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Fight or Switch

April 2, 2012

In 1970, before Watergate, the United States’ humiliating exit from Vietnam, the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the steady decline of public confidence in government ever since, Albert O. Hirschman wrote a uniquely influential analysis of participation in democratic institutions facing decline. Exit, Voice and Loyalty became required reading for students of politics, public administration and civic engagement.

Hirschman’s book addresses the fundamental questions facing individuals and organizations in crisis: Should I stay or go? Can I still make a difference? How best do I serve the interests of the truth? At some time or other, each of us faces these or similar questions. The answers to our questions do not lie in what is popular or what others would do in our place or what would make ourselves or others happy.

Doing the right thing requires dedication to the truth and often requires us to take actions others consider desperate, difficult, dangerous or even despicable. It means making a choice between giving in, speaking up or getting out. And the decisions we make say as much about the organization and its future as it does about our ability to influence its course.

Hirschman suggests that an individual’s loyalty to an organization increases in direct proportion to the entry costs. The harder it is to join an organization, the harder it is for any individual to change it.

Individuals confronted with an unsatisfactory situation can express their loyalty either by speaking up or getting out. Both courses of action have their costs.

Those who speak up risk the ire of colleagues convinced they alone know what is right for the organization. Those in the majority often have good reasons to assume their might makes right, as more often than not they have access to institutional advantages that afford them an ability to bring pressure to bear on those who disagree with the apparent or desired consensus.

Those who get out signal to others the need for change by jumping ship. This serves to reinforce the undesirability of staying the course and is intended to suggest that loyalty to the group operates in direct opposition to the more important and respectable loyalty to principles, purpose or ideals.

Challenging the status quo is always unpopular, which only partly explains why it’s so difficult. As I already indicated, the majority is more committed to being right than doing right, and is rarely afraid to exact a price from anyone that places loyalty to ideas above loyalty to them.

On Monday night, I watched as a valued colleague publicly resigned his position. He concluded that efforts to change the situation from the inside were “futile.” Leaving relieves him of the burden of group loyalty and conformity with the status quo.

Those of us left behind must now examine our relationship not only to him but also to the organization he helped build and lead. As I searched the expressions of others for signs of what may come, I saw many smiling in apparent glee at what they surely see as a victory. Others’ dismay and concern showed as their expressions grew blank and their gazes dropped.

Only time will tell whether others see this event as encouragement to speak up or get out. But once the exodus begins it’s often hard to stop.

It’s worth noting, organizations that encourage consensus through compelled conformity become increasingly detached from the reality of their circumstances. Convinced of their own rectitude, they suppress that which cannot be ignored until constructive conflict, creativity and genuine collaboration all but vanish. In contrast, organizations that not only tolerate dissent but actively encourage and engage diverse perspectives experience renewal in spite of all the rough-and-tumble they experience.

As I wait to see what the future will bring, I am reminded that people can leave by doing what my colleague did (getting up and going) or by staying where they are and simply giving up. Sadly, many of my colleagues have already concluded the latter option is their only viable recourse.

As for me, I’d rather fight than switch. But then again, everyone has their limits.

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