If you want to persuade management at your company to take action on a social issue, you need to make the business case for it. That’s the current thinking, at least. But you might do just as well—or better—by making the case that it’s the right thing to do, especially for your particular company, a new study has found.
Four management professors interviewed more than 400 U.S. employees across several organizations, asking whether they had ever “spoken up to management about an important ‘social issue’ to try to create a positive change that they thought would benefit others or society.” Of those who did, the researchers asked them about their approach and how successful they were in gaining company support.
The findings were consistent—and against the conventional wisdom. “We found that economic language was never significantly related to effectiveness—managers were no more or less likely to devote time, attention, money, or other resources to address the social issue when the employee made a business case,” the researchers wrote in Harvard Business Review.
Using moral language in general was no more helpful. “However, we found that when employees used moral language and framed the social issue as part of the organization’s values and mission, they were far more successful. By tailoring the moral message to also fit with something perceived as legitimate—what the company stood for—it provided cover, license, and an impetus for the manager to put energy into working on the social problem,” the professors wrote.
In recent years, when companies have addressed a range of social issues, from diversity to sustainability, they’ve made the case to their stakeholders that it’s not just about doing good, but about the bottom line. That may well be true, especially for companies taking the long view. But the new research shows another apparently effective way to persuade managers, and in the HBR piece the researchers offer employees several important takeaways on how to make change happen at their companies.