Written by Heidi Tsao (@SneidiTee)
When my kid was a wee shrimp, we used to make weekly visits to the library. One day, a kindly librarian greeted my daughter by name when we walked in and handed her a book that she’d been saving for her. From then on, this librarian would always put books aside that she thought my kid would enjoy and add them to our check-out pile.
I remembered this recently when I was talking to a friend who is a librarian. With recent cuts to library services and a pilot project for an unstaffed library concept going on, my friend asked me if I would tweet to the library, telling them the story. She said that she considers herself an activist within the library system, and looks for opportunities to promote the excellent work that librarians do all the time.
This got me thinking about the concept of being an activist working from within an organization. I realized its similarity to the idea of the intrapreneur in that it describes an employee who is taking matters into their own hands for the betterment of the customer/user. The renegade nature is essential here. The acts of these kinds of employees are not necessarily encouraged by their employer because they don’t always go along with the operational goals of the organization and sometimes even seem to go against them.
The importance of a company’s sometimes secret activists should not be overlooked, however. In fact, it could be beneficial to encourage them. Often, it is these employees who are more motivated by human factors than by process who take it upon themselves to enact highly impactful initiatives. Think, for example, of all those viral stories of airline staff going above and beyond to entertain and help passengers. Surely it would not be cost-effective to make a policy of flying every lost teddy bear back to their rightful owner on a first class seat. The free PR to come out of that story, in addition to the opportunity to let an employee shine, though? Priceless.
So what can a company do to empower employees to be activists? Build an aspirational culture and set an inspirational vision that guides people to look beyond process and performance metrics and do what they feel is the right thing — to live their best employee life and be the brand that they want to see in the world, just like that librarian did with us so many years ago. The pay-off is invaluable and potentially further-reaching than any formal project.
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