A central debate in critical management studies (CMS) revolves around the concern that critical research has rather little influence on what managers do in practice. We argue that this is partly because CMS research often focuses on criticizing antagonistically, rather than engaging with managers. In light of this, we seek to re-interpret the anti-performative stance of CMS by focusing on how researchers understand, conceptualize and make use of the performative effects of language. Drawing on the works of JL Austin and Judith Butler, we put forward the concept of progressive performativity, which requires critical researchers to stimulate the performative effects of language in order to induce incremental, rather than radical, changes in managerial behaviour. The research framework we propose comprises two interrelated processes: (i) the strategy of micro-engagement, which allows critical researchers to identify and ‘ally’ with internal activists among managers, and to support their role as internal agents of change; and (ii) ‘reflexive conscientization’ − that is, a dialogic process between researchers and researched that aims to gradually raise the critical consciousness of actors in order to provide spaces in which new practices can be ‘talked into existence’ through the performative effects of language.