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Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work by Debra E. Meyerson





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While the 1950s may have been the era of “The Organization Man,” the 1990s and 2000s are times that recognize, accept and encourage wide differences among workers. Stanford professor Debra E. Meyerson has written a book titled, Tempered Radicals, that calls attention to the ways in which real people at real companies have led significant changes. Meyerson focused her attention on individuals who didn’t feel that they “fit” into their organization’s culture, and she describes what they did about it. Her research spanned 15 years and shows that incremental change can make a big difference over time. Here’s how she describes who tempered radicals are and what they do, after using an example named Martha in a real company:

“All types of organizations – from global corporations to small neighborhood schools – have Marthas. They occupy all sorts of jobs and stand for a variety of ideals. They engage in small local battles rather than wage dramatic wars, at times operating so quietly that they may not surface on the cultural radar as rebels or change agents. But these men and women of all colors and creeds are slowly and steadily pushing back on conventions, creating opportunities for learning, and inspiring change within their organizations.
Sometimes these individuals pave alternative roads just by quietly speaking up for their personal truths or by refusing to silence aspects of themselves that make them different from the majority. Other times they act more deliberately to change the way the organization does things. They are not heroic leaders of revolutionary change; rather, they are cautious and committed catalysts who keep going and who slowly make a difference. They are ‘tempered radicals.’”

The stories and examples Meyerson presents in Tempered Radicals include differences in race, gender, sexual orientation, values, beliefs, and social perspectives. She shows a range of behavior and strategies that individuals have used to effect change. Consistently, people with strong feelings found ways to be true to themselves within an organizational setting, and through their actions, led the organization, slowly, toward becoming more receptive to others who share differences. These individuals are valuable to any organization, and reading Tempered Radicals can help executives understand how to really welcome diversity, and how to help more individuals feel comfortable in using their unique skills and talents within a diverse organization.

Steve Hopkins, January 23, 2002


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