Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Punch or Block? How Organizational Members React to Social Movement Anger

The Dick’s Sporting Goods chain store stopped selling military-style semiautomatic rifles after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting. No wonder: the Stoneman terrorist had bought a gun from one of their stores. Even though he didn’t use it in the attack, the store was one decision away from becoming an accessory to a mass shooting of school children.

Gun control is an issue that provokes significant anger from people on both sides. People who advocate for stricter controls express anger over the lives lost and the failure to quell domestic terrorism. People on the side of no gun control express anger over losing their right to buy any weapon they like.

Not all social movements provoke the degree of anger gun control does, but we have more to learn about those that do. A recent article by Katherine A. DeCelles, Scott Sonenshein, and Brayden G. King in Administrative Science Quarterly shows us something new about social movements that provoke anger and how organizations respond to them. The authors find that anger related to a social movement affects the response of organizational insiders who agree with the social movement, but not in the way we might expect. In the case of Dick’s Sporting Goods, the organizational insiders would be employees who agree that gun control is necessary and that the store should limit its gun sales and/or have stricter background checks.

Employees’ reaction to a social movement they agree with would seem fairly simple to predict: they would express their support of the social movement and try to influence the organization to agree to its demands. This is often the case, and employees are often successful: organizational insiders who agree with a social movement make organizations much more likely to change. In other words, a social movement often creates an opportunity to push an organization for change.

But this article points out that social movements invoking anger are different. Anger leads to a feeling of being under siege, so employees agreeing with the movement face a dilemma. They are angry too and would like to express it. Yet they also depend on the organization for work and pay, and they have reasons to fear that involvement in an angry social movement will lead to negative repercussions, whether from coworkers who disagree or from management. In other words, they have to decide whether an angry social movement is a good opportunity to punch for change.

The research showed that this conflict between anger and fear was resolved in favor of fear. While people outside the organization were more likely to act in response to the social movement when they were angry, organizational insiders were less likely to act. This was because greater anger also led them to fear negative consequences of acting. Employees often did not act on their anger but instead sought to protect themselves. In other words, they decided that the best response to an angry social movement was to block punches that might come from management, not to punch for change.

In Dick’s Sporting Goods, change happened. Not only did they stop selling the semi-automatic rifles that are favored by mass shooters, but they also destroyed them. They are considering stopping sales of guns of all types in their stores. Why did this happen? The decisive factor was that, angry or not, the CEO got on the side of the social movement. Management does matter, especially when there is controversy and anger.

DeCelles, K. A., Sonenshein, S., & King, B. G. 2019. Examining Anger’s Immobilizing Effect on Institutional Insiders’ Action Intentions in Social Movements. Administrative Science Quarterly, Forthcoming.