So what is the impact of using these types of identifiers when movements are trying to gain allies? “Do these labels move people, or do they actually cause a bit of controversy?” asks Cynthia Wang, clinical professor of management and organizations at Kellogg. For people who already support the cause, familiar words could energize them. But for those who are lukewarm, the labels could backfire.
In a new study, Wang and his colleagues, including Brayden King, professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, conducted online experiments to assess participants’ support for a hypothetical gender equality policy in an organization. Among people who strongly identified as feminists, seeing the policy labeled as “feminist” increased their support. But the opposite was true among people who did not consider themselves feminists.
For the latter group, a more effective strategy for gaining support was to more generally label the policy with the name of the target organization. For example, proposed changes might be called “Google policy” or “Walmart policy.”
Thus, activists may recruit more allies if they do not honor a movement-specific condition. “You have to be much more flexible in the kind of language you use,” says King. “You can’t assume that all your potential supporters will be feminists.”
But avoiding a label does not mean avoiding social change. “We certainly don’t tell people to be afraid of being activists,” she says. It’s more about how to be a “smart activist”.
Looking Beyond CEOs
Social progress often involves promoting new policies in organizations. For example, activists may pressure a company to release data on the salaries of male versus female employees or to take steps to eliminate gender bias in hiring. These calls for change may come from employees within the organization or from external activists posting on an external platform such as Twitter.
Many older studies they have focused on winning the support of executives, Wang says. But she and King—along with Jennifer Whitson at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and Rachel Ramirez Dubbireddi, then a graduate student at Kellogg and now at the United Parent Leaders Action Network—wanted to explore the challenge of bringing employees across the organization. . The CEO can tell people what to do, “but it still needs to be implemented,” says Wang. If staff members do not agree with the changes, they may neglect new policy-related tasks or push back.
“Real change requires high levels of support up and down an organization’s hierarchy,” says King.
From negative to neutral
To investigate how people reacted to motion labels, the team set up experiments on the Amazon Mechanical Turk online platform. For the first study, they recruited 394 people who were currently working. Participants were asked a few questions to determine how strongly they identified as feminists.
They were then asked to imagine that their organization had sent them an email announcing that the CEO wanted to implement a policy to improve gender equality. For half of the participants, the email called it “a new feminist politics.” for the other half, it was simply called “a new policy.”
Participants were then asked how likely they were to take actions such as joining a work group, conducting research on diversity practices, and openly endorsing the policy in a company-wide meeting. Based on their responses, each person was given a support score of 1 to 6.
As you might expect, people who strongly identified as feminists were more supportive of the policy if it was labeled with the movement’s name. Their support score averaged 4.2 for the “feminist” policy and 3.9 for the unlabeled policy.
Among people who did not strongly identify with feminism, the result was the opposite. Their support score averaged 3.1 if the policy was unlabeled and only 2.5 if the policy was labeled “feminist.” Similar patterns emerged in another experiment, in which the proposed policy aimed to address sexual harassment and was either unlabeled or described as “based on the principles of the MeToo movement.”
In both studies, non-feminists’ support for the no-label policy was still not as high as feminists’ support. But Wang notes that omitting the label seemed to push the first group from a negative to a neutral stance. While they weren’t a stickler for the changes, at least they might not have been actively opposed, he says.
When a new policy is implemented, it often comes with a long to-do list. A person’s support could be measured not only by what they say about the changes but also by how effectively they carry out these tasks. A person who does not agree with the policy can do a rough job.
So could the label of a new policy actually affect people’s performance when they completed policy-related tasks?
To find out, researchers conducted an experiment in which 428 participants were given the names and departments of 22 hypothetical staff members who wanted to be informed about the gender equality policy. Participants were given a list of companies and for each department they had to select the email addresses of those employees. The researchers then counted how many email addresses each participant had correctly added to the department lists.
People who did not consider themselves feminists performed better when politics was unlabeled, making one fewer mistake on average when choosing email addresses. These improvements, added up across multiple employees in an organization, could have significant collective benefits, Wang says.
Leveraging Company Pride
Finally, the researchers wanted to test whether an alternative label would garner more support from non-feminists. One possibility was attractive to employees who strongly identified with the organization.
For this experiment, the team measured participants’ feelings about their employer. For example, people were asked whether they considered their organization’s successes to be their successes and whether they usually used the term “we” or “they” when talking about the organization.
The team then presented the same email announcing a gender equality policy—but for half of the participants, the name of the organization the participant worked for was inserted. For example, if the person worked at Starbucks, the email would call it “Starbucks Policy.” For the other half of the participants, the policy was labeled “feminist,” without the name of the organization.
Among people who strongly identified with their organization but not as feminists, their support for a policy characterized by feminism was 3.5. But when the organization’s name was attached to the policy, their support averaged 4.2. This score was even higher than the score for strongly feminist participants who did not strongly identify with their employer.
Activating that organizational identity “is going to matter more to people who have a very low identity as a feminist,” says King. “That’s where you get the most bang for your buck.”
One ally at a time
Activists should look at the “micro-mechanisms” behind gaining allies, Wang says. “People often think of social movements as this great thing,” he says. “But we also need to understand the psychology of individuals that can help implement change, one person at a time.”
Some activists may balk at the idea of avoiding the language that is such a core part of their movement. But King suggests thinking of change as two parallel processes. In public discourse, when activists create legitimacy for their cause, movement-related labels can be important. But in one-on-one conversations with people in an organization, activists may want to tailor their message to resonate with their audience.
The strategy is similar to that used by politicians trying to win broad support among voters or colleagues on the other side of the aisle. A Democrat would probably have better luck promoting a new health care plan if he emphasized that it would “help the middle class” instead of calling it a “progressive” or “leftist” policy.
Similarly, activists may need to consider the political leanings of employees in the target organization. “You have to build a coalition,” says Wang. To do that, “you have to understand that sometimes a certain language will be more attractive than others.”