25% reduction in revenues. 95% of companies also expected a rise in the number of employees using social media such as Twitter to raise complaints and concerns about their company over the next five years.

Activism is the result of a combination of factors: the ability to reach large audiences instantly via social media; the way in which organisations have become increasingly more slick and efficient over the past 30 years, but, at the same time, more impersonal; and the attitudes of millennials, alert to environmental and social issues, who don’t see workplaces as solid, dependable anymore – they’ve seen their parents struggle with insecurity, made redundant or move from post to post.

So we have a new situation where employees are willing to speak up, to resort to whistleblowing, when they don’t feel listened to by managers or HR.

Engaging with unions in positive, constructive ways is an essential part of modern workplace relations – and a process that involves an understanding of relevant legislation and best practice. In the new world of activism this needs to be accompanied by a culture of Conversational Intelligence (CI). CI is about being equipped to have conversations in which we don’t make assumptions. We are curious about different views, experiences, approaches. It’s when we listen in a reflective way and are conscious of the need to empathise with views that might be different from our own. Critically, having CI means being able to create a sense of safety, so that employees feel able to be entirely open rather than giving expected answers, following the path of least resistance.

Conversation skills are expected as a given among staff in a professional setting. But in reality the skills involved with managing difficult situations, in dealing with conflict, differences in personality etc, are in short supply. Developing CI is needed to build an awareness of the role of conversations in relationships, how the quality of conversations changes dynamics, and the huge influence they have on the outcome of situations, particularly those most difficult of conversations where we’re most likely to want to rush to the easiest conclusions. Core skills for CI include ‘situational awareness’, the essential practice of ‘curiosity’, ‘reflective listening’, ‘empathy’, and ‘self awareness’ – so not just listening outwardly but inwardly, how your own ‘inner state’ is impacting on the flow of the conversation.

The purpose of this package of expertise for HR and their organisations is not to ‘fight’ disruption and quash resistance from activism, but making a bridge to achieving a new kind of equilibrium of mutual understanding and appreciation between employer and employees.

Richard Peachey, Workplace relationships consultant – CMP

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