Citizens of the Organization

Closing commentary on Wives of the Organization offering suggestions on how to be a better organizational citizen

Anne Sigismund Huff
Permanent Visiting Professor of Innovation and Strategy
Technische Universität München
& Academic Director
Center for Leading Innovation & Cooperation
HHL - Leipzig Graduate School of Management

© Copyright 2008-2009 Anne Sigismund Huff. All rights reserved.

October 2009

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I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else? I could hear it sometimes, but I couldn’t play it.1
Charlie 'Bird' Parker


The role and power of individuals in organizations and in society is changing. While there is less security, there is also more opportunity to contribute. I believe that women in particular have new opportunities to escape gendered expectations but we must update skills, pay attention to risk, actively connect with and learn from others, support diversity, and participate in governance.

Keywords: Organizational citizenship, organizational change, women in organizations, female success


In 1990 I asked if others were as melancholy as I was about the roles women were taking, and not taking, in the workplace. Some significant gains have been made in the subsequent years. Rankings are inevitably superficial, but it is undeniably good news, for example, that 13 of the 500 largest companies in the world were led by women at the beginning of 2009, up from just one in 1998.2 It is significant that there are 24 female heads of state around the world, even a few more if monarchies are included.3

In spite of these and other welcome increases in female leadership, however, until recently I remained melancholy. The number of winners continues to be small. Too many patterns have stayed the same. I saw the discouraging interactions in my university classroom in the late nineteen eighties, which provoked the Wives paper, replicated in the high schools our children attended ten years later. They appear too often in my classroom today. And I raged when commentators spent time reporting on Hillary Clinton’s cleavage, possible tears, and other topics they did not scrutinize in male candidates for president of the United States. The bottom line is that despite some progress, much more is needed. Though I focus on leadership, it is also of great concern that violence against girls has risen around the world, and women are primary victims in "human trafficking … a worldwide industry that generates billions of dollars in profit"4 a year.

Many collectives in more favorable circumstances (news and sports commentators, advisors to presidential candidates, etc.) are gradually becoming more representative, but the most consequential are still dominated by white, male faces. There has been a slight increase (to 15.2%) in the number of women on the boards of Fortune 500 companies, for example, but the number of companies without a single representative rose from 59 in 2007 to 66 (13.2%) in 2008.5 To my surprise, the particularly innovative Apple did not appoint its first female director until the beginning of 2008.

These changes come at their ponderous pace in the United States despite pervasive governance reform. Legal pressure – a macro force of the kind Marta Calás and Linda Smircich draw attention to in their commentary on the Wives paper – has resulted in a number of favorable class action suits in the last 20 years. But the most noteworthy, a suit potentially affecting more than 2 million female employees against Wal-Mart (until the recent economic crisis the largest company in the world), is moving very slowly and may go to the Supreme Court. Given the relative conservatism of this body, I do not expect pressure on companies to increase. Thus the unconscious routines that Joyce Fletcher explains can be expected to continue tilting the playing field.

At an individual level of analysis, which is my continuing focus, I am happy to see an increasing number of men in grocery stores with children in tow, but men continue to make 33% more than women performing similar jobs in the United States.6 Thirty three percent is huge, and greater disparities are reported in most other countries.7 This is one of the most depressing gender discrepancies because it directly affects so many, but as noted earlier, I have recently become more optimistic about the future climate for women in organizations.

The problems of hierarchy in an individuated world and a citizenship solution

In Wives of the Organization, the wife’s role is described as the option of choice in many social situations because it helps structure interactions to provide women some protection, some respect, and some power. Many readers have recognized wifely behavior in themselves and others; in fact this unpublished essay has probably been more widely distributed than anything I have published. Nonetheless, a number of people have criticized its suggestion that women learn from men taking a more egotistical approach, and recent activities (almost exclusively by men) in organizations from Enron to the financial institutions largely responsible for the global meltdown substantiate that this can be bad advice.

Meeting global demands for higher quality, lower cost, and quicker product changes is often assumed to require a forceful, centralized, and typically male response. That is true even in entrepreneurial firms – think of Steve Jobs at Apple. Yet an argument is emerging that says centralized control is less viable as organizations connect to the world in more flexible and complex ways. Ultimately, I hope to see the demise if not the death of patriarchy in organizations because it is found to be inefficient. That means that wifely behavior must die as well. It too is non-egalitarian, with negative results for organizations considered as a whole as well as for individuals within them.

For most of the last decade I have chosen to work in Europe, not only for the pleasure of an environment that is new to me, but also because an important conversation about innovation is centered here. In the last few years my German colleagues and I have been particularly interested in ‘open’ innovation.8 Henry Chesbrough, who coined the term, points out that more and more firms are assuming they “can and should use external as well as internal ideas, and internal and external paths to market.”9 Successful adopters of this perspective include Procter and Gamble, currently number 20 in the Fortune 500 and a company that by 2006 reported “45 percent of the initiatives in our product development portfolio have key elements that were discovered externally.”10

Various trends make open innovation an increasingly important strategic option. First, organizations need more ideas, and more varied ideas, to meet growing global competition. Second, recent economic pressures have significantly expanded the number of firms interested in leveraging inevitably limited resources for innovation. Third, growing customer sophistication increases the need for new ideas, and open innovation is attractive as more users expect to make their own contributions to solution designs.11 Luckily, changes in information technology make it possible to quickly connect varied actors, including an increasingly sophisticated and international labor force that also expects greater involvement in organizational activities.

The transition that is taking place is often called “individualization.” Around the world people are more aware of their unique needs, and increasingly able to satisfy them. Eric von Hipple’s book Democratizing Innovation suggests that

the traditional pattern of concentrating innovation-support resources on just a few pre-selected potential innovators is hugely inefficient….When the cost of high-quality resources for design and prototyping becomes very low—which is the trend…these resources can be diffused widely….The net result is and will be to democratize the opportunity to create.12

“Democratizing the opportunity to create” is expanding into “democratizing the opportunity to participate.” For some years organizations have been forced to strip away layers of management, often pushing responsibility down, in order to control costs. Now they are also realizing that people with important knowledge for needed application and innovation are already doing the organization’s work. My colleague Kathrin Möslein and I believe that ideas within the firm – from current employees, suppliers, distributors etc. – have as much untapped potential as external resources. Using these possibilities not only creates new opportunities to participate, it demands a new kind of contributor.

Clearly this is a large subject than cannot be fully developed in a short commentary. My basic point is that citizens of the organization need to change the way they work in order to survive and prosper.

Actions that respond to changing demands and opportunities for participation

A small but growing body of academic literature exploring organization democracy and its foundation in political philosophy is described by Lynda Gratton in The Democratic Enterprise. She suggests that younger workers with different priorities and expectations, facilitated by changing technology, more demanding markets, and other factors, make organizational democracy increasingly necessary, and increasingly effective.

Gratton’s description of democracy is very revealing. She emphasizes that it is essentially an adult-to-adult relationship. Individuals (more than changing employers or the distant state) have primary responsibility for building skills to participate. These participants determine the conditions under which they and others associate, though in democratic systems individual liberty cannot be taken at the expense of others. Yet the definition of democracy, as well as the nature of current conditions around the globe, also mean that diverse behavior and inputs are a needed social good as well as an individual right. Citizens are accountable central actors, in short, and their responsibilities must be made clear to newcomers.

A brief comparison of citizenship in this description with the behavior of organization wives reveals why stronger resistance to playing the organization wife is critical.

  • While citizenship is based on an adult-to-adult relationship, the organization wife tends to accept secondary (less public and less active) status.
  • While citizens are expected to increase their skills, the organization wife learns little by repeatedly carrying out the same tasks. Yet, by taking over repetitive jobs as her unique domain, she denies others the opportunity to learn them.
  • In organizational democracy, citizens openly participate in defining the conditions of their association. Wives may determine some conditions, but do so covertly. One negative consequence is that others cannot easily learn about the positive or negative aspects of the role.
  • Democracy by definition asserts that the liberty of some participants cannot be at the expense of others’ liberty. Patriarchs (and by extension matriarchs) demand the limitation of other’s freedom by definition.
  • Citizenship ideally supports diversity; wifely behavior tends to be silent on this issue (perhaps due to lack of perceived power) and therefore is part of the problem.
  • Citizens have obligations to the whole; among other things, they are accountable for instructing newcomers. Wives of the organization are less socially obligated and accountable because many of their activities are tacitly defined and carried out away from the public eye. Even if willing to teach, their knowledge base for doing so is often limited.

This comparison effectively damns the organizational wife and intensifies my desire to be involved in gender-neutral activity. Five actions seem especially compelling:

1. Build skills

We all know that we live in a volatile employment market. Therefore we each have to be our own HR officer, comparing the skill requirements and consequences of different jobs and arranging supplementary instruction as necessary. However, even a brief consideration of citizenship puts efforts to build a saleable vita into a broader, social framework. When we focus on the skills needed to perform tasks needed by the organization, we contribute to the collective as well as to ourselves. If we focus on skills we consider legitimate, we make a broader social contribution as well.

2. Control risk

The world of open innovation is an entrepreneurial one. Saras Sarasvathy has done some ground breaking research on what skilled entrepreneurs actually do.13 Especially in the early stages of development, they focus on defining their resources and discovering who they might involve in using and increasing them. Interestingly, they are often not driven by a strongly defined goal at the outset, that tends to evolve, but they are very aware of the cost of experimentation. In other words, rather than wistful thinking about making millions, they concern themselves with calculating what they might lose by following an uncertain path and chose among those they can afford. Remember that these are experienced, successful entrepreneurs – people who have successfully brought more than one good idea to market. Following their recipe makes a great deal of sense.

3. Value networks

Networking is often seen as a ploy for personal advancement. When mutual advancement is the entrepreneurial objective, it becomes valuable for an additional reason. After she wrote The Democratic Enterprise, Lynda Gratton conducted a large international survey of organization innovation. To my surprise, the results suggest that women, on average, are less valuable contributors to innovation than men. “Insight,” according to von Hippel, “often requires extensive conversation with one’s peers.”14 Though many women work well in teams, Gratton found they have fewer connections, on average, and thus less to offer.15 The obvious prescription is to increase the range of our contacts as an organizational as well as a personal good.

4. Establish adult-to-adult, diverse relationships

We are demographically separated from our fellow workers not only by gender, but also by race, religion, class, age, sexual preference, health, physical abilities, previous experience, and many other things. Too often these differences are the basis for the haves assuming superiority over the have-nots, but the expanding world of organizational action provides practical as well as moral arguments for more egalitarian relationships: they generate needed variety.

5. Help define the terms of engagement

An important observation in Wives of the Organization comes from Carol Gilligan. She noticed that boys at play often argue at length about what is fair, while girls are more likely to walk away when they don’t like the way a game proceeds.16 Even when we stay to disagree, my observation is that often we are less effective than our male colleagues. That outcome has as much to do with the audience as with the arguer, which is why we must stick around. Because organizations are so imperfect, even the few that explicitly aspire to democratic processes, we must assume the citizen’s responsibility of becoming involved in governance.


This is meant to be a short commentary, and so I will stop. My basic claim is that the context of the gender divide is being transformed. More porous boundaries and more flexible processes are cracking many “sedimented” (Calás and Smircich’s term ) roles. My emotional barometer is improving because this creates new opportunities to change gendered relationships where gains have been made slowly, if at all.

Using Joyce Fletcher’s language, citizenship is a way of defining task-based relational work that can add value to organizations. It also moves toward a more systemic and structural representation of organizations, which Marta Calás and Linda Smircich rightly note is missing in the Wives paper. As they also note, questions still must be asked about consumerist systems that create more and more worth less and less. At least democracy provides a framework for conversation, though we are enmeshed in a very challenging situation.


Parker’s observation about occasionally hearing what he could not yet play has been posted over my desk for years. It is particularly relevant to the changing world of organizational activities and the new rewards/risks they present. I believe we must listen hard, because we are increasing required not just to play new songs, but play a new way.

The suggestions offered in this paper for being a better organizational citizen do not contradict advice from Wives of the Organization to learn to say no, relinquish control over the trivial, share relational tasks, expect more from male colleagues (and less from female colleagues), focus, choose voice and exit, and be more reflective. Yet greater attention to building skills, controlling risk, learning from others, supporting diversity, and participating in governance, is more likely to harmonize self-centered and community-oriented behavior. That is a difficult but worthwhile agenda. I especially recommend it to younger women who have the most to gain from not becoming the person who too often bakes the brownies, takes the notes, does the grunt work, and is not sufficiently recognized for her contributions.


Gratton, L. (2004). The Democratic Enterprise. London: FT Press.

Sarasvathy, S. (2008). Effectuation: Elements of Entrepreneurial Expertise. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

Von Hippel, E. (2005). Democratizing Innovation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press


  1. The quote from Parker comes from; last accessed July 27, 2008. See also, last accessed October 20, 2009.
  2. The thirteen CEOs are listed at last accessed October 23, 2009. When the Fortune list debuted in 1998, it featured three CEOs of publicly held companies. Only one, Jill Barad of Mattel (number 363), led a Fortune 500 company.
  3. United Nations Radio (2009). Gender perspectives on climate change. Accessed October 24, 2009 at
  4. United Nations Radio (2009) Ban calls for global action against trafficking, October 21. Accessed October 23 2009 at
  5. Catalyst (2008) 2008 Catalyst Census of Women Board Directors of the Fortune 500. Accessed October 23, 2009 at
  6. See comparative salary data at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (2008). The Gender Wage Ratio: Women’s and Men’s Earnings, updated February; accessed July 28, 2008 at International data is reported by the United Nations Statistics Division (2007). Table 5e. Women’s wages relative to men’s. Statistics and Indicators on Men and Women (December). Accessed August 4, 2008 at Finally, the study of female director’s compensation is reported by Jena McGregor in “Surprise! Women on the Board Earn More” Business Week, November 8, 2007. Accessed October 24, 2009 at
  7. It is aggravating that the wage gap is typically presented as women making 25% less than men. The statistic reflects a male point of view. Instead of saying we make 25% less than men, why not say they make 33% more than we do? But I also should acknowledge a recent study (cited at the end of note 6) indicating that women on Boards of Directors in the United States now make a little more than their male colleagues. If you have read Wives of the Organization, you may be amused to know that the primary explanation is “that boards, eager to get female representation across the board, assign more women to multiple committees.”
  8. My colleague Frank Piller has a particularly informative and engaging blog on open innovation and a related topic, mass customization, at
  9. Chesbrough, H.W. (2006). Open Innovation: Researching a new paradigm. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 1.
  10. Huston, L. and Sakkab, N. (2006). P&G's New Innovation Model. Working Knowledge for Business Leaders. Harvard Business School. Accessed July 27, 2008 at See also the book by P&G CEO A.G. Lafley with Ram Charan (2008), The Game-Changer. Random House.
  11. See Tseng, M.M. and Piller, F. Towards the customer centric enterprise, in M. Tseng and F. Piller (Ed.) The customer centric enterprise: advances in mass customization and personalization, New York: Springer, 2003, pp. 1-27. (4th edition, 2006)
  12. Von Hippel, E. (2005). Democratizing Innovation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 123.
  13. A good introduction, “What makes entrepreneurs entrepreneurial,” can be found at, last accessed October 25, 2009.
  14. Von Hippel, op cit., p. 124.
  15. Gratton, L. (2006). Cooperation Hot Spots, the Peter Pribilla Launch. Creating Hot Spots, page 11. Accessed July 28, 2008 at
  16. Gilligan, C. (1982). In a Different Voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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