Why Anger Gets in the Way of Employee Activism
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Organizations Feb 10, 2020

Why Anger Gets in the Way of Employee Activism

Moral outrage can be a powerful recruiting tool for social causes. But a different tactic is needed to motivate insiders.

A Wall Street worker hides his activism at work.

Michael Meier

Based on the research of

Katherine A. DeCelles

Scott Sonenshein

Brayden King

They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore.

For activists committed to a social or political cause, this kind of righteous anger can be a powerful tool, spurring them to correct the world’s wrongs—think of climate activist Greta Thunberg’s furious rebuke to world leaders at the United Nations this fall.

But what about insiders working within the organizations in need of reform? Does moral fury push them to take action in the same way?

Not exactly, according to new research from Brayden King, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School. “The assumption that a lot of people have is that what makes activists mobilize around a cause will also work for insiders or employees of organizations. But we find that’s just not the case,” he says.

In fact, for institutional insiders, feeling outraged about a cause they support at work may actually deter action.

The seemingly paradoxical link between anger and inaction makes sense when you consider insiders’ divided loyalties: they want to help but may face serious career consequences for showing their anger when supporting a cause. Previous research has shown that when people are torn between two goals, they become more attuned to risk. That’s precisely what King’s research finds: when institutional insiders feel angry about a cause, as opposed to simply sympathetic, they become more fearful of the repercussions from their employer of speaking out. Fear, in turn, makes them less motivated to act.

And that’s vital information for organizers, because institutional insiders can be crucial allies. “All kinds of internal reforms tend to be more successful when you have insiders who support the cause. Activists need insider allies,” King says.

Fired Up, Not Ready to Go

To understand what motivates sympathetic insiders, King and his coauthors, Katherine DeCelles of the University of Toronto and Scott Sonenshein of Rice University, had to find them first.

It turned out to be one of the trickiest parts of the research, DeCelles says. People who want to reform an industry from within are “fairly rare individuals—and once you find them, how do you get them to take part in a social-science study?”

In their first study, the researchers turned to the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Ultimately, they found a few different ways to recruit internal reformers to participate. One method, used during the height of OWS in 2011, involved DeCelles and a research assistant chatting with finance-industry professionals at popular happy-hour spots in Manhattan. (Originally, DeCelles tried lunch spots, but found that workers were too rushed and reluctant to admit any sympathy for OWS in front of colleagues. “In the bars after work, they were much more open,” she says.)

“They don’t have the luxury of showing up at their boss’ office with a protest sign to express their anger and then walking away, like an activist might.”

— Brayden King

Through this happy-hour recruitment strategy, she met a supportive trader who helped her gain access to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. There, she searched for additional finance professionals who championed the OWS cause, and identified other insider supporters via a market-research firm.

In the end, the researchers were able to survey 103 insiders sympathetic to OWS in the finance industry. Their survey included questions about respondents’ emotions related to OWS, how sympathetic they felt to the movement, and their intentions to take actions to help the cause. DeCelles also surveyed 160 non-insider activists hunkered down in Zuccotti Park.

The results were intriguing to the researchers: institutional insiders who reported higher degrees of anger during OWS were significantly less likely to report plans to take action in support of OWS than insiders who felt less angry. Outsiders, meanwhile, demonstrated a small (though not statistically significant) tendency to be motivated to action by feelings of anger. To the researchers, this pattern suggested that anger might affect insiders and outsiders in different ways, pushing outsiders toward action—but insiders away from it.

Why Insiders Don’t Act

The Occupy Wall Street field study gave the researchers important insight into the variable effects of anger, but they knew they needed larger sample sizes and the opportunity to study a wider range of causes. They also wanted to gain a better understanding of why anger might be demotivating for insiders.

So they turned to Net Impact, a professional organization for individuals working to advance social change within businesses. They invited Net Impact members who were employed full-time to participate in an online survey.

In the survey, participants were asked to think about a social issue related to their work and about which they had felt strongly during the previous three months. Then, they rated how angry they felt when thinking about the issue. Participants also rated from one to seven how much they thought their reputation at work might suffer from taking action. Finally, they were asked to rate how likely they were to take action on this issue at work.

As in the OWS survey, institutional insiders who reported higher degrees of anger about their chosen cause were also slightly (though not significantly) less likely to report motivation to take action than their less angry peers. Angry insiders also reported greater fear of reprisal in the workplace—and fearfulness predicted a lower likelihood of taking action, the results showed. This statistical link provided evidence for why anger deters insiders from action: anger creates fear, which in turn lessens the motivation to take action on an issue in the workplace.

To King, this theory “fits anecdotally with what we know from talking to friends or family who worry about the consequences their actions would have for their career. They don’t have the luxury of showing up at their boss’ office with a protest sign to express their anger and then walking away, like an activist might.”

Experimenting with Anger

The survey results suggested that fear was the link between institutional insiders’ anger and their reluctance to take action, but the researchers wanted a more conclusive test. So they created a third study—an experiment that would allow them to look at the causal relationship between anger and motivation to take action.

They recruited a group of people who were passionate about social issues and who were employed full-time, and randomly assigned half of them to take the perspective of “insiders” and half to be “outsiders.” All participants were asked to select a social issue that was important to them—but insiders were told the issue should be related to their job, while outsiders were told to pick an issue relevant to businesses and organizations in general.

Then, participants were randomly divided once again. Half (a mix of both insiders and outsiders) were told to describe what made them most angry about their chosen social issue, and the rest were asked to objectively and dispassionately describe what affected them most about their issue.

Finally, participants who had been assigned the role of insiders were asked to write a letter to their manager outlining strategies to address their chosen issue. Outsiders were asked to direct their letter to a generic manager at an organization other than their employer. The researchers chose letter-writing because it’s a tactic commonly used by both insiders and outsiders—employees at Wayfair, for example, sent an open letter to senior managers protesting the company’s decision to sell furniture to migrant detention centers.

After the letter-writing exercise, participants were asked to rate how likely they were to take action in support of their cause at their workplace and how risky they felt it would be to their work reputation to do so.

As the earlier OWS and Net Impact survey results predicted, anger had different effects on outsiders than insiders. Angry outsiders rated their intention to take action higher (an average of 4.35 out of 5) than dispassionate outsiders (an average of 3.85 out of 5). Angry insiders, by contrast, rated their intention to take action slightly lower (3.88 out of 5) than dispassionate insiders (4.15 out of 5).

Fear of negative career consequences for speaking out affected insiders and outsiders differently too. Both angry insiders and angry outsiders reported higher degrees of fear than dispassionate insiders and outsiders. But only for insiders did fear contribute to a lower likelihood of take action.

Insiders Need Different Messaging than Committed Activists

King says it’s understandable why activist groups use anger to get outsiders fired up. “But when you think of it from the insider’s perspective, you understand better why this doesn’t work at all,” he explains. “They’re worried, as any rational person would be, that being angry is going to lead to damaging consequences for their career.”

As a rule, King says, employers and employees prefer emotionally cool environments to emotionally heated ones. “This is a value or a norm that exists across most workplaces. Workplaces that are too emotional could be seen as toxic.” For insiders, the fear of being seen as a hothead or troublemaker “ends up driving them away from the movement.”

Activists may need to rethink how they recruit and mobilize allies, DeCelles says. “If you rely on the same tactics and principles that you use to motivate your traditional activists, this is not going to be effective for people in the workplace.”

The researchers haven’t yet tested what alternative approaches might work better for insiders, but they have a few ideas. It’s possible, for instance, that insiders might be more motivated by a sense of loyalty to and pride in their workplaces—emotions activists could harness in convincing them to take action, King says. “We’re certainly open to the idea that there are positive emotions that can get people to do the same things activists want in order to promote their cause.”

Featured Faculty

Max McGraw Chair in Management and the Environment; Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer
Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.
About the Research
DeCelles, A. Katherine, Scott Sonenshein, and Brayden King. 2019. “Anger and the Immobilization of Institutional Insiders in Social Movements.” Administrative Science Quarterly.

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