How to Change a Company from the Inside Out

By Jill Suttie | May 15, 2015 | 0 comments

A new book explains how to move your organization in a more socially or environmentally responsible direction.

“A corporate job does not have to be a compromise between earning your paycheck and sticking to your values.” So begins Changing Your Company from the Inside Out, written by Gerald Davis and Christopher White of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business—a guide to helping employees to become positive social change agents at work. (White helps to run the school’s Center for Positive Organizations.)

Davis and White claim that there are many opportunities for people working in businesses and corporations to make a difference in the world if they can only recognize their opportunities and learn how to use their leverage from within. They call this kind of activism being an “intrapreneur,” defined as someone who leads “change within their organizations, without formal authority, that aligns with core business objectives while also advancing a social or environmental outcome.”

The kinds of changes they envision for intrapreneurs include things like creating more environmentally-sustainable products, training workers who might otherwise have problems finding jobs, or reigning in polluting practices of large corporations. Drawing from social activist handbooks, as well as the current culture that encourages corporations to take more responsibility for solving world problems (or at least not creating more), they outline several key steps involved in making change happen.

Of course, the most important step is convincing the organization to innovate. Davis and White suggest the following:

  • Using language and storytelling to engage people in the organization: Companies are more apt to accept change if the people involved are emotionally invested in making it happen, which storytelling can accomplish, and if they recognize that what you are trying to do falls within the company’s mission, culture, and capabilities, which using company “language” can help assure.
  • Mapping social networks within the organization to find allies and to strategize: All organizations have people who wield power, sometimes formally, sometimes less so, with whom you can form alliances for change. Many of these power brokers can be discovered by analyzing communication patterns within the organization and tracking how decisions are made.
  • Finding the right time and platform for suggesting change and collaboration: There are better times and places in an organization to suggest change, and paying attention to those times when the company is looking for ways to meet a new challenge can be one of those times.

To illustrate how these steps might apply in concrete situations, the authors introduce us to several successful intrapreneurs—people like David Berdish of Ford, who persuaded the company to adapt a formal commitment to providing fresh water to people around the world, and Kevin Thompson, who helped create IBM’s Corporate Peace Corps program, to name a few inspirational examples.

These stories give the authors a chance to introduce concepts from organizational psychology and communication studies, such as framing—using different perspectives to explain an idea—and opportunity structure—deciding when and how a company may be ripe for innovation. It also allows them to weave in the research supporting their model, like that of positive organizational scholar, Jane Dutton, and the late sociologist, Mayer Zald, who studied social movements and the sociology of organizations.

On the other hand, I found that, in general, the science was given short-shrift in this book. Also, many of the stories of intrapreneurs seem less instructive than exemplary. How many of us would really have the know-how and energy to make these kinds of organizational shifts happen? Although the authors try to simplify the process and make it accessible, only the most motivated among us would probably want to take the time to analyze communication networks within an organization or spend time framing our cause in a variety of ways in order to strategically introduce change.

The book makes more headway when the authors explain why company leaders should stay open to innovation and embrace prosocial business practices. Those who encourage their employees to be creative and to increase their altruistic behavior are likely to enjoy the benefits of a more motivated, cohesive workforce and the added prestige that comes with doing good in the world.

Not that I would discourage intrepid intrapreneurs from fighting the good fight—far from it! It’s just that an intrapreneur’s battles might be less “uphill” if more employers did their part to encourage creativity, openness, and a culture of social responsibility within their businesses.

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About The Author

Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s book review editor and a frequent contributor to the magazine.


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