One of the most significant challenges that executives across all industries face for their brands, reputations, and operations today is the rising tide of employee activism. Last week, in the first of a series of three posts, I reviewed some of the key forces driving rising employee activism today, and invited others to share their perspective.

Over these next two entries, I’d like to shift from why activism is surging, to how we can both prevent it from occurring and diffuse it when it does. In this post, I’d like to address the former: what conditions need to exist for natural, healthy tension between employees and executive leaders to productively exercise itself without becoming a source of toxicity. How can we use these instances of misalignment to actually foster stronger internal bonds and dialogue, rather than creating an external firestorm?

While there are many answers to this question, a few strike me as especially important.

  1. Make sure your stated values reflect your lived values. While nearly all companies today recognize that values are important, few are utilizing them to their greatest potential. That’s because in too many instances there is a significant disconnect between a company’s stated and lived values. When the values we espouse are different than the ones we truly practice and use to make decisions, latent friction can quickly take shape.Whether you’re a performance-oriented hedge fund relentlessly focused on delivering returns for investors, a research-oriented pharmaceutical company striving to achieve medical breakthroughs, or a disruptive technology service, you are already guided by values in some way. Whether they’re written down or not, there is some hierarchy of things that matter more than others. People know intuitively what those things are and act accordingly. They are the basis of what type of talent you seek, who you promote and develop, and the behaviors you reward and encourage. When the values you practice align with the values you espouse (rather than inventing values that sound pleasant and look nice on your intranet), they become a powerful alignment tool that pays dividends in many ways.When your lived values are consistent with your stated values, they become a shield against employee activism. When the seeds of activism begin to ferment, your values should be your first line of defense. If any decision you make in response to employee input seems genuinely grounded in your values, happily or not, in my experience, employees will ultimately accept the outcome. However, if your rationale does not draw on your values, your response will seem reactionary. Reactionary responses turn tension into chaos.
  2. Improve your organization’s business literacy. Companies are filled with technical experts. People, by and large, have valuable skills and are very good at their jobs. Too few, however, are encouraged to think in broad business terms, which proves costly in many ways.When discussing complex business issues and performance with broad groups of employees, most leaders prefer to communicate at a very superficial level. The rationale I hear most often is, “We don’t want to distract them with things they can’t impact.” At some level, this is valid logic. If one of a company’s key initiatives involves restructuring its debt in order to improve its attractiveness as a public stock, there’s little that someone in a call center is likely to do to affect that strategy’s success. Better, it would seem, not to provide an unnecessary distraction.:The problem is, when people are shielded from complex business considerations, you’ve deprived yourself the ability to make a complex argument. The issues that fuel episodes of activism are almost always highly complex. Executives should not be the only category of employees fluent in how an enterprise makes money and where its vulnerabilities and advantages exist. It’s worth the risk of distracting employees to engage them in the bigger picture because when a difficult situation arises, you’re much more likely to earn their trust and sympathy if they appreciate an issue’s full ramifications.
  3. Conduct ongoing risk analyses. Employee activism should never catch executives off guard. If they do, it’s due to a lack of effective two-way communication, or a reluctance to continuously investigate the viewpoint of employees. There’s no better way to prevent activism than to know where your vulnerabilities lie today. Whether it’s customer agreements, HR policies, or external partnerships, every c-suite in America should have a keen sense of where they are at risk of employee activism. To do this, you must not only survey the activities you have underway as a business, but identify the political and cultural personal motivators of employees to spot issues that may otherwise lurk out of view.
  4. Engage your Board of Directors in employee issues. When instances of employee activism occur, executives often find themselves in precarious positions serving as intermediaries between impassioned employees and their board of directors (and shareholders they represent). It is hard to be strategic, proactive or persuasive when you are stuck serving as a translator.This is why it’s important to keep board members apprised of employee issues and employee viewpoints on a consistent basis. If they are aware of potential flashpoints, these currents are likely to enter their calculus in setting and approving strategic direction. A useful way to do this is to give major employee affinity groups semi-regular time on board agendas. By keeping these lines of communication open and building trust between these critical constituencies, messy bouts of activism are much less likely to occur.

The goal of every company should be to explore and relieve tension before it reaches messy levels of external dispute. These are just a few activities I believe would help reduce the odds of activism occurring. What am I missing or what else strikes you as important?

Read the rest of the series: