Middle managers embrace wokeness because it increases their influence and job security, new paper says

February 8, 2023, 10:21 PM UTC
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Companies are losing money by going “woke," two researchers say.
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Middle managers might be using “wokeness” to climb the ladder at work and keep their jobs during tough times, according to a new paper.  

“We suggest that going woke is an emergent strategy that is largely shaped by middle managers,” wrote Nicolai Foss, a strategy professor at Copenhagen Business School, and Peter Klein, an entrepreneurship and corporate innovation professor at Baylor University. “Wokeness arises from middle managers and support personnel using their delegated responsibility and specialist status to engage in woke internal advocacy, which may increase their influence and job security.”

The term “woke” was first used as an adjective in the 1940s by J. Saunders Redding in an article about labor unions and has reemerged in the past decade as a slogan that symbolizes awareness of social issues. The Oxford dictionary even expanded its definition of woke in 2017 to include an adjective form that means “alert to injustice in society, especially racism.”

But for conservatives, woke has become a loaded term at the center of America’s culture war. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis even put through legislation in 2021 titled Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (or “Stop WOKE”), in hopes of combating what he called “corporate wokeness” in his state. And Bernie Marcus, the billionaire cofounder of Home Depot, said in December that “woke people have taken over the world.”

“Nobody works. Nobody gives a damn. ‘Just give it to me. Send me money. I don’t want to work—I’m too lazy, I’m too fat, I’m too stupid,’” he told the Financial Times.

Foss and Klein argue that despite the rise of woke ideologies in companies, there is “little evidence of systematic support for woke ideas” in the population or among top executives. They did not provide any data backing this view. 

“And going woke does not appear to improve company performance,” they wrote, adding that it does, however, “provide authority, job security, and career opportunities” for middle managers.

Businesses risk losing “viewpoint diversity” by espousing left-wing ideologies, which can “reduce creativity and innovation in organizations,” according to the economists, who used a 2014 paper that discusses the benefits of having a wide range of political viewpoints in the social psychology field as evidence for their point.

Foss and Klein also warned that labor and hiring costs may increase owing to conflict between workers in a woke environment, noting that some top execs, including Brian Armstrong, CEO of crypto exchange Coinbase, have decided to ban political discussions at the workplace because of rising conflict among his workers.

“When companies go woke, they risk increasing these internal costs of organization,” they wrote.

The study’s authors pointed to rising spending on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs as an example of other rising costs associated with a woke corporate stance. U.S. companies spent $9.3 billion on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in 2022, and by 2026, that number is projected to rise to $15.4 billion, according to data from consulting firm StrategyR. 

Still, proponents of DEI programs argue that economists and politicians have launched a “war on wokeness” despite evidence of the positive effects of diversity. A 2020 McKinsey study found diverse companies are 35% more likely to see stronger profit margins than their peers. “The most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers,” the McKinsey researchers wrote.

But Foss and Klein argue companies that adopt woke practices could fall into a “purity spiral,” where employees compete to be considered “the purest proponent of the group’s essential values.” 

“This leads to frequently changing internal agendas as the internal bar of moral righteousness is constantly being raised in a game of purer than thou,” they wrote.

The study authors added that the emergence of woke culture “remains poorly understood,” and urged more researchers to investigate the phenomenon. 

“Most of the discussion on woke capitalism has taken place in the popular press, on social media, and in government offices. It’s time for management research to inform these debates in a more systematic way,” they wrote.

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