MONDAY 10 MAY 2021 11:06 AM


Alison Esse, co-founder and director of The Storytellers, an innovative storytelling and business transformation specialist, discusses cancel culture in the workplace and how organisational leadership and management are changing as a result.

Much is being debated and discussed on the topic of cancel culture, with high profile individuals such as Piers Morgan and Sharon Osbourne claiming that expressing their personal views have effectively forced their respective exits from the TV programmes they fronted. Likewise, in the political world Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was effectively ‘cancelled’ by the traditional party faithful, who voted with their feet to create a Tory landslide victory in protest of allegations of anti-semitism, factionalism, racism, bullying and being out of sync with public concern over Europe.

Shut up, shut down, silenced, ostracised, shunned, ignored, rejected – it’s no secret that the same cancel culture applies to brands whose consumer base disagrees with their principles, actions, or behaviours, facilitated largely by social media.

But can the same be said of the workplace? For decades, claims of unjust sackings or punitive measures following whistleblowing, or the exiting of employees after they have called out alleged immoral or poor behaviour have been reported. These are extreme and relatively rare cases of ‘cancellation’, as employment law (not to mention the influence of unions) offers more protection for employees than it did a few decades ago.

Yet a milder form of ‘cancel culture’ – perhaps less dramatic, yet still toxic – can exist in organisations without being addressed, and it’s not necessarily driven by those in authority. Leaders - and managers too - can become victims of it; ignored, disrespected and subordinated by the teams they are supposed to be leading, with contagious negativity and a lack of respect, belief and trust in them, leading to resistance to change, poor performance, increased absenteeism, a drop in engagement and productivity and increased levels of attrition.

The suggestion, therefore, that the power base lies at leadership level is not always true. In our post-manufacturing, knowledge-based economy, the days of command and control are over. The behaviour of people within a workplace is often influenced by what researchers call ‘opinion leaders’ as much as by official managers – that is, people who provide support and expertise and whose judgement is widely trusted. Leaders have to earn their followers, and followers need to feel that they are actively involved in the journey the business is on, not just become passive bystanders.

The importance of opinion leaders has been well established in many fields. Just take the COVID-19 vaccination rollout as an example. In many communities, the plea from politicians and doctors for people to take up the offer of vaccination has fallen, frustratingly, on deaf ears. For some, this resistance – given the threat of severe illness or death from the virus – seems extraordinary, especially within particularly vulnerable communities. Yet stories of negative side-effects of the vaccine continue to circulate within these communities, leading to renewed calls to take up the vaccine - this time, through local influencers at grass roots level, and even celebrities who are considered influential role models.

Similarly, an experiment carried out in a series of bank branches showed that a customer service training course, delivered by managers and non-managers identified as opinion leaders from the same peer group, resulted in a marked service improvement by those who had been trained by the opinion leaders. They were seen as more inspiring and authentic.

Organisational leadership is increasingly about managing power within an organisation rather than exercising it, and the way in which it is managed reflects the recognition of ‘expert’ and ‘referent’ power often shown by opinion leaders being more effective than ‘legitimate’ power, involving coercion and reward.

Millennials, in particular, are not simply sceptical of established hierarchies, but will increasingly gravitate to purpose-driven organisations, in the way that consumers increasingly gravitate to purpose-driven brands. And purpose-driven leaders, during times of change, crisis, and uncertainty where the ‘fight or flight’ instinct often kicks in, are those who have effectively built trust and followship through regular, authentic, and honest communication and recognition. They are people who listen, empower their teams, and invite them to actively contribute to the journey the business is on. Rather than grasp control, they lead by example, showing empathy and humility, and soliciting ideas and input from others. By involving people in solving complex problems, rather than positioning themselves as those with all the answers, successful leaders can build belief in the need and ability for the organisation to change, inviting their teams to participate in a story that’s bigger than themselves.

Credible leaders are great storytellers too. Reinforcing a simple, clear and emotionally compelling narrative that articulates the challenge and opportunity that lies ahead, within which people can see the part they can play to influence a successful outcome, can create the emotional connection necessary to encourage changed behaviours and ways of working. And linking their personal story – ideally one which shows a degree of struggle and endeavour – to this narrative can go a long way to build empathy and trust.

Recognising the true influencers in an organisation and recruiting them to champion this story can be tremendously effective in influencing others to follow. As importantly, sharing team stories of success and achievement that validate this narrative can counter potentially negative stories that will inhibit progress – the kind of storytelling that goes on behind the scenes to erode trust and credibility and potentially drive a toxic environment that leads to leadership ‘cancellation.’

From an organisational perspective, it’s important that businesses seek to adopt a long-term outlook that is focused on environment, societal and corporate governance. From a practical perspective, it’s essential to implement an organisational code of conduct, which clarifies the company’s mission, values, and principles, linking them with standards of professional conduct, and clear guidelines on what is expected, what is not tolerated and what is deemed to be unlawful behaviour.

So, cancellation culture isn’t just an external brand issue. Within organisations it’s a complex, human issue which can be minimised or eradicated through modern, empowering, visionary leadership behaviours which demonstrate two-way trust and belief.

If everyone is united behind a common purpose and goal, the chances are that the pockets of power that lie within the organisation will work in tandem to achieve a high-performing business.