How Social Activist Roles in Companies Become Deradicalized - Ideas for Leaders
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How Social Activist Roles in Companies Become Deradicalized

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Photo by Leonardo Basso on Unsplash
Photo by Leonardo Basso on Unsplash


Organizations and companies can promote social change through the creation of dedicated new positions, such as a sustainability manager to promote the companies’ environmental efforts. Over time, however, these positions become institutionalized, and the activists originally brought in to fulfill these roles are replaced by professionals without no experience related to the cause.


Social movements in society lead to transformations in the companies and organizations within that society. The environmental movement led to environmentally friendly practices and processes, for example. Movements for the rights of women and minorities led to efforts by companies to promote women and diversify their workforces.

While companies will face pressure from outside groups and perhaps unions to incorporate a social movement’s goals, individuals and teams within a company can also be involved as they engage in occupational activism, that is, the promotion in an organization of a social movement’s values and goals through employee and management actions and decisions. Often, employee-driven efforts to change a company are connected to external allies who support these efforts.

One model of occupational activism is the creation of a dedicated leadership position with the mandate to align corporate practices and processes with the goals of the movement. Thus, many companies today have diversity managers and sustainability managers, for example, who are empowered and tasked with making the company’s values and practices more diverse and sustainable, respectively. Other examples of such positions include affirmative action officers, ethics officers, recycling managers, and corporate social responsibility managers.

Researchers from the University of Bath School of Management and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management studied the professional experience of 800 individuals in occupational activist positions and discovered a trend: In the early years of a movement, such positions are likely held by activists with direct experience in the movement. Over time, however, as the movement’s aims become more accepted, the position becomes more institutionalized. The tasks and purposes of the activist role became formalized and routinized, and the individuals placed in such roles are no longer former activists driven to transform the politics of the organization but professionals concerned with more bureaucratic issues, such as metrics for efficiency or evaluation.

The data for the study was based on an online forum called the Green Schools Forum, which was created in 1992 to help organize efforts to make the activities and practices of colleges and universities more environmentally friendly. Members of the forum were at first mostly activists and students, joined later by an increasing number of sustainability managers. The researchers used biographical information from LinkedIn pages to analyze the work background of 800 sustainability managers active in the forum between 1992 and 2010.


The institutionalization of an occupational activist position is not unwelcome by proponents of the movement as it indicates acceptance of the movement’s values and goals. However, with institutionalization, the role loses its activist identity, and the position becomes deradicalized and disconnected from the movement.

As a result, the efforts of the once-transformative position are more muted, which can perhaps explain why many organizations are not achieving the level of success with their social goals that they expected or hoped for.

One example is the movement within companies to increase the participation of women at higher levels of business an effort marked by good intentions but stagnant results. Of course, any lack of progress cannot be blamed solely on the individuals in occupational activist roles. However, this research suggests that one response to disappointing results in social responsibility efforts might be a greater effort to infuse the organization with the energy and innovation of hires with direct social movement experience.



Grace Augustine’s profile at the University of Bath School of Management

Brayden King’s profile at Northwestern Kellogg School of Management



From Movements to Managers: Crossing Organizational Boundaries in the Field of Sustainability. Grace Augustine, Brayden G. King. Work and Occupations (December 6, 2022).

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Idea conceived

October 7, 2023

Idea posted

Oct 2023
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