At the end of the day, it’s about motivating people and engaging communities.
Movements and corporations seem so fundamentally different in their goals, procedures, and visions for our society that trying to compare them isn’t even like comparing apples and oranges — it seems like comparing apples and giraffes.
Years ago, before I worked in both of these worlds, I probably would’ve agreed with you. But now, with the experience of working within corporate HR and managing folks in movements, I sit at a unique vantage point that allows me to say this with 100 percent certainty: movements and corporations are both fundamentally about guiding your people, and they each deal with the same problems trying to do that effectively.
Yes, corporations and movements are guiding their people for different reasons, and yes, those structural differences are important. But at the end of the day, corporations and movements are both big formations of people trying to organize and deploy their folks towards a given goal as best they can. Those big structural differences only mean that each entity approaches the problem in a different way, and that’s what makes the comparison useful.
Movements and corporations, it turns out, could learn a lot from one another.
It’s All About People
Imagine you’re an entrepreneur starting up your own company. You’ve got the money and resources you need, but you need the right people in place to help you execute your vision. The first step is, of course, acknowledging your own capacity gaps — you’ve got an idea for a product to sell, but you need designers to make the product, suppliers to source the individual parts, tech brains to help you build your online presence to sell it, marketing wonks to brand it, and finance experts to help you stay on track and within your budget. Unless you are a genius who never sleeps, eats, and can instantly pick up a new expertise it normally takes years to learn one of the most important lessons in business, you simply can’t do everything yourself.
Now let’s say you’re part of a movement working on a social justice issue. You’ve got a goal that everyone in that movement is working towards, like securing accountability in the face of a tragic injustice. You have the passion and a basic agreement among a large group of people, but there’s capacity gaps all over the place. You need folks to march, trained organizers to lead a variety of direct actions, ambassadors to reach out to others to grow your movement, coordinators to deploy people and pooled resources to sustain your movement, artists and designers to tell the story of it all, teachers to bring your base into alignment with each other, and strategic thinkers to push the movement forward once the fervor of a particular moment fades.
In both of these situations, the overall success or failure of your goal depends on how well you organize your people. One person’s lackluster performance isn’t necessarily going to make or break the whole system, but we’re all only human, and if you’re only seeing conflict with one individual then you’re a very lucky organization indeed. More likely, you’re going to encounter conflict at multiple levels — between groups, individuals, and institutions you create as part of the process.
So for both movements and corporations alike, your success actually depends on how well you handle conflict among your people. And this is where movements and corporations diverge.
Procedural vs. Personal
When I was in the corporate world, I worked in Human Resources — the corporate answer to the problem above. HR folks are hired by the company to deal with interpersonal conflict in-house to keep the organization running smoothly and effectively, and operate from an elaborate set of rules and procedures to codify methods of conflict resolution.
This is the procedural approach to conflict resolution, and it has its fair share of both pros and cons. At their core, HR rules and procedures are put in place to protect the people of a company, so when conflict arises, folks aren’t scratching their heads at who to turn to for help and aren’t afraid to voice their concerns. They’re intended to make sure that everyone is on a level playing field by standardizing rules that all must abide and procedures that all have to go through to deal with the conflict — even, theoretically, the people who hold the most power in a corporation.
Of course, we know that the procedural approach often doesn’t work like its intended. Having the same standards for everyone in your organization removes the ability to be flexible and provide room for the personal context at the heart of each conflict. Say you’ve got a new employee who comes in with a bunch of new ideas about how to do their job and make their department work better and it’s causing tension with their supervisor, who sees this as an affront to their leadership and experience successfully doing things the old way. The situation gets referred to HR, who try to mediate the conflict, but they just won’t see eye to eye — at some point, the company needs these two to get back to work to keep the whole machine running smoothly.
Because corporations are so hierarchical and tend to be resistant to new ways of doing things when folks’ livelihoods are on the line, it’s likely that the supervisor will “win” out, and the employee will feel jaded by the whole process. This is why we so often hear the phrase that “HR works for the company,” because the perception is that the rules and procedures in place are just there to ultimately get folks back to work instead of actually dealing with (and solving) the core of the conflict. And that’s not entirely wrong.
But let’s contrast with the personal approach, which is how almost every movement handles conflict between their people. Because movements are people-first, largely decentralized, and (often) don’t involve people’s direct livelihood, there are almost never a given set of rules and procedures to follow when conflict arises. You’re just trying to get folks out in the street, and what money you do have is going towards building your movement’s resources, not paying for some formal mediator to come in and resolve differences between your leaders. So movements have to take an ad hoc approach to interpersonal conflict, and that usually means that individuals within the movement have to step up and try to mediate themselves.
The personal approach is good because it centers and holds spaces for all the humans involved in the conflict. It takes into account the experiences, expertise, and personalities of the people at hand, and rejects the one-size-fits-all framing of the procedural approach. The ultimate goal isn’t to just get everyone back to work, but to reckon with the differences that led to the problem in the first place and question whether the individuals involved are really in alignment with the values underwriting the movement.
But the drawbacks of the personal approach are equally important. Movements are resistant to structure, and so there’s a persistent perception that movements don’t have OR need leaders, but that’s just not true. There’s work to be done in movements, and without some sort of democratic process to choose leadership, people are going to step up and anoint themselves. And in my experience, it’s always the most toxic people that step up to do it — those that are in it for ego, for clout, or just a plain old sense of overconfidence when they’re just not really qualified for the task at hand.
Thus, movements face a big problem on how to deal with the less-than-perfect leaders who step up in the absence of structure. Without a set of standards for everyone to follow, every instance of conflict resolution is vulnerable to claims of favoritism or special treatment. More importantly, every attempt to address a conflict can and likely will be seen as a personal attack. A movement leader who is approached by others within their movement over a concern about their leadership skills, for instance, it becomes, “oh you just hate me” rather than a concern about management style or a specific action. Supposedly, everyone in the movement is working towards a good thing together with no hierarchy of command or oversight — so it’s easy for folks to take management of people personally.
So Is Neither Approach Right?
Yes and no. Yes, both of these approaches have serious pitfalls, but no, it doesn’t mean movements and corporations should just abandon them entirely. Guiding your people is THE essential task of both entities, and even if they wanted to, there’s just no way to avoid dealing with the conflict that task will produce.
The alternative, then, is this: corporations and movements each need to stop emphasizing their respective approaches to conflict at the expense of the other.
For corporations, the lesson they should learn from movements is to be more relational in their HR strategy. The robotic approach to dealing with your people’s real feelings and beliefs just isn’t going to help you retain talented people or advance as a company, but the rules and procedures you put in place are important for protecting your employees. You need HR people that will get to know your people on a personal level, ideally before a problem even arises, so that you have a more holistic understanding of every facet of a conflict.
Take our example of the supervisor and employee from above — what if the supervisor is white and the employee is Black? That deepens the context of the conflict and requires a good HR person to ask the right follow-up questions: does the employee feel like they’re being singled out for offering new ideas? Are the supervisor’s “old ways” of doing things actually rooted in a deeper problem like racism? The specific dynamics that arise with a conflict are going to be different every time, and that means that HR folks need to understand and prioritize the humans at the center of it — and they need to be a little more flexible with the rules, accordingly.
For movements, it’s the inverse. Movements can take the basic structures of corporate conflict resolution without being frozen by them. It starts with accepting that even if you don’t need a figurehead of a movement, you are going to need a leader (or more likely several leaders) to roughly guide and organize folks past one march or protest. And if you have leaders, you need some sort of accountability process for them.
In movements, people often drop in and out, but if you gather enough people within it to create a loose infrastructure for choosing leaders and for raising concerns with those leaders, new folks coming in can pick up the same tools and resources to continue that process even after the creators of it have moved on. This can look like organizing a hub democracy tool, where members vote on different initiatives and choose folks to guide them. In conflict resolution with those leaders once they’re chosen, it can look like creating a dedicated oversight group — just like you’d convene a group of designers to make action art or a group of organizers to lead a march, you can call on your people to look after your own people.
Not So Different After All
Corporations and movements alike both have to figure out a way to help their people be the best version of themselves in order to work. In trying to do that, you can’t use a procedural approach or a people-first approach at the expense of the other. Until we learn how both ideas play into making the world a better place (in whatever your version of “better” looks like), you’re always going to miss something whether you’re trying to sell a computer or enact a policy. Either you’ll be too robotic, or you’re always going to be dealing with people’s emotions. Ultimately, you need to remind your humans that they matter — because in either case, your work wouldn’t be possible without them — but you also need to implement a system that lets you deal with conflict at scale. It’s not impossible. All it takes is a little care and balance.