Exit, Voice and Loyalty

In Exit, Voice and Loyalty (1970), Albert O. Hirschman argues that people who are dissatisfied with groups of all kinds have two basic choices:

  • Exit: Leaving the group. Then they do not have to put up with it or continue to be complicit in its actions. Exit is a human right. It can also improve a group by sending a signal of dissatisfaction that can cause the group to change its practices or culture. This is sometimes called “voting with one’s feet.”
  • Voice: Expressing their opinions about what should change and trying to persuade the other members and/or leaders.

Sometimes, both options are foreclosed to some people. When individuals cannot leave or exercise voice, it is a sign of oppression.

Voice is often more difficult, stressful, and otherwise costly than exit. When people choose to use voice instead of exit, that is evidence of:

  • Loyalty: A willingness to stick with a group even though one has criticisms of it.

Exit, voice, and loyalty have benefits and disadvantages that vary depending on the situation. Just for example, voice can be frustrating and even pointless if the group does not listen to the people who have concerns. On the other hand, exit sends a crude and sometimes uninterpretable message about why people are leaving. (Perhaps they have a complaint, or perhaps they just moved to a new community.) Loyalty is praiseworthy if a flawed group has the potential to improve, because groups are valuable resources. But loyalty is problematic if the group is too unjust, because then remaining a member constitutes complicity.

Groups can be structured to protect and even reward voice, or to encourage exit, or both. These design decisions influence the culture and the performance of groups. Voice is an “art” that can be learned and that deteriorate if not practiced. (Hischman, p. 43).

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