Close filter

Finding Your ‘Inner Activist’

A Q&A with Tessa Wernink, founder of The Undercover Activist

  • February 2023

Business leaders combatting complex issues such as climate change may feel alone in their quest, and it takes a new style of leadership that captures people’s motivation and develops followership to drive a collective effort. Leaders may not immediately recognize the purpose in others, and this may lead to employees feeling less empowered to act on this agenda. However, tapping into this sense of purpose and motivation can drive meaningful change. Leaders themselves need to develop their “inner activist” and understand the best way to unleash this in others.

As Professor Megan Reitz defines it, workplace activism means "Voices of difference that seek to influence organizations on wider social & environmental issues. And are disrupting the status quo."

“Activism” can have different associations. The term is often loaded with negativity. The legacy of our interview with Tessa Wernink is an understanding of activism as “love made visible.” The leaders we need today to tackle this topic recognize the human element and therefore should feel empowered to embrace this sentiment. This may sound unbusinesslike, but as Barbara L. Fredrikson describes in her the book “Love 2.0,” love can be understood as “a reflected motive to invest in each other's well-being that brings mutual care." 

Tessa Wernink is co-founder of Fairphone and founder of The Undercover Activist, an organization providing businesses with frameworks to advance workplace activism. She and I sat down for an interview. We spoke about the topic and explored what it means to “find your inner activist,” and how leaders can harness this to uplift their company culture and performance, enabling employees to serve as a powerful engine to create a better planet for all. 

Read on for the highlights of our conversation: 

What do people misunderstand about workplace activism?

Activism is about dreams, values, and what people care about or want to protect. But activism can also be a loaded term. We were very intentional about calling our organization “The Undercover Activist” and adding “Positive Workplace Activism” for that reason. The positive stands for a way to lead by example and not only protest, but take action and find solutions. Yet, we’re aware some corporations may not welcome us in because it may seem too provocative. Individuals who have a negative perspective on activism might benefit from exploring the source of this view, which may stem from a place of fear. Only when leaders start hearing the motivation behind what others are saying can they act as spurs for positive change. 

“Negativity” within an organization may be blamed on activism. However, the culture in the organization has a large role to play in hearing voices of difference and regarding how necessary change might be managed.

How can workplace activism lead to progress on the sustainability agenda? 

Corporate activism is often linked to good citizenship. Young people, in particular, want companies to live up to their purposes. When leaders understand that these voices inside the company echo trends from the outside - and they engage with them - they may gain a competitive advantage. Leaders rarely learned to talk about difficult matters like climate change or social equity  in their MBAs. This is a leadership challenge, because these important conversations are about living with that discomfort. Engaging with this workplace activism can lead to positive change and good outcomes.

When leaders understand that these voices inside the company echo trends from the outside - and they engage with them - they may gain a competitive advantage.

What sparked your passion in business activism? 

Looking back, Fairphone was a “campaign” that turned into a business model for change. It was about understanding how the system worked, creating interventions, working with a wide variety of stakeholders and using the smartphone as a platform for collaboration. During that time, I anticipated the major source of challenges would come from the outside, when in fact many challenges emerged from the inside. Our company culture was intentionally very open and transparent, which became more difficult as we scaled the company. As new pressures, new people, new investments added to the challenge, we tried to scale both the company and the culture. That didn’t always work, as voices got drowned out. Since then, I’ve been working on how we keep the open conversation going while moving forward.

What were your key learnings along the journey?

One of my key learnings was to take a “systems approach” to change. It’s about understanding how things relate to each other. There is no one single answer to issues. Most importantly, when it comes to change, we need a different kind of leadership. It’s not about one person with answers, but about creating the conditions that enable the system to change itself. 

My focus lies on how to bridge that divide and gather the collective intelligence. Leaders need to bring everyone on board, creating a vision/direction, improving communication, and welcoming experimentation and failure. That can be a potential clash with established corporate culture in younger organizations, but it doesn’t mean that established cultures are wrong, because there’s wisdom there too. 

Most importantly, when it comes to change, we need a different kind of leadership. It’s not about one person with answers, but about creating the conditions that enable the system to change itself.

How can leaders find their inner activist? 

Activism is about bringing your whole self to the workplace. While activism could be associated with fear, violence and resistance, it’s about “love made visible.” What I mean by that is, activism comes from a place of care and the values you stand for.  Leaders should ask themselves: What are those things I find unfair? Delving into their memories to the first time they were outraged about something and took action. Those values and purposes, perhaps experienced in a personal context, might be what’s needed to drive change in the work context. Why would you not be that person? 

Activism is about “love made visible.” It comes from a place of care and the values you stand for.  

How can leaders be emboldened to overcome resistance and create meaningful change? 

Leaders should be more aware and mindful of the resistance they have within themselves and recognize this resistance also resides in their colleagues. Active listening and trying to hear what people mean—not just their words—is useful for leaders to spur meaningful change. 

What’s in store for the future of workplace activism? 

The generations in positions of leadership were not necessarily educated to deal with conflict. What conflict means, and how to deal with it is very much tied to people’s personality and culture. In my children’s school, having a peaceful environment is part of their education. Conflict is being acknowledged, brought to the surface and used to make better decisions and improve understanding between people. To drive change, leaders need to accept that there’s going to be conflict and embrace people raising their voices as an opportunity, not a risk. The future of workplace activism is really in the hands of organizations.

If you were to advise a sustainability leader, how would you inspire others to adopt the same mindset?

Be aware of the context and scope of your role. I’d be very sensitive to the current status quo in the organization. Context is a really important starting point for anyone in corporate sustainability—it influences how radical you can be . Understanding power structures and the agendas of key stakeholders in the organization is vital.

Context is a really important starting point for anyone in corporate sustainability—it influences how radical you can be.

Key questions to ask include, “Am I being hired to be an add-on, a form of tokenism, or is the environment ready to enable me to create the conditions for the whole organization to integrate sustainability into their jobs?” If you’re hired to be the visionary, it’s going to be hard to lead the change alone. Changing things is really tough, so celebrating milestones as an organization and making these achievements more visible throughout the organization is important—creating conditions for the system to change itself.  

Where does the power to change organizations come from, top-down or bottom-up?  

People are starting to feel that every job is a climate job and they can and should speak up about it. While policy changes, business culture and leadership can only be transformed if the top management is on board too. 

Pressuring companies from within, without a culture that welcomes voices of difference, can create conflict and polarization. People who challenge the status quo will be heard better when there is some awareness on the topics they are raising. If the company creates spaces for this learning to happen, through conversations and dialogue, people can share what’s going on, and might feel less resistance to change.  

It is the responsibility of top leadership to enable these safe spaces. To make sure employees don’t feel the need to be ‘brave’ to speak up. This also demonstrates real action. If intention rests with words, top leaders can expect to be challenged. Young people feel a real urgency for change and want their companies to live up to their purpose, so having congruence is vital to engender that sense of trust and respect for their leadership. 

Talking to Tessa, it really resonates that the complex problems we face today in tackling climate change and inequality require human answers. Leaders must embrace the discomfort of being in touch with their own motivation and values and infusing this into the workplace. Bringing your whole self to work and recognizing the whole self of others makes leading in turbulent times less lonely.

Topics Related to this Article

Changing language
Close icon

You are switching to an alternate language version of the Egon Zehnder website. The page you are currently on does not have a translated version. If you continue, you will be taken to the alternate language home page.

Continue to the website

Back to top