Animals in the Far Future, and How to Help Them

Article Summary

  • Around 74 billion land animals are killed by humans for food each year, and another 1 to 3 trillion fish are killed each year. In total, we could say there are somewhere around 1 trillion animals killed by humans each year for food.
  • Although that’s a big number, the majority of all animals ever killed by humans could exist in the future, especially if our current trends continue. If we assume that humans continue their current animal consumption for another 1,000 years, then almost all of the animals who will ever be killed by humans haven’t been born yet.
  • Since we care about all animals, we need to make sure our impact helps animals in the future—either by ensuring that they don’t exist (vegan world), that they’re born into a life free of exploitation (sanctuaries), or at the very least that their suffering is as minimal as possible (high welfare).
  • To impact animals in the future, we need to:
    • Keep the far future in mind;
    • Make our impact global;
    • Make our impact structural; and,
    • Make our impact resilient to societal disruption.

If we care about animals, then we need to take the big picture into account.

In this article, we’re going to be thinking about our impact over all time—in other words, how our work affects animals who might exist in the future.

Animals Killed Each Year

First, let’s get some numbers for how many animals are killed each year. There are around 56 billion land animals killed each year for food globally, and the majority of them are chickens. There are also 1 to 3 trillion fish killed each year for food by humans each year (including bycatch, feeder fish, etc.). Over half of all animals killed for food are killed in China.

These numbers aren’t perfectly precise, but they give us a sense of the scale.

Looking Into The Future—But First, Math

But now let’s factor in the role of time: how many animals are killed each year, for all years, past and future.

(Before we start, I want to say that I know these numbers are going to be very rough estimates and guesses. But, I hope the general scale and logic of these estimates still conveys the point, even if they aren’t accurate.)

Animals Killed in the Past

To get the number of animals that humans have killed in the past, let’s assume that the number of animals killed has grown at the same rate as the human population. This model, while not being completely accurate, will at least give us a reasonable estimate for animals killed in the past.

If we use this model and go back to the year 5000 BCE, then our model estimates that humans killed around 150 trillion animals in the past. Just for context: a million seconds is about 11 days; a billion seconds is about 31 years; and a trillion seconds is around 31,700 years, or nearly 32 millennia.

150 trillion animals killed is a completely astronomical number.

Animals Killed in the Future

Now, let’s look at how many animals might be killed by humans in the future.

Because the future hasn’t happened yet, there isn’t a “correct” answer to this question—there are only guesses that we can make based on different hypothetical scenarios. I’ll walk us through a few of those scenarios so that we can get a sense of what different versions of the future might look like.

Many of them, though, show that most of the animals who have existed or will exist could exist in the future, meaning they haven’t even been born yet. (Even though the number of animals already killed by humans over the course of history is so large.)

Scenario #1: Current Consumption, Eventual Societal Collapse

In this first scenario, we’ll use a very simple model of the future: Humanity stays the exact same as it is right now, and lasts another 1000 years before society completely collapses and humans go extinct.

Since humans currently kill somewhere around 1 trillion land animals and fish each year, this scenario implies that humans would kill (1 trillion animals per year) * (1000 years) = 1000 trillion (or 1 quadrillion) more animals in the future.

In this case, 87% of all animals who humans will ever kill live in the future. (1000/(1000+150))

Scenario #2: Cyclical Society Collapse and Rebuild

Humans are pretty scrappy and can learn to live almost anywhere on the planet. If global human society were to collapse in a significant way, I think there’s a good possibility that some communities would find a way to continue surviving.

So in this scenario, let’s assume that society collapses sometime this year and brings us back to the point of ancient civilizations, somewhere around 3000 BCE. Let’s also assume that this pattern of growth and collapse will occur again in exactly the same manner as before, and that it will occur some number of times…maybe five more times before humans go extinct.

In this case, we can take the total number of animals that humans have killed for food in the past (150 trillion) and assume that humans will kill this number again in each successive cycle. This means the total number of animals killed by humans for food in the future is (150 trillion per cycle) * (5 more cycles) = 750 trillion animals, which would mean that 83% of all animals killed by humans will live in the future.

Scenario #3: Long-Term Human Civilization

With the meteoric rise of industrialization and advanced technologies like computers, it’s not hard to imagine that humans might continue developing and growing into the far future, even to the point of colonizing other planets and star systems. (It’s also not hard to imagine us using that industrialization and technology to destroy society.)

Let’s assume that the human population continues existing into the future at the current population, and continues eating animals at the current rate. We know that the human population will actually continue growing (at least for some time), and the number of animals killed for food will also probably continue growing (at least for some time), but it simplifies the calculations to assume that things remain the same—and the conclusion is still just as profound.

Humans have to go extinct at some point, even if that point is billions of years in the future (unless it turns out we can find a way to decrease entropy in the universe), so we still need to estimate a length of time that humans will exist. Let’s try two different numbers: 10,000 years, and 10,000,000 years.

If humans survive another 10,000 years killing animals for food at our current rate, then 98.5% of all those animals will exist in the future, which is already the vast majority.

But if humans survive another 10,000,000 years, then 99.999% of the animals exist in the future.

Scenario #4: Vegan World Next Year

Just because this is the world we’re all going for, let’s assume that killing animals for food becomes illegal next year and stays illegal for the rest of the history of humanity, and that we have a big old happy vegan world.

Animals will still be killed this year, but after this year zero more animals will be killed by humans for food, which means 100% of animals killed for food would be in the past. In this scenario, we’re good! Mission accomplished.

Complications—Mission Accomplished?

There are at least two primary complicating factors here that we haven’t considered:

  1. We haven’t been considering well-being, only lives. I think we could all agree that it’s better for individuals to have happy, healthy lives than miserable, sick ones. It makes a big difference whether there are 100 trillion animals who all live mostly happy and healthy lives, or whether there are 100 trillion animals whose every moment is full of suffering and torment.
  2. Our scope has remained limited to just animals killed by humans for food, which doesn’t include the very large problem of wild animal suffering, and it also doesn’t include the problem of animals killed and controlled by humans for other reasons.

Both of these issues are very important, and they both add a layer of complexity to our thinking. For now though, we’re going to leave in-depth discussions of these topics for a later date. (For a crash course on the problem of wild animal suffering, see here, here, and here.)

The Future—Recap

As you can see from the models above, it doesn’t take much before the majority of the animals actually exist in the future—and in some scenarios, practically 100% of them do.

This all gets a little bit abstract when we’re talking about the future, so what does it actually mean?

It means that we need to figure out how to make our impact last into the future so that all of those trillions (and quadrillions) of animals aren’t born into this world just to suffer and be killed by humans. If we figure it out, then we can prevent a truly astronomical amount of suffering from ever happening.

The last thing we want is for humans to go on a universe-colonizing spree and bring their animal exploiting tendencies with them to countless other planets.

Practical Takeaways (…sort of)

All of this high-minded talk about the “far future” may be interesting, but what can animal advocates practically take away from this discussion? Is this topic too far off into the hypothetical to have any real, practical advice?

I think there are several actionable takeaways here already, although I would love to see more research done in this area.

Takeaway #1—Go by the Numbers

The first implication is that we need to really look at the numbers of animals harmed and killed by humans, and look at where those numbers might increase most in the future and what kinds of animals will be affected.

As a very practical example, it could be partially the case that the demonization of red meat over the last few decades has helped give rise to the enormous numbers of chickens killed and eaten every year. Similarly, fish are already the most killed animals for food globally, by far—if we ignore them in our advocacy, we might see yet another massive increase in the numbers of fish being born, killed, and eaten. Since chickens and fish receive much less empathy from humans than pigs and cows (and fish are much harder to relate to in nearly every way), this issue can fall off the radar. In fact, getting the animal advocacy movement to talk about the huge number of chickens took quite a few years, and we’re now in the process of slowly starting to advocate more specifically for fish.

Knowing the numbers matters.

Takeaway #2—Macro Trends

A second implication of focusing on the future is that we should become students of macro-societal trends and evolutions in order to understand (a) which big, lasting shifts occur in societies, and (b) how those shifts occurred.

We can look to other social movements to see how victories were achieved, like the civil rights movement or the marriage equality movement. We can study the rise of intensive animal farming, or the history of animal agriculture from the beginning of humanity until now. And we can also ask, “Which ideas have lasted the longest?”, and then deconstruct which practices or features of those ideas helped them to survive. For example, we could look to ideas from old religions and civilizations that have lasted through long stretches of time and influenced modern society, and hypothesize what made them different from other ideas that didn’t have as much of an influence.

A great example of analyzing macro trends is the book The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, which looks at the global decline in violence over the course of human history. Similar studies can be found (or conducted) for other phenomena as well.

Takeaway #3—Global Focus

One very specific macro trend is the importance of looking globally.

I live in the United States, which directly accounts for about 2% of all animals killed for food by humans each year. China, on the other hand, accounts for about 50% of all animals killed for food each year. India accounts for another 10%, and Indonesia for yet another 8%. (source)

Let’s say we completely end animal farming in the United States. While this would be a great accomplishment by itself, it would only spare 2% of the animals killed for food. To have a significant impact, that accomplishment would need to influence countries like China, India, and Indonesia.

We have to keep our focus global. With two-thirds of all the world’s farmed animals living in China, India, and Indonesia, we have to remember that success for farmed animals in the US or UK or Australia doesn’t necessarily translate to global success.

Takeaway #4—Resilience to Societal Disruption

Human societies change—constantly.

Just for a little perspective…

  • Christianity came into existence about 1900 years ago.
  • The (Western) Roman Empire stopped existing around 1500 years ago.
  • Islam came into existence around 1400 years ago.
  • The American Revolution was 236 years ago.
  • The French Revolution was 220 years ago.
  • Slavery was abolished in the British Empire 186 years ago.
  • WWI was 101 years ago, and WWII was 74 years ago.
  • The first radio news program was broadcast 99 years ago.
  • The internet went public about 30 years ago.
  • The Soviet Union stopped existing 28 years ago.
  • 9/11 was 18 years ago.
  • The first iPhone came out 12 years ago.
  • Instagram came out 9 years ago.
  • The AI system Watson defeated the two reigning Jeopardy! champions 8 years ago.
  • A self-driving semi truck drove on public roads without a human inside for the first time 1 year ago.

Just a gentle reminder that we have very little idea what the future is going to look like. And because of this, we need our progress for animals to be global, and to be resilient to massive societal disruptions and overhauls and shifts in power.

What happens if we achieve total animal liberation in the United States, and then China goes on to become the major world power and ethical influence? What if there’s another global war? What if a quasi-apocalypse happens and much of human society is destroyed? How does the rise of artificial intelligence affect our ethical progress? How might our morals change when we send humans to other planets?

Our ethical progress must be able to survive these disruptions if we want to prevent the huge amount of suffering and death that could happen if animal exploitation continued existing into the far future.

Takeaway #5—Focus on Structural Changes

How does something last from one generation of humans to the next? Or from one millennia to the next?

It lasts because of something that carries it forward into the future. That “something” is often a structural entity of some sort: a religion, a culture, a government, a corporation, a university, a law.

If you change someone’s mind about something, and that person changes their behavior, and then that person dies (as we all do eventually), how do the changes they made continue into the future? They only last if they impact someone else who is still alive. This is why we can’t just rely on changing the attitudes and behavior of individual people—because we then depend on those people to propagate that change into the future on their own.

Maybe they will, maybe they won’t.

Influencing structures, on the other hand, increases the probability of the change being carried forward.

Takeaway #6—Focus on Moral Circle Expansion, Aided by Technological Progress

We can’t trick people into doing the right thing for the wrong reason, because at some point the wrong reason won’t be applicable and people will change again.

For example, as powerful and as useful as health and environmental arguments are for veganism (and they are useful!), we must at some point bring in the full weight of the ethical argument if we are to make lasting progress for animals.

This ethical progress is the process of expanding humanity’s moral circle.

Second, technological progress can greatly aid this process. As Malala Yousafzai‘s father discovered, people are much more open to girls’ education when they have clean water.” It’s hard to care about higher ethics when you feel like you’re having a hard time meeting basic needs—and to some people, completely switching their way of eating can feel like a need isn’t being met. Technology is another name for “creative use of resources to meet needs”. We should use it.

Conclusion

I hope this article has at least prompted some thought about the importance of making our impact last into the far future. This is a big topic—and very complex and uncertain—so we need all of us to be thinking about it in relation to our activism.

For more discussion of the moral value of beings in the far future, check out:

And maybe with all of us working on it, we’ll get this problem solved in the not-too-far-future.

I Asked Activists What They Need—Part 1

I wanted to know what people in our movement need. So I asked them. This post is as simple as that.

Specifically, I asked them to answer these three questions about their animal activism:

  1. What do you need?
  2. What are your problems?
  3. What are your opportunities?

This wasn’t a formal survey—I didn’t ask many people, or code and quantify the results, or get a representative sample. But I think it’s still valuable, in a smaller, more personal way.

This type of question-asking is something I carry with me in everyday life. It’s immensely valuable to pick up thoughts, ideas, and needs on an ongoing basis. The “just ask some people” type of survey is open to all of us. Not only do you get some answers that may surprise you, but it’s also a good way to meet activists from around the world.

Also, one thing to note is that you might disagree with some of the answers people give when you do this kind of exercise. In fact, if you’re talking to a diverse enough group of people, you’re almost sure to be challenged and stretched. (Read the responses I got, and see what kind of internal intellectual or emotional response they prompt in you.) What’s important is recognizing that these are the genuine feelings and thoughts of other activists in our movement. That perspective is valuable.

Here are the almost-verbatim answers (with some minor changes to aid reading and comprehension) from the activists who I asked: Corey Rowland, Beau Broughton, Jocelyn Cole, Faraz Harsini, and Tonia Moore.

Enjoy!


Corey Rowland

What do I need?

I had trouble forming my answer to this because I often am not sure what I need. I think I need opportunities to connect with myself and others. I am very aware of the risk of activist burnout because I can feel it building in myself or others at times. I think being a part of a supportive and loving community is really important in sustaining the work we are doing. I also need opportunities to see the impacts of my efforts. I need to feel like the work I am doing is paying off in some way.

What are my problems?

My biggest challenges are definitely time and specifically deciding how to spend my time. Living in the SF Bay Area, there is always so much to do (both in the animals rights community and of course outside of it). I work as a high school teacher, which can suck up a lot of your time if you aren’t careful! I think I also struggle with a lot of self-doubt. I want to get better at trusting myself and to be more willing to take risks. Sometimes the ideas that sound the silliest can be game-changing! I often have ideas, but because of the hustle-and-bustle of life and my dismissive attitude, I think I let opportunities pass me by.

What are my opportunities?

In the past year I have learned that my greatest opportunities as an activist can come from the awkward, uncomfortable, sometimes threatening intersections of my identity as an activist and all the other roles I fill. I was fired from my teaching job earlier this year for getting arrested in a mass action and it ended up being an experience I would never want to undo (I learned a lot and thankfully, got my job back!). I am also a friend, family member, artist, and ally in other movements. I belong to social circles outside of the AR movement, and this can be leveraged to build support from folks in these circles. I think it is crucial for activists to remain genuinely involved in communities outside of the animal rights community so we can best utilize our growing power and remain conscious of how animal rights fits into the bigger picture that is the world!


Beau Broughton

What do you need?

We need volunteers from all walks of life to lend their passion and dedication to our efforts to end the abuse of animals raised for food. The Humane League acknowledges that there are myriad ways to influence change for farmed animals, so we have a big tent in welcoming supporters of all stripes. We are looking for online activists, for volunteers to help with community-building events and fundraising, for dedicated advocates to join us at protests and other campaign actions, and for influencers to spread our message on social media, to name a few.

What are your problems?

It can be challenging to see change occur at a slower pace than we’d like, or may have previously anticipated. For example, in our work encouraging major corporations to implement welfare policies for egg-laying hens or broiler chickens, it may take months or even years for a company to make a public commitment that meets our standards. So, while it’s not necessarily a problem, since we are making major gains with dozens of companies and changing public perception of farmed animals, it’s important to have perspective. As activists, we want the world to change yesterday, but we must be strategic and pace ourselves for the long fight ahead.

What are your opportunities?

At The Humane League, we have great opportunities for seasoned and aspiring activists across the spectrum of involvement levels. We have the Fast Action Network for those “armchair activists” who want to take a few high-impact actions online a few times each week. We also have opportunities for people to plug into on-the-ground actions with our team of full-time grassroots staff in major cities across the country, as well as volunteer coordinators to facilitate actions with those who may live outside a major city.


Jocelyn Cole

What do you need?

I think the movement for animal liberation could benefit greatly from more consistently dwelling in nonviolence and agape love (both behaviorally and at mind). Thus, I need to take the time to figure out what steps I can take, and what specific work I can do to help make the types of cultural changes I would like to see.

What are your problems?

I am putting my efforts and energy in many different directions, thus potentially keeping me from taking the time to figure out the steps mentioned above. I think the content of nonviolence and agape is relevant to all aspects of the movement, and of an organization, but currently I am struggling with where to start.

What are your opportunities?

I am surrounded by a community with a lot of experience and knowledge, endless opportunities to train and better myself, and spaces to learn from and connect with each other. I have close friends who help me grow as an individual and as an activist, and together we are doing the best we can to help and be the movement.


Faraz Harsini

What do you need?

Money. Eventually you can do anything with money.

What are your problems?

Money.

Let me combine 1 and 2 and explain! If I had the money, here are things that I’d focus on:

A—Informing/educating people. This would accomplish another thing that I think is important: normalizing veganism. You know how we quote Melanie Joy all the time, that the reason people eat meat is because it’s normal, necessary, and natural. So we should do the reverse and normalize veganism!

Informing people can be accomplished via different approaches, and some of my favorite ones are:

I—What Ethical Choices Program (ECP) does. They have about 150-200 educators in many cities in the US, and recently India and Canada too. They are very well organized (I personally have observed how they manage all these educators), and they go to high schools. They have four types of presentations: ethical based, environmental based, health based, and a combination of all. They reach out to teachers and ask if they’ll let them give these presentations in a related class. But the thing is ALL the presentations include a 3-4 minute video showing slaughterhouses, etc! I’ve seen the comments from the kids and how successful this has been. Teachers are stubborn, but a lot of kids actually listen. The last time I checked a year ago, they were reaching out to something like 20,000 students! And by now it’s probably more! If you think about it, this is a good portion of all the high school students! A lot of kids actually can’t become vegan right away because of their parents. But what it does is that when this generation becomes parents, or when they grow up, when they hear veganism they would be much more accepting than our parents! This is the best way to invest for the future (probably 10 years), but it will have a great return.

II—I would spend some of that money on advertisement, and education through advertisement. In the last Animal Rights Conference I asked a lot of influential AR activists that if you had so much money to spend on advertisement, what message would you choose—ethics, environmental, etc. One of the best things I got out of this last ARC is actually the answer to this question! It would be the health-related messages. Because what eventually caused a huge drop in the rate of cigarette smoking was the health ads. So we went from ads with doctors who were pro smoking, to today, that smoking is not COOL anymore! We should make eating animals like that!

Source: Annual adult per capita cigarette consumption and major smoking and health events in United States, 1900-1998 – Hanson, Venturelli, and Fleckenstein (2009). Pulled from Our World in Data – Smoking.

Also I always say from here to your workplace, how many times are you exposed to unhealthy and carcinogenic foods? And how many times you see something actually healthy, encouraging people to eat fruits and veggies?Almost all TV and radio ads have some sort of animal abuse or unhealthy thing in them.

Sidenote: I think health related things are something tangible for people. It’s their body, their health. And the habits and behaviours of one individual can have negative impact and consequences on the same individual. Environmental issues are not tangible for people. Also even if they understand the issues, the responsibilities get diluted between a lot of people so they don’t feel bad as much. An ethical approach I believe is something in between. But I think that should be included in those ads so every now and then people see the word “vegan”, on buses, in metro stations, etc.

III—Having more vegan doctors. That and what Dr. Greger does, taking new scientific data, and making them simple and understandable. This is very effective because, first, most people don’t understand science (lol), and, second, because they don’t have any ideas what scientists do and where these new information come from! However, I’m not sure but I’m afraid that most of his audiences are already vegan. So a combination of everything I said about advertisement would be necessary to get the message across. And I will invest on this.

Bottom line: In my opinion having an organized mechanism for advertisement would be extremely effective. This includes different approaches at the same time: some ads saying meat is like smoking, some ethical related, etc.

I actually had one of the students in our AR org come up with a design that is catchy, relating meat and cancer (fig. below).

Sources: NCBI, IARC, and WHO

B—Making vegan things cheaper and available. This is why I want to have a chain restaurant if I had money, and offer very tasty and cheaper foods there. When I get a pizza and I ask them to remove cheese and meat and use vegan cheese, and they charge me more for it, that doesn’t help people consider veganism as something normal and easy. Reaching out to chain restaurants to have vegan options also helps.

A huge barrier for people becoming vegan in my opinion is the picture that they imagine when you say vegan food. They probably think, “Oh so… you basically eat salads”, or, “Veggie burgers suck” (because they tried them 10 years ago, and sure they sucked back then, but today is a different story). Or many think the meat alternative is tofu! They don’t think about all the great stuff that we have. IT IS VERY IMPORTANT (in my humble opinion) TO CHANGE THAT IMAGE! We need them to imagine a tasty Impossible Burger (which isn’t available in all places, which is another issue). So I would donate money to some organization to take care of it.

One other thing I would want to do if I were rich would be to start a company. This company would have teams. (And I should say this is in my childish imagination, having no information about how businesses work). So in each team there’s a lawyer or businessman or investor, and a representative from a vegan distribution center (or someone who can manage and restock vegan foods in stores). This team would reach out to places that serve or produce non-vegan stuff, and help them to make the transition to a vegan place.

I got this idea after I was in a protest in front of store that produced fresh chicken meat, meaning they slaughtered the chicken right there, probably in the backyard. During our protest, the owner was extremely angry. He was red and was yelling. Police were there just making sure we stay on the sidewalk. Then cops thought it was fine, and they left. Next, a few activists broke into the store, and forcefully saved several chickens. This is not a comment about their action. I just started to look at this from the owner’s perspective. When he goes back to his friends and family, how will he describe veganism? I think if my dad came home and said this happened to him, I would have hated vegans forever! Also, in any talk with customers or any opportunity he finds, he would trash-talk veganism. So I thought, “What if instead of this much hate, we did something positive?” So this team would go there, and say, “Hey, we’ll give you money for investment, we’ll help you to make the transition, we’ll take care of all the paperwork and legal stuff for you! Most importantly we’ll advertise for you. And hey, eventually you will make way more money than you do now!”

This would accomplish several things at once:

  • Spreads good words about veganism. He would then tell his family and friends how successful his business has become! So we’re basically planting seeds this way.
  • Makes non-vegan stuff less available. This is another important factor that makes eating meat inconvenient! Eventually, most people just want something easy and cheap!

What are your opportunities?

In my case, the plan is that I will work on clean meat for a few years, and during this time I will learn a little about businesses and find connections and people who trust me and partner up with me, maybe to start a restaurant, or something to do with clean meat. Or both.

Lastly, I said money and business a lot in my answer, but the truth is my goal has never been becoming rich. My only goal is to do the most effective thing to save animals. But I can’t do all of these things alone. However, if I were rich, I could support other orgs to do these kinds of things. Maybe some of these things are already happening, but if they had more money they could do much more.

Also, with money, you can influence politics—for example, meat taxes, restricting import and export of animal products to other countries, or passing more animal protection laws. You know how much the egg/dairy/meat industries have manipulated people via politics, well, with money we can neutralize that!


Tonia Moore

What do you need?

What I need is a better understanding of where to focus my efforts (i.e., what types of actions are most likely to result in the most change?). I love doing outreach, for example, but I also suspect that convincing people one at a time to adopt a vegan lifestyle is probably not going to change much, if anything, for somebody trapped on a farm facing an early death. There are so many channels that may lead to animal liberation—legislation (working within the political and legal systems), protests, going into places of enslavement to expose the truth—I feel like I can’t do everything and doing a little bit of each may just be exhausting and ineffective…

What are your problems?

My problems are (similar to question #1) figuring out exactly what methods work and are worth my time. And also how to deal with my own emotions better. I get enraged when animals are suffering and dying — but my rage doesn’t help the animals, tears me up inside, and turns people outside the movement off so that they won’t respect the movement or listen to what we have to say. I need to learn to keep my emotions in check without imploding.

What are your opportunities?

I am starting to realize that opportunities for outreach present themselves every day. For example, if someone admires your faux leather coat, you volunteer the info that it’s vegan. I also have opportunities to open the minds and hearts of loved ones but sometimes I shy away from these discussions because I fear I’ll feel super disappointed (crushed, actually) if they don’t see the animals’ perspective. I find myself sometimes not engaging on AR issues with the people I’m closest to because I’m afraid they won’t understand and our relationship will suffer.


Animal Movement Project (AMP) is a platform dedicated to building the movement for animals.

We share thoughts and ideas that can take the movement for animals from x to 10x. Our focus is predominantly on animals exploited for food since they account for more than 99% of the animals exploited by humans. The topics covered are often about ways to tie the pieces of the movement together or to fill in the gaps. We focus on connecting people, ideas, and resources to each other.

The Crucial Importance of Great Management in the Animal Protection Movement

Let’s talk about management. Hell, while we’re at it, let’s talk a little bit about leadership too. (But mostly management.)

Leaders and managers are incredibly important—they make a huge difference in both positive and negative directions when it comes to the performance and happiness of staff, activists, and volunteers. If we want people to stick around in this movement, we need our managers to be great.

One quick note before we start. Like many of the articles on AMP, this topic was inspired by conversations I’ve had with others in the movement, as well as things I’ve seen and my own personal experiences. The need for good management isn’t confined to large nonprofits, either—these exact same lessons could have also applied to the grassroots work I was a part of.

Chances are, if you’re active in the movement, you’re personally familiar with the difference that an amazing (or terrible) manager can make. I hope this article helps us increase the number of amazing managers, and maybe at least bump up the terrible ones to be “satisfactory”.

After all, we’re not mindlessly building irrelevant widgets here. We’re doing work that has an impact for animals.

It matters.

Definitions (…Are Oh-So-Necessary)

I’m not going to spend a ton of time on this, but I think it’s important to briefly state some definitions so that we’re thinking about the same thing. In this article, here’s what I mean when I talk about managers and leaders:

  • Manager: Someone who directly oversees or guides the work of someone else.
  • Leader: Someone who guides the vision and work of many different people, directly or indirectly.

These are messy, overlapping definitions—very much like the actual roles of management and leadership. But the crucial difference that we’ll consider for this article is that managers directly oversee or guide the work of someone else, while leaders can influence people at many points in an organizational structure and may or may not directly oversee someone else’s work.

This article is primarily about managers. I’ll try not to mix terminology too much, but these lessons probably apply to both managers and leaders in their distinct roles.

Managers By Many Different Names

It doesn’t matter if you work at a nonprofit organization in the movement, or if you work at a for-profit, or if you’re a grassroots activist, or if you’re a volunteer. There are managers in all of these realms, even if they aren’t called that. And, management research can help you learn about working with people to accomplish things, even if you aren’t currently a manager (or being managed).

In nonprofits or for-profits, managers are usually just called managers—or supervisors, or bosses, or superiors (which is a gross term to be avoided). In a grassroots group, maybe you’ll have “point people”, or group leaders, or team leads, or something of that nature. In a volunteer setting, you might have a volunteer manager, or a city leader or regional leader, or leaders of small working groups.

The main characteristic we’re looking at here is, “Is there someone who is helping to oversee and coordinate the work of others?” If the answer if “yes”, then that person is effectively a manager.

And, unless you work completely by yourself and never interact with anyone, you’re either a manager of others or managed by someone (even if it’s only in small ways)—or some combination of the two.

There might be some exceptions here, such as groups that operate more-or-less by consensus. But even in these cases—and even in the case of a group of friends casually working on something together—there are always some power dynamics around who is actually coordinating the work and pushing things forward, and how they’re doing that. Even if the role of “manager” is constantly shifting between people, that role and power dynamic still exists within certain people for periods of time.

On the flip side, many cases of management are very clear cut.

Why It’s Important—The Impetus for Improvement

If we’re being brutally honest with ourselves, there’s a pretty good chance that you and I have significant room for growth as a manager. (And frankly, it’s a better strategy in life to assume that you always have something to learn, even if you do already know quite a bit.)

I don’t know everything. You don’t know everything. And as the research shows, most managers have a lot of room for improvement.

You also probably know some managers. If they aren’t helping their people succeed, those people are going to leave the organization, the group, or the movement; and then less work is going to be done for animals, and we’re going to take one small step back from our goal of ending animal exploitation. This is a topic that matters in very real, tangible ways.

How Management Affects Staff

Ever heard the expression, “People don’t leave companies, they leave managers”? Let’s look at some data to see how true that is.

According to a large study by Gallup published in 2015, “Managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units.” Not only that, but “one in two employees have left their job to get away from their manager at some point in their career.”

50% of people have left a job specifically because of their manager—maybe that quote about people leaving managers has some truth in it.

How engaged a manager is directly affects the engagement of their staff, too. Gallup found that “employees who work for engaged managers are 59% more likely to be engaged.” Engaged managers lead to engaged employees, and vice versa.

Gallup defines a manager as “someone who is responsible for leading a team toward common objectives. This individual takes the direction set forth by the organization’s leadership and makes it actionable at the local level.” They define a leader as an “executive” in an organization, which I believe in their case refers to leadership high up in the organizational hierarchy—not to be confused with Peter Drucker’s definition of “executive”, which is a knowledge worker with decision-making authority.

(There’s at least one big thing that I think Gallup gets wrong with the management research cited above, by the way, which is a strong recommendation to select “naturally talented” managers. As the work of Angela Duckworth shows, we focus too much as a culture on this notion of “natural talent” and not nearly enough on hard work and perseverance. Having grit and a growth mindset—in other words, believing you can get better with practice—is more important than how much natural skill you have to begin with. I would suspect that most “naturally” talented managers Gallup identified probably didn’t have those talents twenty years ago.)

What Management Qualities are Correlated with Employee Engagement?

From that same Gallup survey, here are some statements that are correlated with higher employee engagement:

  • “I feel I can talk with my manager about nonwork-related issues.”
  • “I feel I can approach my manager with any type of question.”
  • “My manager helps me set work priorities.”
  • “My manager helps me set performance goals.”
  • “My manager focuses on my strengths or positive characteristics.”

Consistent communication between managers and employees was also correlated with higher employee engagement. The highest engagement occurred with staff who had some form of daily communication with their managers.

Another Perspective: Managers Matter, but Leadership Matters More

The people at Culture Amp run employee engagement benchmarks each year, and they decided to use their 2018 Employee Benchmarks to challenge the notion that people leave managers, not companies. Specifically, they looked at employee “commitment”, which was measured using two questions that asked:

  1. Whether a person is currently committed to staying with their company; and,
  2. Whether they believe they are likely to still be with their company in two years’ time.

According to Culture Amp, “our research shows these questions are the best predictors of whether someone will actually stay or leave.”

When they looked at the thirteen feedback categories in their benchmarks, they actually found that the “Manager” feedback category ranked towards the bottom when it came to predicting the commitment metrics:

When they split the data by leadership and management, they found that leadership had a larger impact on someone’s intent to stay than management did:

The data appears to show that managers actually don’t have that much of an impact on whether or not people stay at companies, relative to other factors—but there’s at least one good reason why I think we should question that conclusion.

The primary reason I think we should be skeptical of using this data to infer that managers matter less is because many of the other categories in this survey are often very much affected by someone’s manager.

For example, the top three feedback categories correlated with someone’s intent to stay are Alignment, Leadership, and Learning & Development, which could all be greatly affected by good (or bad) management.

A person’s manager is often their first line of support for helping to craft alignment with their work, and to suggest a move to another role or department if the person is really struggling. Similarly, a manager can be instrumental in guiding the learning and development of an employee by providing challenging assignments with ample support, giving constructive feedback, and providing resources for learning. And, although someone’s manager can’t necessarily impact the leadership of an organization, great managers are sometimes able to provide stable microclimates of good culture and strategy within their teams even if the rest of the organization isn’t running as smoothly.

Here’s what I view as the most important insights from this data:

  1. Managers should look to the other feedback categories in the Culture Amp data (like alignment and feedback) for areas where they need to support their staff; and,
  2. To have the best results (which in this case is measured by staff retention), you must pair great management with great leadership.

So Then—What Is Great Management?

Now that we’ve talked a little bit about how important management is and how much it can affect your staff, let’s look at the qualities of great management. Because the people who work with you depend on it, and the animals depend on all of us.

First, some Google-y research!

Google’s Research: Project Oxygen

Researchers at Google actually set out to prove that managers didn’t matter to the performance of teams. (Anarchy!) As Google stated about this research, “This hypothesis was based on an early belief held by some of Google’s leaders and engineers that managers are, at best, a necessary evil, and at worst, a layer of bureaucracy.” But after conducting the study and analyzing the data, alas—they found that managers did actually matter, on both quantitative and qualitative measures.
Then, Google launched Project Oxygen to discover what makes a great manager. The research team discovered ten primary characteristics that were positively correlated with happier, more productive teams:

The original research was conducted in 2008, but an update posted in 2018 revealed that the same basic findings held true over the course of a decade when they reran the study. (A couple of the items did get updated, and items 9 and 10 were added.) These ten manager qualities were predictive of low turnover, high satisfaction, and high performance on teams.

Google’s Research: Project Aristotle

Google also approached this question from a different angle in Project Aristotle and asked, “What makes great teams?” They thought that qualities like team size and composition would be the biggest predictors of success, but this isn’t what came out of the research. They found that team dynamics actually played a bigger role than team composition.

In fact, they found that the number one characteristic of a team that positively correlated with that team’s success was psychological safety.

“Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.”

Of course, this is where managers come into the picture. Managers have a huge impact on whether or not people feel psychologically safe: Behaviors like inviting people’s ideas and comments increase the psychological safety, while behaviors like belittling people or ignoring introverted people lead to low levels of psychological safety.

In his book Smarter, Faster, Better, Charles Duhigg talks about psychological safety in terms of two team qualities:

  1. Everyone feels like they can speak up; and,
  2. Team members show they are sensitive to how one another feels.

Here’s the full list of suggestions that Google put together for how managers can foster psychological safety in their teams: [re:Work] Manager Actions for Psychological Safety.

Level 5 Leadership

Next, we turn to a concept from the book Good to Great by Jim Collins.

When Jim Collins set out to find what makes some companies go from average performance to sustained excellent performance, he specifically told his team to not fixate on leadership. Too many people give all the credit to the person at the top, he said, when there are tons of other factors that really play into it.

But leadership ended up making its way into the book anyway, in a concept called Level 5 Leadership—the data was too convincing for him and his team. Even when Jim tried to get away from it, it came back: Leadership really is important.

They were specifically looking at top-level leadership in organizations, but the lessons he learned seem to match pretty closely with what other researchers have found about management. Basically, the best leaders have a combination of these two things:

  • Personal Humility. These leaders don’t have giant egos, and they aren’t celebrities. They share credit with others, and accept responsibility when things go wrong.
  • Professional Will. Despite their humility, they will do anything and everything necessary to make the organization successful. They care deeply about results and success—not their own personal success, but the success of the organization.

Both of these attributes can find their analogues in the list of ten characteristics that Google identified as being qualities of great managers.

Level 5 Leaders also embody something that Jim called the window and the mirror: They looked “out the window” at everyone around them to allocate successes, but they looked “in the mirror” at themselves when things went wrong. They shared credit and took blame.

If you can leave your ego at the door and focus entirely on making your team and your mission successful, and if you can share credit for success and take responsibility for blame, then you’re taking on the qualities of Level 5 Leadership.

Radical Candor

(One quick note: This is a very popular concept, but I’ve found surprisingly little research that directly backs it up. There is related research that seems to support the basic idea, though, and I thought it was probably a net positive to include it in this article.)

The concept of “radical candor” was developed and popularized by Kim Scott, and it basically means to “push people to grow without being an asshole.”
To be a little more precise, here’s the quadrant that Scott created to help explain what radical candor is, and also what it’s not:

So you can challenge people directly, and you can care about them personally—or only one of the two, or neither. But when you challenge someone directly and you care about them personally, that’s what Scott calls “radical candor”, and that’s how you empower others on your team.

Scott mentions that this combination of caring personally and challenging directly is particularly hard to accomplish given many aspects of our culture, such as the notion that “professionalism” in the workplace requires blunt feedback without caring, or the idea we were taught growing up that “if you can’t say anything nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all”.

It’s useful to think about which quadrant you might find yourself in most of the time. Personally, I do find myself drifting into the other three non-desirable quadrants based on my mood or the context, and I most often slip into the “ruinous empathy” category. I’m fairly conflict-averse, and I enjoy encouraging people, so it can be hard to challenge someone directly in a way that might be uncomfortable, introduce negative emotions, or cause them to doubt their ideas or their work. But that’s why this concept is so important, because of how tricky it can be to be “on” for both of these axes.

A great example of Ruinous Empathy from Laszlo Bock.

The concept of radical candor actually relates quite a bit to what Angela Duckworth describes in her book Grit—especially the section about “parenting for grit”, where she mentions that a combination of being both supportive and demanding is a good formula to help create gritty kids who are more successful.

Small Wins

This concept has especially hit home for me recently, and even practicing this mindset for a few weeks has helped me feel more positive and (I think) be more productive. But of course that’s just a small anecdote.

Let’s start by asking the question: What makes knowledge workers feel positive and motivated about their work?

According to research published in Harvard Business Review, the answer can be summed up as “the progress principle”:

“Through exhaustive analysis of diaries kept by knowledge workers, we discovered the progress principle: Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

Progress doesn’t have to be something big, either, which is where the idea of “small wins” comes from:

“Even ordinary, incremental progress can increase people’s engagement in the work and their happiness during the workday. Across all types of events our participants reported, a notable proportion (28%) of incidents that had a minor impact on the project had a major impact on people’s feelings about it. Because inner work life has such a potent effect on creativity and productivity, and because small but consistent steps forward, shared by many people, can accumulate into excellent execution, progress events that often go unnoticed are critical to the overall performance of organizations.”

Source: HBR—The Power of Small Wins

Making progress, even minor progress, leads to greater motivation and good feelings. That motivation and those positive feelings, in turn, lead to more progress. It’s a beneficially self-reinforcing cycle.

But, there is a warning here as well—the researchers found that small setbacks can also have a disproportionate effect on motivation and emotions.

The solution? Help your staff make daily progress, even if it’s small, and try to help them avoid or reframe setbacks.

Find Out—Run Your Own Survey

The research above is a great place to start, but if you have the time and resources you could consider running your own internal survey to find out what qualities make great managers in your organization or group. Every situation is different, and you can only learn the nuances by running some experiments yourself.

In their guide on what makes great managers, Google provides some tips for getting started with your own internal research: Determine what makes a great manager.

The organization Choose People also has information about what factors to measure when evaluating employee well-being, and they even have a PDF with ROI estimates for happy employees if you need some help justifying the need for research. (The research citations on the second page are probably more trustworthy than the ROI estimates.)

Conclusion

Here’s what I’m hoping you’ll take away from this article:

  1. Management is extremely important at all groups and organizations, no matter what you call it.
  2. We know some of the pieces of great management, like fostering psychological safety and being a good coach.
  3. These pieces can be learned, and they can make a huge difference for your team’s happiness and productivity.

And here’s what I’m hoping you’ll do (especially if you’re a manager currently):

  1. Assess your own expertise as a manager, and ask others for their candid feedback—especially your staff.
  2. Work to improve your management skills, one piece at a time.
  3. Share this with other managers who you know in the movement.

And if a few people increase their abilities as managers, and those teams increase their impact for animals because of it, then that’s good enough for me.


Resources


Animal Movement Project (AMP) is a platform dedicated to building the movement for animals.

We share thoughts and ideas that can take the movement for animals from x to 10x. Our focus is predominantly on animals exploited for food since they account for more than 99% of the animals exploited by humans. The topics covered are often about ways to tie the pieces of the movement together or to fill in the gaps. We focus on connecting people, ideas, and resources to each other.

People Do What Their Friends Do—How to Get More People Into the Movement for Animals

Article Summary

  • People are heavily influenced by the groups they’re a part of and the social networks they’re connected to.
  • If we want people to get more active for animals, we have to focus on getting them in groups of activists. We can’t simply rely on the person to get active and stay active by themselves.
  • In the long run, the social network that a person is in could be more powerful than the desires and characteristics of that individual.
  • This also means that we need to make it as easy as possible for people to start becoming a part of new activist social groups, since there are strong incentives to stay in their current social networks.

Introduction

Let’s start with some mind-blowing facts.

  • Obesity (source)
    • If someone you’re connected to becomes obese, you’re 45% more likely than normal to become obese. This jumps to 57% if you say the person is your friend—and your chances increase by 171% if you both say that you’re friends (in other words, if the other person also calls you a friend).
    • If a connection of your connection (two degrees of separation, someone who you don’t know) becomes obese, you become 20% more likely than normal to become obese.
    • Finally, if you have three degrees of separation from someone who becomes obese (a friend of a friend of a friend…), you still become 10% more likely than normal to become obese yourself.
  • Smoking (source)
    • If you have a contact who smokes, you’re 61% more likely than normal to be a smoker.
    • If a contact’s contact smokes, you’re 29% more likely to be a smoker.
    • If a contact’s contact’s contact smokes, you’re 11% more likely to be a smoker.
  • Fitness (source)
    • The eventual overall fitness of randomly assigned Air Force Academy squadrons is primarily determined by the least fit person in the squadron.
  • Personality Traits (source)
    • Friends and romantic partners are more alike across many personality traits than they would be with strangers.

Finally, I also found this: “According to research by social psychologist Dr. David McClelland of Harvard, [the people you habitually associate with] determine as much as 95 percent of your success or failure in life.” (source) I couldn’t find the primary source for this research though, and 95% seems quite a bit too high to me, but the basic point remains the same.

Holy crap.

Social groups matter

All of this research illustrates a lesson that we in the animal rights movement need to take very seriously:

The people in our social networks matter a ton—in fact, our social networks may be one of the most important parts of our lives.

This has far-reaching implications for how we should approach our work.

“She doesn’t want to go alone.”

A few months ago, I asked my friend out for a drink to talk about activism. I knew she was thinking about getting more involved, but hadn’t really taken a big dive into anything specific yet. We talked about what kinds of activism she’s heard of, and what she’s thinking about trying, and what her preferred type of activism would be in an ideal world.

She had heard of the main grassroots groups: Direct Action Everywhere, The Save Movement, and Anonymous for the Voiceless. She also spent some time at one of our local sanctuaries, Luvin Arms.

As we talked, a few things became apparent:

First, my friend was probably going to find a way to get involved in activism eventually, with or without friends going with her.

Second, she would get involved faster and stay involved longer if she had a supportive social network encouraging her to do so.

And third, some of her vegan friends wouldn’t get involved if they didn’t have a social group pushing them to do so.

For example, we talked about one of our mutual friends, who was also interested in getting involved but was way more hesitant to go to anything. “She doesn’t want to go alone,” my friend told me about a “Cube of Truth” demonstration put together by Anonymous for the Voiceless. “So we’re thinking about trying to go together sometime.”

I don’t think this is an exception. I think this is the rule. And we need to figure out how to work with it.

People do what their friends do

Whether consciously or not, we like to conform to the groups that we’re in. That conformity leads to us acting like the group, believing like the group, and ultimately obtaining the same kinds of results as the group. (Remember the mind-blowing stats at the beginning about obesity, smoking, and fitness?)

It starts when we’re very young. As soon as we pay attention to what others think about us, peer pressure kicks in. (source) This can be good or bad, depending on what exactly that pressure is.

For example, if all of your friends are animal activists, you probably can’t help but get active yourself—it’s what all of your friends are doing, after all.

Likewise, if all of your friends and family binge-watch TV every night and never talk about animal exploitation at all, it’s going to be extremely difficult to form habits different from those. The moment you start doing different things is the moment you start isolating yourself. Unless, that is, you’re so influential that you can get the whole group to change its habits.

We like to conform with the members of our “tribe”, which some sociologists define as tight-knit human groups of 20-150 people. (source) If we feel like we can’t conform, then we try to find a tribe where we can.

Self-induced isolation

The moment that someone starts going down the path of being vegetarian or vegan and caring about animals is usually the moment that they start going against the norms of the groups (“tribes”) they’re in. (Unless they’re going vegan because they stumbled into a group of vegans, in which case it’s a socially normative behavior.)

Believing something different from the majority causes an emotional response, (source) and it could lead to lower levels of social support which means worse psychological health. (source)

This is a very precarious place for someone to be in as a vegan or an activist. It’s no wonder that many people find it too difficult to be different, and they fall back into the ever-flowing stream of the culture of their group.

Solutions

There are a few ways we can approach this issue as a movement, but all of them require thinking very hard about human needs and interactions.

Solution #1—Plug the person into a new social group

This might be the easiest and most thorough solution, as it leverages existing groups of activists and doesn’t require the person to influence their existing social group.

Since social networks are so important for all of us and dictate much of our lives, we can’t simply assume that everyone is going to blaze a new trail on their own. Thus for every person who wants to get active for animals, we could find a way to get them plugged into a new social network of activists, where the default activities are based on helping animals.

Of course, this assumes a few things:

  1. It assumes that there’s an existing activist network close to the person, or that the person is willing to move to be close to a network;
  2. It assumes that the person wants to be part of a new network;
  3. It assumes that the person wants to be part of this new network; and,
  4. It assumes that the network wants to take in a new person.

If any one of these assumptions doesn’t hold, then it might not work for the person to be plugged into an existing activist network.

For example, research shows that influence from peers only works when the individual wants to remain in the group. If the activities of the group are too undesirable to that individual, then they may drop out and join a different group. (source)

This is an important point that I think we forget a lot of the time. We can’t simply assume that people are going to be willing to join any new social network or activist group. People are very different from one another, and despite how powerful of connecting forces veganism and animal activism are (and they do bring people together), they aren’t powerful enough to overcome all preexisting desires and personality traits of individuals.

A rowdy group of people who love theatrical protests probably isn’t going to be the best place for a quiet person who loves programming. If someone is really invested in outdoor activities like hiking and rock climbing, they’re probably going to need to fulfill that part of the life somehow. There are only so many hours in a day, so it would be easier for them if they could find some activists who also like hiking and climbing.

There need to be spaces for all kinds of people.

Also, remember my friend from above who wanted to go to an activism event but didn’t want to go by herself: How do you get someone like that into a new activist network in the first place?

One solution could be to start by going to where that person is rather than expecting them to come to you—for example, being aware of who is liking your Facebook posts and proactively reaching out to them to grab coffee or have a phone call, rather than expecting people to RSVP to your events or take part in your online campaigns.

Solution #2—Change the person’s current group culture

If people don’t want to join new social groups, then they can try to change their current group to reflect the values they want to be surrounded by.

This can be very difficult, though, because it requires shifting the dynamics of the whole group to be focused on animal activism. Unless the new vegan / activist is very influential, they’ll probably have a hard time creating a whole new group dynamic in their current situation.

Nevertheless, there are psychologically sound ways to try approaching that issue.

Solution #3—Help the person create a new group

It could be the case that someone is really excited and ready to create their own new group of activists. Or, maybe even if they aren’t fully prepared, we could help people gain the knowledge and get the resources required to get going.

Every group and tactic had to start somewhere, and sometimes the best new ideas and approaches come from people just coming into the movement because of their fresh perspective. Starting a new group or network can also be a great option for people who don’t currently live close to other activist groups.

I think the Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) Organizer’s Handbook is a great starting resource for people interested in building something from the ground up, even if they aren’t interested in the tactics or strategies that DxE uses.

Solution #4—Plug the person into a new digital group

Digital social groups aren’t as powerful as in-person relationships, and I’m not sure how much of the research on group influence would translate to a digital environment. But if this is the only option (or the easiest option), then it might be a good solution for someone until they can find an in-person group.

These digital groups could be fairly hands-off and disconnected from each other, like the group of people who follow vegan activists like Earthling Ed and watch his videos. They could be slightly more interconnected, like Challenge 22 Facebook groups. Or they could be fully interconnected online mentoring programs or relationships between individual activists or groups of activists.

The important thing is that the person has a space where they’re being influenced and supported in the direction that they want to be—the direction of increased activism and participation in the movement.

Conclusion

There’s very strong evidence that our social networks influence us immensely.

So when we’re trying to get more people active in the movement for animals, we can’t simply ask how to get one person involved—we have to ask how to get the person into an active group that’s taking action for animals.

And if the person is currently all alone, we need to ask why they would come to any event (or join any Facebook page) in the first place. The answer to that question is going to involve feelings of group membership and belonging, and we need to be designing spaces with those concepts in mind.

If the stereotype is a lonely vegan, then let’s figure out how to turn that person into a connected and empowered activist.


Sources


Animal Movement Project (AMP) is a platform dedicated to building the movement for animals.

We share thoughts and ideas that can take the movement for animals from x to 10x. Our focus is predominantly on animals exploited for food since they account for more than 99% of the animals exploited by humans. The topics covered are often about ways to tie the pieces of the movement together or to fill in the gaps. We focus on connecting people, ideas, and resources to each other.

Book Summary—The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker

Let’s talk about effectiveness. But first, let’s talk about Peter Drucker.

Peter Drucker died in 2005, a man who authored 39 books over his 95-year life. He’s been called the founder of modern management, and his name will inevitably come up anytime talk of business or management arises.

I stumbled my way into knowing a little about Peter Drucker because of the Tim Ferriss podcast. While Tim and his guests discuss a huge range of topics—and the variety of guests is one of the podcast’s biggest strengths—business is one of the most common topics. (Businesses are some of the most powerful entities on the planet, after all.) Whenever business is discussed, Drucker’s name almost inevitably gets dropped.

The second book I read from Drucker’s anthology was The Effective Executive, which is what we’ll be discussing in this article.

Now before you potentially become disinterested because of the word “executive”—which might bring up images of CEOs, suits, and big evil corporations—I should note that Drucker defines an executive a different way than you might think. He says:

Who is an executive? Every knowledge worker in modern organization is an “executive” if, by virtue of their position or knowledge, they are responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of the organization to perform and to obtain results…Such a person must make decisions; they cannot just carry out orders.

(One quick note. Whenever I quote text from the book, I will copy it verbatim except for changing the default male pronouns “he / him / his” into default gender neutral pronouns “they / them / theirs” and the accompanying verb tenses. So for example, where Drucker writes “he is responsible”, I’ll alter it to “they are responsible”.)

By Drucker’s definition, every knowledge worker who has to make decisions which affect organizational performance is an executive. The last time I checked, that means almost every single person in the animal rights movement is an executive, at least in some capacity.

And, what do we care about as activists?

We care about having an impact for animals. Simply put: we care about effectiveness.

I was drawn to this book for that exact reason, and although it was originally published some 50 years ago (half a century! my word), the advice in the book doesn’t disappoint.

I want to be effective, and I want you to be effective, and I want every single person in this movement to be effective.

So let’s dive in.

The Main Idea

Even if you were to only read the first page of the Introduction of the book, you would learn something.

After working with countless individuals in a huge variety of fields over a 65-year consulting career, Peter Drucker says that effective executives do not need charisma, they don’t need to be extroverted, and they don’t need to be anything in particular when it comes to most personality traits. (This is a similar finding to the Level 5 Leadership that Jim Collins talks about, if you recall.)

But before we throw up our hands and say “I guess it’s all totally random then!”, he says there are similarities in what made all of these individuals effective.

What made them all effective is that they followed the same eight practices:

– They asked, “What needs to be done?”

– They asked, “What is right for the enterprise?”

– They developed action plans.

– They took responsibility for decisions.

– They took responsibility for communicating.

– They were focused on opportunities rather than problems.

– They ran productive meetings.

– They thought and said “we” rather than “I.”

The first two practices gave them the knowledge they needed. The next four helped them convert this knowledge into effective action. The last two ensured that the whole organization felt responsible and accountable.

Boom. Even with that much, I personally have enough material to work on for years.

But there’s more good material in the book to cover, so we won’t stop there. We’ll talk about the Introduction first, and then dive into the book chapters:

  1. Chapter One: Effectiveness Can Be Learned
  2. Chapter Two: Know Thy Time
  3. Chapter Three: What Can I Contribute?
  4. Chapter Four: Making Strength Productive
  5. Chapter Five: First Things First
  6. Chapter Six: The Elements of Decision-making
  7. Chapter Seven: Effective Decisions

Along the whole way, I’ll be tying in lessons that can apply specifically to the movement for animals.

The book itself relies heavily on anecdotes that illustrate the points that Drucker is making. In this summary, though, I’ll stick mostly to the points themselves and leave it to you to read the book if you want to see all of the examples he lists from history and his consulting career.

Introduction

There’s a lot of great information packed into the Introduction. Here are the eight practices of effective executives that I already listed in The Main Idea section above, but I’ll now break them out by category:

Get the Knowledge You Need

  • They asked, “What needs to be done?”
  • They asked, “What is right for the enterprise?”

Convert This Knowledge Into Effective Action

  • They developed action plans.
  • They took responsibility for decisions.
  • They took responsibility for communicating.
  • They were focused on opportunities rather than problems.

Ensure the Organization Feels Responsible and Accountable

  • They ran productive meetings.
  • They thought and said “we” rather than “I.”

Each of these points is covered in more detail later in the book. For now, let’s talk about some of the main points that Drucker discusses in the Introduction. (There are quite a lot, actually—the Introduction doesn’t quite read like a normal book introduction.)

Decision Making

A lot of this book is about decision-making. The introduction has a nice, concise list of what constitutes “making a decision”.

A decision has not been made until people know:

– the name of the person accountable for carrying it out;

– the deadline;

– the names of the people who will be affected by the decision and therefore have to know about, understand, and approve it—or at least not be strongly opposed to it—and;

– the names of the people who have to be informed of the decision, even if they are not directly affected by it.

Communication

Organizations are first and foremost tied together by the information that gets shared between people: information about roles, about strategy, about facts and resources needed to do a job, etc.

Communication needs to flow from staff to their managers, and from managers to leadership, but it also needs to flow the opposite direction: from leadership and managers to all staff. (Not to mention the communication that needs to happen between peers.)

How should you approach this information problem? Drucker says: “Identify the information you need; ask for it; and keep pushing until you get it.”

In an organization, this might mean asking your teammate or manager for information. In the movement at large, maybe it means reaching out to other individuals to ask them about their approaches to campaigns, or outreach, or fundraising, or other forms of activism.

Opportunities

Whenever you’re holding meetings and creating reports, list opportunities first and problems second. Unless they’re truly existential crises, problems should only be discussed after opportunities have been thoroughly explored. Growth happens when you invest in opportunities, not when you fight fires.

Similarly, put your best people on developing out the biggest opportunities, not on fixing problems. Drucker points out how in Japan corporate culture (at the time of his writing the book), each year companies would create a list of their biggest opportunities, a list of their best people, and then they would match up people to opportunities. This was, in fact, one of the most important roles of HR.

Productive Meetings

Meetings consume a huge amount of people’s time, both inside of organizations and outside of them (in community groups, for example). If meetings are going to happen and occupy so many of our waking hours, we should make them productive.

First, decide what kind of meeting it will be and stick to it:

  • A meeting to prepare a statement, an announcement, or a press release.
  • A meeting to make an announcement—for example, an organizational change.
  • A meeting in which one member reports.
  • A meeting in which several or all members report.
  • A meeting to inform the convening executive.

All of these meetings require different forms of preparation, and should expect different results and action items. Once you’ve accomplished the original purpose of the meeting, don’t move on to a new topic—close out the meeting, and schedule additional meetings for other topics if required. Stay focused on the topic at hand.

Think and Say “We”

It’s good advice to leave the “vertical pronoun” at the door—don’t think or say “I”. Instead, think and say “We”. This is a good reminder for us in the movement to avoid putting individuals on pedestals. Truly great things are built by groups of people.

On a final note related to communication and interpersonal skills, Drucker says: “Listen first, speak last.” This is crucial when dealing with large teams, or teams composed of people with very different personalities and communication styles, or when you’re involved in projects that span multiple teams.

Listening first is also important when interacting with others in the movement who you may not necessarily understand or agree with. Maybe you don’t understand what institutional meat reduction work is or why it’s important, or you’re not sure how likely it is that fundamental rights advocacy will be successful. Maybe it’s hard for you to actually believe someone when they say that they think humans need to eat animals to be healthy, or you vehemently disagree if someone says they’re focused on reducing animal suffering but not eliminating animal farming, and your first reaction is to judge the person or think that they’re being insincere.

Remember: Listen first.

Chapter One: Effectiveness Can Be Learned

In case anyone might confuse “effectiveness” with “brilliance”, Peter Drucker wants to clear that up almost immediately:

Brilliant people are often strikingly ineffectual; they fail to realize that the brilliant insight is not by itself achievement. They never have learned that insights become effectiveness only through hard systematic work.

The good news is that this kind of effectiveness can and must be learned, by all of us.

First of all, who is an executive? I already put the definition in The Main Idea section, but it’s important enough to restate so that we know who exactly we’re talking about.

Every knowledge worker in modern organization is an “executive” if, by virtue of their position or knowledge, they are responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of the organization to perform and to obtain results…Such a person must make decisions; they cannot just carry out orders.

Practically speaking, this means almost all of us who are in the movement for animals.

An executive may manage people, or they may not—whether or not you manage someone is irrelevant when it comes to being an executive.

What is “effectiveness”, then? Simply put: results.

Effectiveness isn’t defined by output, or by creativity, or by efficiency, or by scientific rigor, although all of these things could help contribute to effectiveness. But at the end of the day, what matters is the actual results that you get.

Organizations often mistake effort and resources for results. For example, an organization will put more people on an opportunity, thinking that will mean more productivity. That could be true; but it could just as easily not be true. The only measure we can go by is the actual results being produced; results are all that matter.

Pressures Towards Non-Results

Drucker says there are four primary realities and pressures that push executives to not achieve results:

One—The executive’s time tends to belong to everybody else.

In other words, the executive cannot shut out the rest of the organization in order to “focus on work”. People are constantly making demands on their energy and time.

Two—Executives are forced to keep on “operating” unless they take positive action to change the reality in which they live and work.

In other words, executives often keep working on the things that simply show up in the stream of events, no matter what they are or how quickly they come. Instead, they should be asking the question “What is important here?” and only giving time and attention to the important things in their current position, the things that they’re responsible for contributing.

Three—The executive is within an organization.

In other words, the work and output of the executive is often used by others in the organization in order to generate results. The executive isn’t usually a lone island generating results on their own; rather, they are part of a team.

Four—The executive is within an organization.

In other words, the executive’s perspective often gets tangled up in internal matters. Information from the outside world is distorted, undervalued, or ignored, which leads to false perspectives about what is important. Crucially, the executive must remember that results happen outside the organization.

In animal rights, this is especially true. The impact we want to have involves animals who are kept “out of sight, out of mind”, trapped in warehouses and cages far away from where we can see them. If we’re not careful, it’s easy to think that the events and happenings of the animal rights movement are valuable in and of themselves—they aren’t. They’re valuable because of how they potentially impact animals.

Don’t forget that “being active” isn’t the same as “getting results”. Our goal is not to simply put in the time and do the work. Our goal is to help animals. This can be easy to lose sight of from within the movement, especially in the parts of the movement that are far removed from the animals themselves.

Learning Effectiveness

The reason that organizational effectiveness is so important is because no one person is capable of being amazing at everything.

We all have our strengths and our weaknesses, our areas of deep knowledge and our areas of very little knowledge. We must employ our strengths in the best manners possible, and help others be effective in their strengths, in such a manner that our collective results are to create an impact. (This is explored more in Chapter 4 about Making Strength Productive.)

So how do we learn effectiveness?

Drucker says that effectiveness is a habit, or rather a collection of habits and practices.

These practices are learned by, well, practicing—over, and over, and over again.

Drucker says:

There are essentially five such practices—five such habits of the mind that have to be acquired to be an effective executive:

1. Effective executives know where their time goes.

2. Effective executives focus on outward contribution.

3. Effective executives build on strengths.

4. Effective executives concentrate on the few major areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results.

5. Effective executives, finally, make effective decisions.

The rest of the book covers these practices in more detail.

Chapter Two: Know Thy Time

When you think about getting things done, what do you imagine?

If you’re like most people, you might think about a todo list or task list. You might think about the projects that need to be done.

Drucker says forget all of that—you should really be starting with an analysis of where your time goes. After all, what is life except an endless progression of time that gets used in one way or another?

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”


Annie Dillard

Money can be earned, saved, spent. People can be hired, fired, or can volunteer. Basically all resources have some degree of flexibility in how much is available, how it can be saved and spent, etc.

But not time.

Time is an ever-flowing thing, sweeping us along second by second. You can’t change it; you can never get more of it; and you can never get any of it back.

Therefore time is what we should turn our attention to first and foremost.

There are three steps to this process:

  1. Find out where your time goes.
  2. Eliminate or delegate everything that’s unproductive.
  3. Create large blocks of time in your schedule for productive work.

Step 1: Record Your Time

You may think you know where exactly your time goes, but there are probably at least a few things that you would get wildly wrong.

How long do you spend in meetings each week? How much time do you spend answering emails, or on chat platforms like Slack? How much time do you spend exercising?

How much time do you spend working on the single most important thing that you could be doing?

If you’re like most people, even if you think you know the answers to these, you’re probably wrong.

The first step is to simply track where your time goes. You can use any method you like to track your time, but a key point is that is must be tracked as it happens and not from memory later on.

Take at least a week or two to do this. Drucker says you can have your secretary do this if you like. (Ha! Secretary. He did write this in the 1960s…)

You can use Excel or Google Sheets, or pen and paper is fine too. Or you can break out a fancy time tracker app like Toggl if that helps you. (I use Toggl to track my time, albeit not as consistently as I would like.)

The point isn’t how you do it. The point is to track where your time actually goes.

Drucker says that the most effective executives he’s witnessed will do this process on an ongoing basis, and they will review the results every month or so. This helps them identify patterns in how they’re spending their time that are invisible to them on a day-to-day basis. They can then make adjustments in their schedules for the next month.

Once you know where your time is going, you can be more purposeful about how you’re spending it.

Step 2: Manage Your Time

After tracking where you time actually goes, now it’s time to decide what can be pruned or delegated.

First, you want to find and eliminate anything that doesn’t actually need to be done. For each activity in your activity log, ask yourself: “What would happen if this were not done at all?” If the answer is “Well, nothing” or, “Not much”, then stop doing it.

Tada! You just got some time back.

Second, for each activity in your activity log, ask: “Could this be done just as well or better by someone else?” If the answer is “yes”, then see if someone else can do this activity.

It’s really a question of comparative advantage—How is your time best spent, compared to the time of other people? If you’re a world-class writer and a terrible graphic designer, it simply doesn’t make sense for you to spend time designing images and logos if you could pass those off to a graphic designer on staff.

Third and finally, look at each activity and ask yourself: “Is this an example of me wasting the time of other people?”

Sometimes you’re the culprit of wasting time. We all are. You might be able to identify something as a waste of time right away, but often you need to ask other people. Drucker suggests asking your colleagues: “What do I do that wastes your time without contributing to your effectiveness?” Seeking this kind of honest, candid feedback is an incredibly important part of being effective.

Drucker also discusses four kinds of time-wasters, which I’ll just mention here briefly.

Types of Time-Wasters

  1. Lack of system or foresight. An example is a recurring “crisis”: a tight deadline or stressful project that happens every year. This should be anticipated and planned for.
  2. Too many staff. As you add more people to a team or project, the managerial overhead increases. There are points at which adding more people is a bad thing.
  3. Poor organization, which can easily be identified by an excess of meetings. Meetings exist because information and decision-making are stored in the different heads of different individuals. With good knowledge sharing practices and a cohesive, well-communicated strategy, people require fewer meetings to understand their role in the organization.
  4. Malfunction in information. People need the right information at the right time. If they don’t have this, time is wasted.

Step 3: Consolidate Your Time

After removing the unnecessary activities, using the idea of comparative advantage to push certain activities to other people, and eliminating or solving time-wasters, you’re now ready to consolidate your time into the largest possible chunks.

Why does having large chunks of time matter?

It matters because human brains simply require a certain amount of time to process information and become fully absorbed in the work at hand. It’s not possible—or at the very least wildly inefficient—to try to accomplish something complex and important in 5-minute chunks.

One hour of uninterrupted and focused time working is vastly superior to six separate periods of ten minutes spread throughout the day.

As Drucker explains:

The effective executive therefore knows that they have to consolidate their discretionary time. They know that they need large chunks of time and that small driblets are no time at all. Even one quarter of a working day, if consolidated in large time units, is usually enough to get the important things done. But even three quarters of the working day are useless if they are only available as fifteen minutes here or half an hour there.

Here are some ideas for consolidating your time:

  • Work from home a couple days a week.
  • Schedule all of your meetings for certain days of the week, or for certain periods of the day.
  • Keep your mornings blocked off for focused work—no meetings, no interruptions.

Above all, don’t let meetings and interruptions encroach on your consolidated work time. If you find that this time is starting to be divided up and interrupted, it’s time to review your activity log again and see what changes need to be made.

Chapter Three: What Can I Contribute?

Drucker sums up this chapter in this question:

What can I contribute that will significantly affect the performance and the results of the institution I serve?

Don’t worry about efforts. Focus on results.

Also, don’t worry about your title. If you achieve results, you are an effective executive. If you don’t achieve results, having the title of “CEO” won’t make you any more effective.

As you’re thinking about results, remember that results only happen on the outside. It doesn’t necessarily matter if you like the things you’re producing, and it doesn’t necessarily matter if you feel good about whatever you’ve been working on—to be effective, you must look at whether your efforts have had results in the domain that you care about.

For us, the question is: Are our efforts actually helping animals?

Are we actually moving the needle closer to the end of animal farming, the end of animal exploitation?

(One quick note! Your health and well-being are of course important. But we have to remember that when it comes to diagnosing the effectiveness of the work itself, we must look at the results. These things aren’t necessarily at odds—it’s probably the case that you do your most effective work when you’re healthy and have high levels of well-being.)

Areas of Contribution

There are three areas that an organization needs to excel in, and thus three main areas where you can contribute:

  1. Direct results.
  2. Building values.
  3. Building and developing people for tomorrow.

Drucker says that an absence of any one of these could spell the decay and death of the organization. Your contribution to each of these three buckets depends on your specific role; some roles might contribute to all three, but more likely you’ll be focused on contributing to one or two of them more.

Demands of Changing Situations

One particularly challenging aspect of contributing to an organization over a long period of time is that your role will probably change, perhaps many times.

Each time you find yourself in a new role or a new situation, your contribution is going to need to change. This means you’ll also need to reassess which organizational buckets you’re contributing to. (The three main categories are listed in the previous section, remember.)

The Role of Specialists

We shouldn’t necessarily try to be generalists. In fact, in a very significant sense, it’s not possible to be a true generalist these days.

All knowledge workers these days are specialists in some sense—they know many things that others simply don’t have the time to learn, and they don’t know a great many things about other fields. Thus, knowledge workers need to take full responsibility for communicating with others in a clear and understandable way, and must not take pride in boasting their knowledge above others or making others feel confused or overwhelmed. Knowledge workers also need to understand that they contribute in certain specific ways, and that they need the contributions of others in many other ways.

Remember, effective executives work within organizations, which means that your work is usually only going to lead to results because of how it interacts with the work of others. If you do a poor job of communicating your contributions to others, then your efforts won’t lead to results.

Effective Human Relations

Drucker says there are four basic requirements of effective relations:

  1. Communications. Sharing information, and asking for information and expectations from others.
  2. Teamwork. Asking who needs your contribution in order for results to occur.
  3. Self-development. Building your own knowledge and skills so that you can contribute however is needed.
  4. Development of others. Helping others rise to the occasion of the challenge based on what your collective contribution needs to be.

In a larger ecosystem like the animal rights movement, we need to imagine how these principles translate even when we’re not in the same organization as the people who we work with. “Teamwork” might mean creating a coalition of individuals from different organizations. “Development of others” might mean holding webinars and training sessions for anyone in the movement who wants to join.

Chapter Four: Making Strength Productive

Each of us has many weaknesses, and a few strengths. To be maximally effective, we should all build on our strengths to the extent possible.

The question should be, “What are this person’s strengths and how do I put them to good use?” rather than, “What are this person’s weaknesses and how do I avoid them?”

Getting People in the Right Jobs

Favoritism and close personal relationships can actually be an impediment to answering this question objectively. If you really like someone, or if you have a close relationship with them, you may be tempted to put them in a role simply because that’s what you want or what they want.

Instead, you must do everything in your power to ask the question of what a person’s strengths are, and employ those strengths to the best use of the organization.

But organizations usually have jobs that simply need to be done, and those may or may not match the strengths of people at the organization. How are we to proceed, then?

First, know that you may have gotten a job description wrong. If everyone who you put in a particular position seems to fail, then maybe you’ve designed an impossible (or at least bad) job.

Second, make jobs challenging and big, so that people can grow into them and feel pushed to achieve great things. If you put someone into a small, limiting job, they will quickly lose any passion they may have started with.

Third, conduct effective reviews of your people. These reviews should focus on finding strengths, rather than finding weaknesses. Ask what the person has accomplished in the past, and what the person needs to continue developing in order to fully grow into their strength.

Fourth, know that to employ strengths you will have to put up with weaknesses. The one caveat is that you shouldn’t put a destructive person who lacks character and integrity into a position of power where their influence could corrode the whole organization.

Additionally, to keep people with strengths around, you have to remove those who don’t provide results—first by moving them to different positions to see if their job wasn’t a good fit for them, and if this doesn’t work then by removing them from the organization. It’s unfair to those who contribute a great deal to have to put up with those who don’t, and it will in fact cause your best people to leave.

Chapter Five: First Things First

Do first things first; do things one at a time; and do second things not at all.

Quit things that aren’t worth your time, even if you’ve already invested a lot of time and energy into them. (Google “sunk cost fallacy” if you want to learn more about this particular topic.)

Those are really the primary lessons of this chapter, and more words aren’t necessary.

(Do remember, though, to keep in mind the lesson about consolidating your time into large chunks—focused time is of utmost importance.)

Chapter Six: The Elements of Decision-making

Making decisions is one of the most important tasks of the executive.

Effective executives concentrate on the small set of important decisions that need to be made, and they don’t see “decision-making speed” as an asset. They want to make correct decisions in the most important matters, even if it’s slower and requires more work.

To become an effective decision-maker, you have to learn to separate general cases from specific instances:

General cases should be solved once, and solved thoroughly.

Often, there is already a solution that someone else has discovered, and all you need to do is recognize the situation as being a generic problem and then seek out the solution. Each time this particular case comes up again, it should utilize the same solution unless the situation has changed. You shouldn’t waste time making the same decision over and over again, or treating situations as special when they’re really generic (and potentially already solved).

Always ask yourself: “Is this truly a unique situation, or am I dealing with a general problem that others have faced before?” If it’s a general problem, use rules and principles to solve it.

If you’ve identified a decision as truly unique—which is rarer than we might think—then you need to assess the situation pragmatically according to the specific details.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that a decision isn’t truly a decision unless it is carried out as work. This means informing people of the decision, communicating who is responsible for which parts of the required work, and making other organizational changes as necessary to reflect the decision.

Elements of the Decision Process

There are five elements of the decision-making process:

  1. Understand if the decision is related to a general problem and requires abiding by a rule or principle;
  2. Identify the “boundary conditions” that a solution needs to satisfy, meaning the requirements the decision has to stay within;
  3. Think about the true solution before attempting to factor in the compromises that may be necessary to actually make the decision;
  4. Make sure that the decision is going to turn into action; and,
  5. Test yourself by gathering data and getting feedback about how effective the decision actually was.

Let’s talk a little more about what goes into effective decisions.

Chapter Seven: Effective Decisions

Drucker kicks off this chapter with a great assessment of what exactly a decision is:

A decision is a judgment…Most books on decision-making tell the reader: ‘First find the facts.’ But executives who make effective decisions know that one does not start with facts. One starts with opinions. These are, of course, nothing but untested hypotheses…The understanding that underlies the right decision grows out of the clash and conflict of divergent opinions and out of the serious consideration of competing alternatives.

So we must turn opinions into evidence, evidence into decisions, and decisions into action.

Testing Your Opinions

Facts don’t come first. Opinions—untested hypotheses—come first.

What follows after that is actually the basic structure of the scientific method: you ask yourself what information would strengthen or weaken your hypothesis; you gather the relevant data; you then see what the information suggests about your original hypothesis; you revise your hypothesis; then you repeat.

One of the most crucial aspects of the decision-making process is deciding what kinds of data you’re going to be looking for, and from where.

As a very clear and specific example of this, consider the animal advocacy method of leafleting. If you’re trying to make decisions based on the effectiveness of leafleting, you might think to look at how much people change their diet after they receive a leaflet. In fact, this is mostly what the movement has done thus far.

But what happens if you ask the questions: “How likely is it that a person who receives a leaflet will become active for animals? What kind of impact might they have?” This is a completely different measurement that will have completely different implications for the decision being made.

Choosing what exactly you’re measuring and looking for isn’t trivial. It has very big practical implications.

Drucker’s advice: To make an appropriate decision, you have to have alternatives. You must identify alternatives to what you’re measuring before choosing one.

Fostering Disagreement

In order to make an effective decision, you need to understand as many aspects of the decision as possible. This doesn’t come through quick consensus—understanding must come through opposing and conflicting points of view.

Drucker says:

The first rule in decision-making is that one does not make a decision unless there is disagreement.

If there isn’t disagreement, then you’re probably missing some crucial information: a risk; a downside; a critical perspective; something you haven’t thought of.

Decisions are never black and white; they are always trade-offs between competing interests and resources and constraints. You have to understand what all of the trade-offs are before you can make the judgment call required for an effective decision.

Drucker points out three reasons why disagreement is important:

  1. First—As the decision-maker, everyone wants something from you and may plead their case in a certain way in order to obtain the outcome they desire. They may omit undesired information, or inflate positive results. The only way around this is to seek disagreement about the issue and to try to uncover the evidence.
    • Example: A person who runs a sanctuary and a person who builds web apps are going to have very different opinions and information about what’s effective.
  2. Second—You need alternatives to choose from, and disagreement provides those alternatives. If everyone is in agreement about a single solution, then there aren’t any serious alternatives, and you’re probably missing information.
    • Example: If everyone agrees that “yeah, we should pool our money to put up a billboard with vegan messaging”, maybe you haven’t really thought through what other high-impact activities you could do with that money.
  3. ThirdDisagreements stimulate your imagination to think of creative, unique, holistic solutions that combine ideas and possibilities in novel ways.
    • Example: If one person thinks we should focus our time on getting a celebrity to post about animal rights, and another person really thinks we should launch a ballot initiative banning meat in a small city, maybe we can combine those and work with a celebrity to be the spokesperson for the ballot initiative.

Of course, disagreement can also bring heated emotions and clouded thinking. This is why the reasoning and evidence behind the disagreements are so important. You must adopt the view of the other people and truly try to see the value in the alternative viewpoints being put forward. (Helping another person construct the best version of their argument is called “steelmanning” and is the opposite of “strawmanning”.)

Make the Decision…Or Don’t

Finally, ask the question: “Is a decision really necessary?”

Another way of asking this is “What happens if we do nothing?” This is always a possibility, and for many of the less important decisions might be the default best decision.

But if you’ve decided that the benefits outweigh the costs, and you’ve done the work of finding alternatives and getting all of the information you need to make the decision, then now is the time to act. Many people will give up once they discover that the decision that needs to be made is difficult, or will be unpopular, or will require a long time to implement. But once you’ve made a decision, don’t be tempted by further delay or inaction—not unless there is truly additional information that will likely influence your decision.

Gather the evidence; find the alternatives; make the decision; and act.

Conclusion: Effectiveness Must Be Learned

Woo! This book packs a ton of information into a relatively short space. The whole book can be skimmed in an afternoon or read in a day or two, but the information contained inside of it could take a full career to truly get a grasp of.

There are a lot of lists and guidelines. Let’s review the most important ones:

The Eight Practices of Effective Executives

  • They asked, “What needs to be done?”
  • They asked, “What is right for the enterprise?”
  • They developed action plans.
  • They took responsibility for decisions.
  • They took responsibility for communicating.
  • They were focused on opportunities rather than problems.
  • They ran productive meetings.
  • They thought and said “we” rather than “I.”

The Five Practices to Become an Effective Executive

  1. Effective executives know where their time goes.
  2. Effective executives focus on outward contribution.
  3. Effective executives build on strengths.
  4. Effective executives concentrate on the few major areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results.
  5. Effective executives, finally, make effective decisions.

My advice is to identify one of these aspects that you could work on, and get started. Keep this framework in mind, and return to it often to see where you can improve your own effectiveness.

And if each person in the movement for animals grows their effectiveness 10%, or even 1%, the compounded positive effects for animals will be immense.


Animal Movement Project (AMP) is a platform dedicated to building the movement for animals.

We share thoughts and ideas that can take the movement for animals from x to 10x. Our focus is predominantly on animals exploited for food since they account for more than 99% of the animals exploited by humans. The topics covered are often about ways to tie the pieces of the movement together or to fill in the gaps. We focus on connecting people, ideas, and resources to each other.