Importance of First Followers when Challenging Poor Behaviour


A distraught client of mine recently challenged a racism and misogynistic meme sent by a peer in a private WhatsApp group. They were all very senior white male leaders of his organisation, the ’status quo’ as I call them in ’The Con Job: Getting Ahead for Competence in a World Obsessed with Confidence’.

He asked the guy who posted it to remove it because it was offensive, to which the poster queried - ‘But why? I don’t understand what the problem is?  It’s not about you.’  

In this very public form, my client responded, ‘At a base minimum you’d get fired if this thread ever went public - but more importantly, it is deeply offensive. It's not about me, but if we all accept it as 'just a bit of fun', it says something about us that I don’t like.’ He then signed off and left the group. That was met with a wall of silence, and a sense of unease about the future progress of his career in an organisation that ironically publicly prides itself on 'valuing diversity'. 

A few days later, he saw one of the dozen, a guy I”m going to call his ‘First Follower’ who came up to him saying: ’Thanks for that, what started off as a good chat group has descended into something I don’t recognise either and you were right to speak up. I wish I'd said something myself.’

That conversation, and another one like it a few days later gave my client the validation he needed. When I heard this story, I was reminded of a video about the transformational power of the ‘First Follower’, who turns a reaction into a movement.   
 

I saw this video a few years ago, when looking at how early innovators need support - a topic I was well-aware of when I dipped my toe into making online games about workplace bias. However, now I see the value this concept has  when thinking about what it takes to challenge poor behaviour - the off-hand comments, the jokes, the banter too many people write off as being ‘just a bit of fun’. 

Sometimes we focus too much on the pressure of being 'the leader'; first one to speak out when one of the most powerful positions is actually just being that 'First Follower'. My client needed that First Follower, and it gave him a sense that he had been in the right - even if it should have come earlier and more publicly. I’d invite you to show the courage of the 'First Follower' when you see someone challenge an injustice in your workplace.

As a bystander, you know inequities are not easy to raise. However, it shows the ‘Dancing Guy’ they’re not alone in how they feel, creates stronger alliances and legitimises the comment to which everyone should be paying attention. And that IS worth having a dance for!