Farrah Qureshi

Harnessing advocates, managing detractors and eliminating invisible saboteurs

Advocates, detractors…. and invisible saboteurs Why businesses should welcome their advocates and outspoken detractors – and fear their invisible saboteurs

One of the many collateral benefits of diverse and inclusive working cultures is that they foster advocacy.

This is because employees who feel engaged and empowered at work will generally be positive about their employer. They will encourage friends and family to use their products and maybe even to work for that company.

There is a similar experience with customers. Those that see a company that reflects their values and beliefs may use social media to spread the positive word and recommend that business to others.

Conversely, exclusive working cultures often experience the opposite effect. Excluded employees that feel unwelcome may resort to websites like Glassdoor to express negative views and to warn potential future workers. Customers may use online platforms to protest or complain.

I counsel business leaders to welcome these ‘outspoken’ detractors as they can become potential allies.

While their remarks are negative, the act of sharing their opinion is an act of generosity. They are voicing their opinions because they believe someone may be listening.

Outspoken detractors can be turned around.

In addition, embedded in their comments there will often be vital and helpful clues to the (often very simple) steps that the business can take to change for the better.

So: outspoken detractors can be a good thing. Find them. Listen to them. Use them to help improve your business. Don’t fear their bark – they probably don’t have a bite.

Businesses should rather fear their invisible saboteurs.

Invisible saboteurs can be hard to identify. They may seem friendly. Their preferred method of attack is through ‘micro aggressions’ that can be barely visible.

Micro aggressions are seemingly small acts with a hidden big message – a message that is like a scream. Never underestimate the power of the apparently ‘small’ gesture.

Businesses should ensure that they make every effort to identify invisible saboteurs and then they should deal with the issues causing their negative and ultimately destructive behaviour.

The impact of an invisible saboteur is like that of a sand fly or ‘no see um’ on the skin. If you’ve ever been bitten by one you will know that you can barely see them. When they are biting you, you don’t know they are there, and you may barely feel that they are touching you. Yet their sting is powerful, though it may only be felt much later and you may be unaware of when it occurred and what caused it.

Within organisations, invisible saboteurs are often people in junior and apparently ‘small’ roles. They may feel excluded, marginalised or even downright mistreated. They may feel powerless to change their situation. They may fear acting in an open outspoken way. They may pretend for a long time that everything is fine. Instead they will choose their moment to undermine the individual they identify as their tormentor, silently and invisibly, as though according to the belief that ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’.

I came across an invisible saboteur when I was consulting on a major and long-term project in South America.

Let’s call this individual José. Let’s say he was a driver.

José comes across as a jolly and happy character. He is a very good driver. He is attentive and caring to my needs. I liked him enormously, and I especially enjoyed talking to him. In fact, I value his opinions and I make a point of speaking to him about things that are on my mind.

He has been driving me to and from a number of locations during the same project for three years.

I get to know him well.

One day when he picks me up, he seems despondent. I ask him what is wrong. He is ready to open up.

He tells me that he is having issues with a senior person within his business who he is responsible for driving.

He feels this senior person has no respect for him. He feels humiliated and undermined by his behaviour.

He describes occasions when the senior person is two-faced – he smiles when others were there and then is mean to José for apparently no reason.

However, this is not the reason that José is upset.

As I’ve said, this is a good and caring man.

He is not upset because he had been treated badly – again.

He is upset because he was ashamed.

When I ask him why he told me the following story.

The week before he had been driving this senior manager from one city to another.

It was an especially hot day.

They were passing through desert.

His passenger had been shouting and being offensive from the back of the car, as ever, for no apparent reason.

Suddenly, José found his moment to bite back.

Towards the middle of the day, José stopped the car suddenly and said that the engine had failed.

He said that the air conditioning was not working and that they needed to fix the car before they could continue.

They stopped by the side of the road.

For two hours, José said, he pretended to phone the emergency services and he pretended to fix the car.

The senior manager sat by the side of the road. Unlike José, he was wearing a suit and tie. He had expected to spend a short period in a cool car. He had not anticipated the searing heat of a midday sun in a desert landscape with no shelter, no shade and no water.

Apparently at one point he was caught short as the heat made him unwell. He looked uncomfortable, distraught.

After two hours, suddenly, José announced that the car was fixed and that they could drive off.

This is how José invisibly and insidiously claimed his power and ‘used’ his voice.

The manager never realised that José had lied to him about the condition of the car in order to punish him with the pain of two hours of intense heat.

José had wanted the manager to feel pain, discomfort. It was a small revenge for years of humiliation.

He knew he wasn’t going to permanently change the manager’s behaviour towards him, nor towards others. And subsequently, he felt ashamed.

This is how invisible saboteurs act.

They will damage businesses in ways that management will probably never realise.

Unlike outspoken detractors, whose comments contain the seeds of positive change, invisible saboteurs cause disruption, pain, discomfort but with no indication of how anything can be improved. The point of their sabotage is revenge, not change.

When I work with businesses to create diversity and inclusion strategies, uncovering invisible saboteurs is a key aspect of the programme.

Sort out their issues before they find ways to bite the business back – invisibly.

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