Principled corporate activism

Be clear on where you stand, regardless of where that is 

Corporate activism, or companies taking a stand and acting on social issues, has been a hot discussion topic in the US since the BLM protests in the summer of 2020. 

There is no single right answer to whether and to what extent organizations should take a public stand and action on various social issues (though some disagree even with this statement. But what all right answers have in common is that organizations should be clear and consistent in the stance they take. Not taking a stance is also a stance. 

When organizations don’t clarify where they stand, they foster a false, short-term sense of alignment. Different members can make different assumptions on where the organization stands, and they’ll all be correct. But that false sense of alignment quickly bursts when an external event forces the company to take action (or inaction) and reveal its actual stand. When the misalignment is revealed during a crisis, the damage is far greater. 

Clarifying where you stand leads to short-term pain, when some members have to grapple with the realization that the organization may see things differently than they do. Yet, it pays dividends in the long-run fostering true alignment. 

The now infamous Coinbase is a mission focused company blog post was a commendable attempt in doing just that. Readers directed most of the attention (and criticism) at the stance they took. Still, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with their stance, they deserve credit for taking it, and enduring through the short-term pain on the path for true alignment.

In my reflections and conversations with peers, I tried to extrapolate from that incident (and others) how an organization can more clearly and consistently describe its stance, so when the next big external event happens, it can respond rather than react. 

Two key insights emerged: 

  1. The stance an organization takes on an issue is partially captured by the “sphere” in which it takes action on it, starting with sheer compliance, through actions impacting its members, to action impacting outside the organization at the local, federal or global level. 
  2. Organizations routinely take different stances on different issues. Some organizations care more about issue X, while others care more about issue Y. 

Putting those two insights together allows us to create a map of the organization’s stance on different issues: 

When I re-read the Coinbase post and built the Coinbase version of this map, I ended up with something that looks like this: 

Agree or disagree with the stance itself; it is clearer than what I’ve seen from most organizations.

There are many more nuances and refinements that can and should be captured here, perhaps in future iterations. 

My hope is that experimenting with putting together a version of this map, can help organizations avoid yet-another-knee-jerk-reaction the next time a notable event takes place.

Principled corporate activism

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