By Ellen McGirt
Updated: May 22, 2018 12:39 PM ET

Consider the recent case of the female Nike employees, who anonymously surveyed each other and delivered evidence of gender discrimination and harassment to the CEO. They got an executive shake-up, an apology and a promise to do better.

Or the “silence-breakers” who spoke out against sexual assault and harassment to become TIME’s Person of The Year for 2017. They faced violence, retaliation and financial ruin to tell their stories, in many cases, for years, but their collective courage triggered a movement.

Why does it take a desperate act to stand up to a toxic culture and get results?

Francesca Gino, a behavioral scientist and the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, ticks through a list of research, including her own, that helps us better understand.

First, it’s about power, she says:

One reason people don’t speak up is the significant risk of doing so. Challenging the status quo threatens people’s status and relationships with supervisors and coworkers, research shows. Speaking up can also result in negative performance evaluation, undesirable job assignments, or even termination. Most people are aware of these potential costs; as a result, most stay quiet about bias, injustice, and mistreatment.

It’s a virtuous cycle of toxicity – people are aware of the mistreatment but feel like it’s pointless or dangerous to speak up.

And they’re right.

But the virtuous cycle can go both ways. Someone who shows the courage to speak up can positively influence others to join in. The key is to teach or model the behavior you want to see. “We’re especially likely to follow others’ actions when there is ambiguity about the appropriate way to behave,” she says.

Diversity itself offers a nice hack in this regard, as other research shows that when groups are more diverse, people are less likely to go along with the crowd, maintain status quo or endorse an inferior idea.

But Gino points to another benefit of feeling “welcome” at work. People who are encouraged to be their authentic selves are more likely to stand up for someone else when they observe a problematic encounter:

In a series of unpublished studies, my colleagues and I found that when we encouraged people to be authentic (for instance by having them think and write about a recent situation when they were able to be who they are at work), they were more likely than those in a control condition to speak up…Participants in the authenticity condition were more likely to voice their concerns about unfair procedures that imposed costs on others. In fact, 29% of them spoke up, while only 19% did in the control condition.

It’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? It’s almost as if encouraging people to remember who they are and reminding them that they’re valued brings out the best in them.

I suppose in a year or two I’ll be able to cite new research linking “individual authenticity” to revenue generation or new product innovation, and that will be exciting. But for now, try this: Pour a cup of tea or coffee and take ten minutes to remember a time when you felt fully yourself at work, comfortable in your own skin, confident using your own voice. Now, look around your network.

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