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The Activist Ingredient

To avoid employee burnout while maintaining growth, Paul Osterman of the Sloan School of Management at MIT suggests you take a lesson from grassroots political groups.
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To avoid employee burnout while maintaining growth, Paul Osterman of the Sloan School of Management at MIT suggests you take a lesson from grassroots political groups. Osterman, who is teaching a new course on the topic this fall, recently talked with Inc. staff writer Bobbie Gossage.

Why grassroots activists?

After a number of years most organizations, including businesses, start to lose steam. In contrast, many grassroots political organizations keep going over 10-, 20-, and even 30-year periods and still stay vigorous -- I think that's very relevant to managers.

So how do they do it?

They don't let day-to-day routine become so dominant that they forget their core mission. They shake things up. Organizers don't stay in one city for more than a few years, so they don't develop a vested interest in any particular way of doing things. And they are judged by their success in bringing in new members and training them to be leaders. So you tend to avoid having the same people always at the top, always making decisions.

How would you adapt that advice for, say, a company that only had one site and 20 employees?

At small firms, jobs and career paths tend to be more flexibly defined -- specialization has not set in and rigidified the organization. Hence, there are opportunities for rotation within the firm in terms of duties.

But when people join grassroots groups, they believe in a cause. A business's employees are different.

It's not as big of a difference as you would think. People who join these groups don't typically start off as deeply committed. A lot of people get involved because a friend of theirs says, "Will you come to this meeting?" The groups actively make distinctions between primary, secondary, and tertiary members, and move people up that hierarchy. The analogy would be someone who is hired by a company not knowing much about the widget business or whatever it is. But imagine they are socialized and trained and develop a sense of agency -- imagine then what they can do.




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