Change myths and privileges

SupergirlWe hear a lot of stories here at Rebels at Work.

Many people are angry at not being heard. Some are sad that their organizations are on a bad downward spiral, with management rallying around what no longer works. Others have checked out of work and checked into being complacent and “just getting the paycheck.”

For a while the complacent ones got to me the most. To go to work every day and not give a rat’s ass just seems like giving up on life itself.

And the cynicism? Scorching. It would be tough to work with someone with that kind of negative mindset.

But the stories that get to me the most are the people who don’t try to change anything because of the CHANGE MYTH. These people believe that if you’re going to try to fix problems you need to be some sort of crusading take-no-prisoners, storm the ramparts hero.

You might imagine the type. A confident Steve Jobs wannabe talking about disruption, not backing down, go big or go home. The kind of person who doesn’t worry about failing, whether that means getting fired or quitting to find the next gig.

How did this change maker myth become so ingrained in our culture?

Has the Silicon Valley “failure is good” entrepreneurial spirit been taken as “the” way things work at work? Are people with good ideas becoming intimidated about stepping up because they are not Steve Jobs wannabes and they are afraid to fail and lose their jobs?

Last week Jen Meyers sent these two tweets that acknowledged the myth and, more importantly, acknowledged the fact that most people making change are doing so thoughtfully within the rules and corporate culture.

Jen Meyers Privilege jpeg

Because that’s how so much change happens. Bit by bit. Working with our co-workers vs. leaping from tall buildings in superhero change-maker capes.

If you’re a disruptor and get fired, your big idea dies. So much for heroism.

Whereas if you get smarter about working within the existing organizational culture, your idea actually has a better chance of happening. And you have a better chance of keeping your job.

(Because if we’re honest like Jen, we know that most of us can’t afford to walk away from our jobs. It’s not that simple.)

So maybe it’s useful to remember that having a good idea is easy. Being able to work with people willing to do the hard work to shepherd that idea through corporate politics, budget conflicts, and the often-messy rollout is a privilege.

A Rebel Handbook

Have you heard that Lois and I have a book coming out this fall, published by O’Reilly Media, called Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within? Needless to say, we’re trying to act really cool about it. I, for one, only bring it up three or four times a day in the course of ordinary conversation.

RAW cover

When I mention it, I get some interesting reactions. Just this weekend a friend of a friend and  I were chatting about it; he’s a successful businessman and lawyer. When I told him the title  and described the content he looked confused and said:

“And so you think corporations would actually pay you to come in and teach their employees  to be rebels?”

After thinking about it for a bit he offered me a new title: “Provocateurs at Work.”

I’m not sure that’s any less scary to large organizations than Rebels at Work. But what  interested me most about the conversation is the fact that my interlocutor, who would  probably describe himself as a libertarian, would get so queasy about the idea of helping  rebels inside large organizations. There it is again–that, to my knowledge unproven,  assertion that corporations operate best when employees conform.

There’s clearly a lot of work to be done.

Another conversation was with a friend whom I mention in the book, Clark, who has always been much more comfortable with conflict than I have ever been. Learning to deal with conflict in the workplace is such an important developmental for rebels that Lois and I devote an entire chapter to it. Although Clark never really thought of himself as a Rebel at Work, he does acknowledge that his honesty in the workplace probably cost him some plum jobs in his career, assignments he wanted and deserved. Honesty at work is not career-enhancing, he said. But a need to be honest and say what needs to be said is a key driver for rebels in the workplace. As Lois and I write in our introduction:

Every day people in all kinds of jobs at all kinds of workplaces reach the point where they say, “Enough.” While every rebel’s reason for stepping up differs, almost all start with the same uncomfortable realization: “I have to do something about this.”

Train Wrecks

Train wreckAfter hearing about the release of “Rebels at Work” next month a friend told me that we should write a prequel called “Train Wrecks.”

“There are so many stories about messes at work that could have been avoided if managers had listened to employees.  It never fails to amaze me at how long managers can deny a problem.”

You don’t have to look far to find train wrecks at work — where good rebels warned that the train was going to go off the rails.

  • Financial train wrecks: How have big banks been able to get away with outrageous behavior, creating rippling financial shitstorms? The New York Fed, the chief U.S. bank regulator, created a culture where raising problems and asking questions was shunned. When Carmen Segarra, one of its regulators assigned to Goldman Sachs, actually went about doing her job — thinking that her and her employer’s  job was to fix the financial system — she got fired.  This September 26, 2014 ProPublica article is a great read about how culture, consensus, and discrediting good rebels have allowed our financial system to become a train wreck: Inside the New York Fed: Secret Recordings and a Culture Clash.
  • Automotive train wrecks: Yesterday General Motors issued its 76th recall of 2014, calling back 7,600 police vehicles because they could roll away when drivers thought they were in park.  Following an internal GM investigation earlier this year,  CEO Mary Barra said, “The lack of action was a result of broad bureaucratic problems and the failure of individual employees in several departments to address a safety problem.… Repeatedly, individuals failed to disclose critical pieces of information that could have fundamentally changed the lives of those impacted by a faulty ignition switch.”  GM knew about the ignition switch safety issue for 10 years before they issued a recall. My guess is that good rebels in GM raised the problems — and their bosses failed to act on that information.
  • Health care train wrecks: As reported by Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, there were many instances where nurses at Rhode Island Hospital warned surgeons about patient issues and procedures only to be told to shut up.  “If I want your damn  opinion I’ll ask for it. Don’t ever question my authority again,” a doctor said to a nurse who questioned the appropriateness of a surgical procedure. “If you can’t do your job, get the hell out of my OR.”  Only after several reported incidences of surgical errors, like operating on the wrong side of a patient’s head, did the hospital address its corrosive culture, a culture where good rebel nurses were habitually dismissed by surgeons. Talk about a modern day caste system.

Being an optimistic type who likes to create solutions rather than muck around in problems, I’ll probably never write a book about train wrecks.  One reason is that it would a really long book to write.

The real reason, though, is that I think my time is better spent helping positive people inside organizations band together and get their ideas heard before the emerging problems cause real damage. Plenty of researchers, academics, books, and consultants help executives. Not many help employees on the front lines.

Here at Rebels at Work, we’re all about supporting the people who care enough to say,  “Houston, we have a problem.






If you’re not part of the problem….

“Bill Torbert of Boston College once said to me that the 1960s slogan “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” actually misses the most important point about effecting change. The slogan should be,:

“If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.”

If we cannot see how what we are doing or not doing is contributing to things being the way that they are, then logically we have no basis at all, zero leverage, to change the way things are — except from the outside, by persuasion or force.”

Adam Kahane, author of Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening and Creating New Realities

Labor Day

I ran into a good friend yesterday at the grocery store. We were both off for Labor Day. This friend tells me about some advice a colleague had provided just the other day on leadership and management.

“The job of the worker” this person had said “is to make their management look good and succeed.”

We were both stunned that people still said that, let alone thought it. My friend said:

“The dignity of the worker is so often overlooked in today’s leadership discussions. Everything is about the leader setting the vision, but often the workers know better what’s going on and how to make things better.”

I told my friend about Rebels at Work and how we think of ourselves as a resource for workers. Dignity is often a concern for Rebels at Work, who don’t want to lose theirs as they try to get their ideas a fair hearing. Too often organizations act as if they’re doing workers a favor by listening to them.

“At today’s townhall, we really want to hear from you!”

My experience is such calls are usually met with prickly silence.

“If you always wanted to hear from me, you wouldn’t need to make such a big deal of it today.”

So, Dear Leadership, if you really expect workers to make you look good, you might try paying attention to them. Hear them. All the time, not on special days determined by the corporate calendar.

You know, they might just help you succeed.

Millennials at Work

Triumph-gabriele25    “I’ll never have as many new ideas as I do now, and yet no one wants to listen to me.”

“What really bothers me is the lack of honesty. When they interviewed me they said they  were interested in my creativity and new   ideas, and yet now that I’m on the job, I realize  that if I challenge the way things are done, I’ll just get slapped.”

“I really want to help the government do better, but I’m afraid of getting trapped in a  bureaucracy.”

“He told me to be quiet and wait my turn. And in 20 years I’d be in a position to change  things. And so I left.”

This is how many Millennials describe to us their experiences and fears about today’s workplace. They care about making a difference, but just aren’t prepared to sacrifice their souls in the process. They’ve heard all the talk about how they have unrealistic expectations and should just wait their turn and pay their dues.  But what should they do, they ask us, if they think they have good ideas right now? Why doesn’t the organization want to take advantage of new ideas and fresh thinking during such times of disruptive innovation?

Why indeed! Although Lois and I are decades past our entry points into the workforce, we both recall acutely how it felt when we first realized that the organizations we worked for weren’t necessarily interested in our best ideas. Some of our best ideas were horrible or naïve or both, but a few of them weren’t so bad really.

The cost for organizations of ignoring the ideas of your new hires seems much higher today. When I started work in 1978, the technology in my office hadn’t changed in 20 years, maybe not even since World War II. I wrote on an old typewriter that had been around for years. I used a land line. And a ball point, although if you were really cool you insisted on a fountain pen. Today, however, Millennials bring into most work places a native familiarity with new ways of thinking and doing that organizations say they really want and need. It really doesn’t even make sense to ask them to wait five years for their voices to matter, let alone 20.

You can even make the case that if organizations really want to boost their creativity and innovation, they should go out of their way to harvest the ideas of their younger, newer employees. After all, young men and women in their 20s have given birth to some of the most convention-shattering ideas in human history.

  • Einstein was 26 when he published his paper on the theory of relativity.
  • Isaac Newton postulated the theory of gravity when he was 23.
  • The founding generation of the United States was famously young. On 4 July 1776, Betsy Ross was 24, Nathan Hale 21, James Madison 25, and Tom Jefferson was 33. (Ben Franklin of course was 70!)
  • A 27-year old Coco Chanel opened her first boutique in France.
  • JK Rowling got the idea for Harry Potter at the age of 25.
  • By the time he was 25, Mark Zuckerburg had been running Facebook for five years.
  • And it was a 29 year-old Elon Musk who founded the company that would eventually become Paypal.

These individuals either worked outside organizations or founded them. I suspect, in fact, that a correlation exists between the growth and importance of organizations in the last 100 years and the popularity of concepts such as paying your dues and biding your time.

So while we have a tendency to write about individuals who have been struggling for many years to make organizational change happen, it’s time to acknowledge that you can find yourself a Rebel at Work within the first few weeks of your first job. Those “wiser and older” will tell Millennials to just cool it. But the better option for the smart organization may be to ask Millennials to “bring it on.”

Rocking the Boat without Falling Out

The Many Faces of Bureaucratic Black Belts

We’ve written about Bureaucratic Black Belts over the years, and even distinguished one subtype–the benevolent bureaucratic black belt. But we’re thinking there’s a lot more to be said about BBB’s and more subtypes to discover. We’ll start by identifying three archetypes we’ve been thinking about but we know there’s many more. We welcome your contributions.

First, let’s remind ourselves of who BBB’s are and what they do. Bureaucratic Black Belts are those individuals in an organization who have mastered all the ins and outs of both its bureaucratic rules and bureaucratic culture. They are frequently the Professor Moriarty to the Rebel Sherlock, a clever operator, a bureaucratic mastermind, who understands the bureaucracy much better than the Rebel at Work. Asked to figure out how to accomplish a particular goal, they can, like an excellent navigation system, identify multiple routes through the bureaucracy. What they’re usually not so good at is coming up with an original destination. Many BBB’s act as if maneuvering the bureaucracy is its own reward, like solving an English garden maze where, when you’re done, you’re right back where you started from. Most BBB’s believe, almost without thinking, that preservation, sameness, and symmetry are the ultimate purposes of organizational life.

Three BBB archetypes we’ve been thinking about:

The Wind-Surfers. Wind-Surfers are somewhat rare, we think, because they pair strong personal ambition with bureaucratic finesse. Unlike many BBBs who are support/administrative specialists, Wind-Surfers usually directly execute the organization’s mission. Their strong personal ambitions have led them to figure out every possible angle to ascend the hierarchy. Although early in their careers they often held convictions about how the organization could improve, over time and usually, in our estimation, without conscious awareness, their instincts for climbing to the top sublimated their desire to improve mission execution. Of course, they would deny this if confronted and insist they are just playing for the right time and opportunity. But the opportunity clock never seems to strike. And in the meantime their views on what the organization needs to do shifts with the prevailing leadership winds.

The organizational astuteness of Wind-Surfers is always prized by more adventurous leaders in the organization, who need the support of BBBs to get their own initiatives implemented. Wind-Surfers are always happy to do the bidding of those above them in the hierarchy, but are reluctant to back any new ideas that came from below them in the organization.

The Tugboat Pilots. These BBB’s make their mark in the organization through their ability to navigate any difficult organizational terrain, whether it be new leadership, bad publicity, or new administrations.  Like mountain goats, their first step, i.e. their first bureaucratic response, is always spot-on. They can recall every detail of the organization’s history and leverage it to their advantage.

Tugboat Pilots are masters of context and of reading people. They seem to have recognized early on in their careers that their innate skills were best suited to guiding others, and they embraced that mission with enthusiasm and sincerity. Tugboat Pilots are motivated to arrange productive meetings for the organization, thus Rebels at Work should always consider their advice. Unlike Wind-Surfers, Tugboat Pilots do not become BBBs because of their desire to advance their careers; most of them see themselves as the guardians of the organization’s well-being. They have watched several leaders come and go and so understand the damage that even good intentions could cause and know not to get too caught up in any one change agenda. Tugboat Pilots are among the best BBB’s for rebels at work to befriend. If they believe your intentions are good, that you too are motivated more by helping the organization than by ego, there’s a good chance they will try to help you. But beware, the instincts of Tugboat pilots are likely to be more conservative than yours. Taking a chance in dangerous waters is just not their style. Keep that in mind when deciding how much of their advice to take on board.

Bureaucratic Green Belts. We think this type of BBB, actually a BGB, can do more good than harm. We call them green belts because, while they are masters of one particular set of bureaucratic processes, they are not defenders of the entire bureaucracy and have not yet adopted a complete organizational mindset. In fact some bureaucratic green belts never become BBBs, and instead devote their careers to defending just the particular processes they own, sometimes from the rest of the organization.

Rebels at Work can too easily dismiss Bureaucratic Green Belts, who often can have important insight into the implementation risks of their proposals. Rebels at Work can assume that green belts won’t understand their vision but instead we’ve found that they can relish applying their knowledge and skills to an entirely new set of puzzles. If a rebel change agenda touches upon some of the processes that a green belt owns, some early conversations with that individual can win you some important insights and warn you of problematic aspects of your ideas.

OK–now it’s your turn. What types of BBBs have you encountered?

In a world without rebels

The Giver movie poster jpegWe teach our children about the importance of free speech and the dangers of group think, encouraging them to read novels about frightening futuristic societies like George Orwell’s 1984 where the Ministry of Truth’s real mission is to falsify historical events and spin propaganda.

Or Lois Lowry’s The Giver world where pain, fear, intense love and hatred have been eliminated and there’s no prejudice because people look and think the same.

And yet, in our schools and at our workplaces “group think” is subtly and not so subtly rewarded and those who question decisions and advocate for different and better ways are ignored, ostracized, or fired. (One of the most popular blog posts in the Rebels at Work community is “When You’re Thrown Under the Bus.”)

Our systems —  be they companies, schools, churches, government agencies or health care organizations — become rigid and brittle, sometimes even dangerous, without rebels with the courage to say, ”This isn’t the right way,”

Government managers obsess on protecting their budgets and headcount and lose sight of what citizens want or need. Religious leaders turn an eye to child abuse.People anesthetize themselves with alcohol or junk food at the end of the workday to dull the pain of feeling like a meaningless cog in the system, where “no one cares what I have to say.” Companies, even those “too big to fail,” fail every day, leaving people out of work and dashing the dreams of those who loved their work.

The dangers of a world without rebels are often more specific, as well.

Most famously, government agency managers from NASA refused to listen to engineers’ warnings and The Challenger space shuttle blew to smithereens killing seven crew members and shutting down the space program for almost three years.

Most recently, General Motors’ corporate culture suppressed the voices of concerned employees, who were alarmed about safety issues. Speaking up at meetings was just not safe. In 2014 the auto manufacturer was forced to admit that it knew about an ignition switch safety issue for more than 10 years before it issued a recall. While executives ignored the voices of its rebels at work, at least 54 crashes and up to 100 people died. As 2014 unfolded General Motors issued 47 more recalls covering more than 20 million vehicles.

How could this happen when people inside these organizations knew about the risks? Welcome to a world where rebels are shunned and the authorities’ desire to make the world adhere to internal plans and magical thinking rather than real-world realities can create irrational decisions, crazy behavior and very unfortunate outcomes.

Following an internal investigation into the safety issues GM CEO Mary Barra told employees, “The lack of action was a result of broad bureaucratic problems and the failure of individual employees in several departments to address a safety problem…Repeatedly, individuals failed to disclose critical pieces of information that could have fundamentally changed the lives of those impacted by a faulty ignition switch.”

This was not the fault of employees, but the fault of GM’s culture and leadership to make it safe for employees to speak up. The Bureaucratic Black Belts ruled the roost, focusing more on GM internal politics than on the safety of people buying its vehicles.

In a world without rebels broad bureaucratic problems like GM’s flourish, and the result is complacency, stagnant growth, and sometimes even worse things, like horrific accidents.

If our current workplaces were a novel or movie, we’d be looking for new protagonists

If our current workplaces were a novel, we might want to stop reading. “Good grief, people’s souls are being sucked dry, danger is lurking everywhere and no one seems to care. I can’t take much more of this.” As we tried to keep reading we’d be hoping that a hero or underdog would show up fast and help turn things around. “Please, please, someone get in there and solve the problems that are staring everyone in the face. Somebody do SOMETHING.”

Fortunately, there are more and more rebels  doing something where they work to turn things around —  with or without having positions of authority. Rebels are not heroes, because no one person can create change alone. But rebels have many hero attributes – optimism, courage, smarts, tenacity, and earnestness.

It’s encouraging to see so many communities springing up to help rebels — our Rebels at Work, Corporate Rebels United, Change Agents Worldwide.

Let’s write the next chapter about work where change makers are seen as vital to success as any technology or process or highly-paid executive. Maybe even more so.

Not everyone in an organization needs to be a rebel, but all organizations need their rebels.


Communicating new ideas

clarity illustration

Most rebels do a great job at bringing passion and enthusiasm when talking about their ideas, which is essential for getting people’s attention. In addition to this positive energy, there are a handful of communications fundamentals to master so that people understand your idea, consider its merits, and lend their support.

Show what’s at stake

To get people’s attention, frame your idea in terms of what people care about. Show how the idea relates to what they want.

If there’s nothing at stake, if there are no emotionally compelling risks or rewards for acting on your idea, people will probably ignore it. A common mistake we’ve seen is that people launch into the details of how their new idea will work before doing the much more important work of communicating why it matters so much.

So step one is jolting people awake to understand why your idea matters so much to what’s important to them. The more relevant your idea is to what everyone wants to achieve, the more likely people will consider it. The more your idea rescues people from a fear or frustration that is getting more acute every day, the more they will consider it. Similarly, the more widely and/or deeply felt the issue or topic, the more likely people will consider it.

Paint a picture of what could be

Emotions get people to consider an idea and influence decisions. Paint a picture of how your idea creates a better situation. Expose the gap between how things work today and how they could work. Make the status quo unappealing.

Paint a picture of how much better things will be with your ideas in place. You want to make the status quo unappealing and the alternative a much better option, so much better that it will be worth the work to get there. Walk people through how things will work differently with your new approach. Help them feel this new way of doing things, evoking a positive emotional response. Remember: people make decisions based on emotions, either the desire to flee from pain or to seek relief and rewards.

Show that the idea can work

Highlight what it will take to be successful and where the greatest risks lie. Show the milestones that will need to be achieved. This demonstrates that you’ve done your homework and thought through the risks, uncertainties, and practicalities.  People support ideas (and people) that they think will be successful.  

Show the gap between the ideal and where things are today, and briefly highlight the milestones for closing the gap and getting to the ideal. Avoid communicating all the details. You don’t want or need to drill down into specific details in a meeting where you’re trying to get buy in and support. We’ve seen too many great concepts die an early death because the blizzard of “how it will work” details buried big idea.

You do, however, need to have done your research so that the milestones you present are realistic, doable, and make sense based on how things get done where you work. This makes people comfortable. It helps them see that while anything new is fraught with uncertainty, you have been thinking about the risks and have thought about ways to minimize them.

Build support

Mobilize people to support the idea. If 10% of the people in an organization believe in an idea, it is highly likely it will be adopted.

Before doing any formal presentations, talk with people you like and trust at work about the “what’s at stake” and “what could be.”

Communicating a new idea is about developing relationships, learning from others, asking for their help in making the idea better, and enlisting their support to be able to make the idea happen. A mistake rebels make is thinking that the way to get an idea approved is to present it to the management team, which will either say yes or no.

The way to bring an idea to life is helping people see the value in the idea for them, and asking them to help be part of the effort. Socialize your idea with many people, and work hard to get those one or two first followers who will also take ownership of the idea and start to talk about it.   The first followers provide credibility to you and the idea and often can be more influential than anyone in positional authority.

Once the first followers get behind the idea, work together to influence 10 percent of the people in your organization.

Why 10 percent? Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when 10 percent of the people in a group believe in an idea, the majority of the people will adopt their belief

“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority,” says Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”

If there are 200 people in your organization, that means you need to get 20 people behind your idea, willing to stand up to the powers that be to say, “We should do this.” With just 20 people supporting an idea, it is likely to be adopted. That’s not so daunting, is it?

Even if there are 1,000 people in your department or community, 10 percent support means 100 people. Not all 1,000: you need just 100 to get leadership’s attention, interest others in considering an alternative new way,  and get funding for an experiment.

So create a tribe or community, not just a PowerPoint presentation. Being a rebel is not about being a hero or lone wolf; it’s about creating better ways to work with and for our co-workers. The energy, ideas and support from a collaborative group are much more

Be positive and succinct

Show enthusiasm, but don’t get so carried away talking that you fail to listen for others’ thoughts and good ideas. How we communicate is as important as what we communicate.

When you embark on your effort to change THAT WHICH REFUSES TO BUDGE, act as if success is just around the corner. Be cheerful! Be emotional! Show some enthusiasm. There’s nothing less appealing than a dour reformer.

On the other hand, don’t let your enthusiasm turn you into a boor. We’ve all probably sat through presentations where the person drones on and on. There are flow charts, project timelines, quotes, charts so detailed that you can hardly read them, and a running commentary that never stops for ideas or questions. Don’t be that person.

And if people don’t like what you have to say?

If you’ve communicated clearly about how to solve a relevant problem and people don’t like your ideas, it’s wise to pause and assess whether the issue is important enough to keep going, despite the lukewarm reception.

If the answer is, “Yes, this change effort can make a big difference,” or “The organization is at risk if it doesn’t move in this area,” it’s time to learn one of the most important rebel lessons of all: how to navigate controversy and conflict.

What else?

What else, rebel friends, have you found to be helpful in communicating new ideas inside your organization?

Jill Abramson: Rebel at Work?

Most of our focus at is on employees trying to make change from below. They have it rough and don’t have many resources to help them. But we recognize that not infrequently the Rebel at Work can also be a manager, even a leader of an organization. Steve Jobs, of course, comes immediately to mind. Often leaders try to prod their organization to a better future by painting a vision of a new business model only to struggle to push everyone there. When I was in the Intelligence Community trying to do something similar, I would often refer to the Keystone Kops to illustrate our challenge. In the silent Keystone Kops one-reelers, there’s often a scene where a truck of Kops in pursuit of dastardly criminals turns a sharp corner and several of the Kops fly off. My goal, I would tell people, was to turn our sharp corner but keep everyone on the truck. We’re all getting there together.hungarian20cops1

Easier said than done. Last week the New York Times fired their editor, Jill Abramson, and charges have been flying around ever since as to the reasons why. I don’t know why, of course, but I was struck by the analysis provided by another prominent female editor, Susan Glasser, editor of Politico Magazine. In her article, Glasser posits that Abramson, and the editor of Le Monde, who was also forced out last week, were caught up in the strong backlash that can often beat down a leader trying to take their obstinate organization to a place it doesn’t think it needs to go. Glasser can’t prove her conjecture, but she writes convincingly of her own predicament when she tried to lead the Washington Post to a digital future. Glasser’s description of what confronted her is painful to read.

In the course of my short and controversial tenure in the job, I learned several things, among them: 1) print newspapers REALLY, REALLY didn’t want to change to adapt to the new digital realities; 2) I did not have the full backing of the paper’s leadership to carefully shepherd a balky, unhappy staff of 100 or so print reporters and editors across that unbuilt bridge to the 21st century;”

She goes on to write:

I have no wish to relitigate a painful past episode by writing this, except to say what I learned about myself: It was not the right fight for me, and I didn’t really have the stomach for waging the bureaucratic war of attrition that is the fate of the institutionalist in a time of unsettling change. I had always chafed at the constraints and processes and internal politics of a venerable and proud place. Was I the right person for that job at that time? Clearly not, and I was happy once the ordeal was over, and grateful for the support I received from so many people. I learned that I liked to invent more than reinvent, that it is a better fit for me to create something new than to try to save something old.”

That last sentence brought tears to my eyes. I would rather create something new than try to save something old. This realization occurs to so many rebels just at the moment they decide to give up. But I suspect most rebels, perhaps even Glasser, are not being completely honest with themselves. My guess is that they really would rather save, revive something old, but that the personal cost of it just becomes unbearable. Or they are removed because when it comes right down to it, too many people expect change to be easy and not controversial. Even when rebels get “top cover”, it is flimsy and easily blown away by the complaints from those who will not be moved.

Much of the criticism of Abramson reminds me of our now almost infamous Good Rebel, Bad Rebel chart. Lois and I have mixed feelings about the chart because it oversimplifies a complex subject. Many rebels have qualities on both sides of the spectrum. And sometimes rebels do have to employ the black arts. Lacking the ability to change minds, they focus instead on trying to create immutable facts on the ground. Rebels who are not also leaders almost never succeed this way. And what we’ve learned once again is that being a rebel leader doesn’t guarantee success.

gd. vs. bad rebels July 2012


Aarrr!! Talk Like a Rebel

If you follow me on Twitter, (@milouness) you may have noticed this great piece I linked to last weekend on The Origins of Office Speak. It appeared in the Atlantic and was written by Emma Green. It not only fills you in on Management Lingo but also serves as a quick tutorial on the history of scientific management and the consulting profession in general. One theme that runs through this history is the slow realization over the last 100 years by business managers and consultants that human beings are most productive when you treat them as real people, not resources. What a concept!! My favorite quote in the piece was from Professor Joanne Ciulla of the University of Richmond.

Attempts at engineering appropriate attitudes and emotions can actually undercut genuine feelings for a company.

The article got me to thinking whether there is such a thing as Rebel Lingo. You know things that Rebels at Work say when they are trying to win support for their change initiatives that actually have the opposite effect. As Lois pointed out on our Facebook page last week, it is vital for rebels to paint pictures of where they want to go in a succinct way that appeals to what is most relevant to the executives in your organization. That is not compromising your principles by the way; this is understanding human psychology and keeping it real.

So here is my short list of phrases rebels need to try to avoid. Do I avoid them all the time? No! As I’ve learned, most cliches became so because they contained a kernel of truthiness. But as a general practice, Rebels need to talk about specific ideas and changes, not high-falutin’ concepts. We welcome any additions to the list.

Burning Platform: Call the Fire Department! This phrase was born out of the belief that people will resist change until you give them a compelling reason to do so. But I’ve learned that what you think is a burning platform is often their sunny beachfront property The Rebel has to have some compelling arguments to prove that the status quo completely lacks feck. It rarely does. The truth is most people resist being changed…period.

Working Group: “Let’s form a working group!” is that seemingly innocent phrase that brings the 2+ hour meeting to a close when no one has any other good ideas for what to do next. Managers often resort to the working group tactic as well, which alone should give Rebels pause. Remember: Working Groups are groups that do NO work.

Ostrich, sand, head, butt: Never put these words together in a sentence. They don’t win you any supporters.

Change Agent: Never introduce yourself in meetings as a Change Agent. Don’t let anybody call you that either. Rebels at Work do not get a 10% cut off the top of all change initiatives. We aren’t agents at all. We actually believe in what we are doing.

End State: This always makes me think of Death. Also it reflects an unattractive hubris on part of the Rebel. The rebel’s ideas are not the end state of the organization; in a few short years (months) your ideas will be overtaken by much better ones. It is the way of the world. Innovation (another word to use infrequently) is not about a program to implement one new idea or even a set of new ideas; innovation means permanently removing the barriers to entry for all new ideas.

Think Out of the Box:  Aaargh! Please don’t ask people to think out of the box. I once heard a senior leader say that he enjoyed being in a box. It was a much safer place to be.

Paradigm Shift: It is a shame that Thomas Kuhn’s useful concept is now so tired and overused that its deployment in any meeting immediately chills the air and causes butts to shift in their seats as if perhaps an ostrich were involved. Remember: Change agents use working groups to shift paradigms.


Be prepared


“I read your bio and watched your video about rebels,” the CEO said to me yesterday during our first meeting. “I just want to let you know that we squash that kind of person around here.”

What an interesting introduction to a company hiring me to facilitate their growth strategy planning.  Like all good change agents, I was curious about why this executive disliked those brave souls who bring up new and sometimes uncomfortable ideas.

“I just can’t stand it when people throw out these big, radical ideas and haven’t thought them through or done any research.  You can’t just say, ‘We should move into this market or expand into this new product category.’  What are the implications to operations?  What kind of sales support will we need? What will it take to hire and train the right people?  What will be the impact on cash flow?  When might we see a return? One year? Five years? Ten years?   I realize you can’t have all the answers, but when someone presents an idea they better have done some homework or they’ll lose all credibility.”

The lesson: rebels and change makers need to do their homework, be prepared, and understand how to sequence their ideas. As Carmen wrote in the post “Top Ten Mistakes of Rebels at Work:”

Mistake #2. Putting things in the wrong order.

Ironically, successful Rebels at Work must be able to mimic good bureaucrat behavior. Specifically, they have to approach their change agenda in a disciplined fashion and make careful and thoughtful decisions about how they will sequence their activities. What do they need to do first; what can come next; what can only be attempted after they have reached a critical mass of supporters.

A common rebel sequencing error, one in fact which I’ve been guilty of more than once, is advertising your reform intentions before you have assessed the organizational landscape in which you are operating. In the government making your goals public before you have a firm action plan only gives fair warning to all those who will oppose you.  They will sharpen their passive-aggressive claws to stop you before you even get started. There’s much for a rebel to do before they give fancy speeches or—God forbid—put together their Powerpoint deck.


How to be a rebel in the workplace and survive

This post was written by Tom Siebert for Aol Jobs.

Rebels are sexy. Rebels are cool. Rebels are not always welcome in the workplace. In fact, if you’re a rebel in the workplace, it’s often a small step to becoming a martyr for the workplace, says Lois Kelly.

“Rebels’ velocity scares people,” says Kelly, an author (Beyond Buzz) and former PR professional, who runs the website, with the former deputy director of intelligence for the CIA (!) Carmen Medina, now a Deloitte consultant.

The pair appeared together at South by Southwest last month to “show rebels how to lead change from within [a company or organization] without committing career suicide.”

Kelly and Medina offer these 20 ways “to be a more effective rebel,” and effect positive change without ending up roadkill for a cause:

1. Be positive: People may listen to a nag, but no one will follow them.

2. Frame it: Don’t just make a point. Build a narrative around it.

3. Stay out of drama: Life isn’t a television show. The more straightforward your cause, the less you dramatize it, the better off your message will be.

4. Judge ideas, not people: Someone you dislike may well have good points to be made; listen to them.

5. When angry, stop and wonder why: Are you angry for the right reasons? Are you personalizing what’s made you angry?

6. Strive for influence, not power: In the end, influencers carry the greater power.

7. Start the flame, tap into the collective brilliance of others to fan the flame: The whole object of being a rebel is to draw others to your cause; when you do, don’t be greedy.

8. Share the glory: See above.

9. Communicate in ways that create clarity from complexity: Keep your points simple and easy to understand. Once the basic points are grasped, you can go deeper.

10. Address the cost/value tradeoff: There’s no free lunch. Even if your idea is genius, there will be repercussions. Don’t flinch from them; people will appreciate the honesty.

11. Let ideas breathe: A good idea can be made better by room to roam.

12. Pick the right boss or executive sponsor: A powerful ally is a wonderful thing. Conversely, a manipulative or weak ally can sink you.

13. Ask good questions; become a good listener: Hearing people out builds alliances and may evolve a good idea to a better one.

14. Learn how to facilitate messy collaboration: Working together ain’t easy, but great things can come from it.

15. Address the fears: Change scares people. Reassure them.

16. Show how success can be measured: This puts your money where your mouth is, and can provide indisputable proof that you should be heard.

17. Learn how to have constructive conversations: Get to the point. Take criticism in good faith.

18. Be thoughtful in all you do: Rebels need to watch their words and actions, because there’ll always be someone looking to trip them up for the status quo.

19. Know when to walk away: You’ll live to fight another day.

20. Believe you are enough: No one’s perfect, but you can be your own hero.

3 D’s of Change: Dream, Discover, Deliver

Don’t Worry. Be Gritty!

By now almost everyone has seen or heard Pharrell Williams’ infectious, monster song “Happy!” But as I mentioned to our audience at the recent Rebels at Work panel at South by Southwest Interactiverebelsatwork, 25 years ago there was another infectious song about being happy–Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry be Happy. It was just as popular as Pharrell’s monster hit and probably even more infectious.

What kind of advice was that for rebels, I thought. Don’t Worry Be Happy. Pretty pollyannish if you ask me! Likely to be met by hollow, derisive laughter. Real Rebels at Work determined to make change are unlikely to just whistle away their setbacks. Instead they’ll look for another opportunity and try to learn from their mistakes.

Or as Angela Lee Duckworth–the University of Pennsylvania professor who just won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship for her psychology research–puts it, successful people in any discipline or profession share one common quality–GRIT! In her view grit has two important dimensions; first is the positive habit of being resilient in the face of failure or adversity. But grit without a cause is rather pointless. According to Duckworth, the other half of grit is having focused passions over a long time. Resilience and passion–the two defining characteristics of a Rebel at Work.

Grit clearly is an admirable quality but in my view it doesn’t have the happiest of auras. Being gritty conjures up clenched teeth, sweaty palms, and a touch of anxiety. Can a Rebel at Work be gritty and happy? I think so and here are some ways how:

Have more conversations about solutions than about the problems. Too many Rebels at Work, including me, fall in love with the problems of their organization and can’t stop obsessing about them. Do an inventory for yourself–I think you’ll be surprised by your own positive to negative ratio. Resolve yourself to talk more about solutions than about problems. Just try it sometime. Even think about divorcing your ideas for change from any discussion of the problem. When you introduce your change idea, don’t connect it to what’s negative in your organization. Connect it to a more prosperous future. (I know this is the opposite of a burning platform but I’ve never been too fond of that metaphor myself.)

Do your homework about your ideas for change. There is nothing worse for a Rebel at Work than to introduce an idea only to be informed that the same initiative was tried years ago and failed miserably. Not knowing the history of reform in your organization is a rookie error for rebels. If you think the idea still has merit, by all means pursue it. But being gritty should mean avoiding unforced errors by taking care of the details ahead of time.

Have a trusted ally who can help you be gritty. We’ve written often about the need for rebels not to go it alone. Having colleagues who support you is essential. But to succeed at being a gritty rebel, it’s important to have someone who can talk you down when you’re about to go ballistic. Grit means you don’t indulge your temper, no matter how good it might feel in the short term. Before you tell people what you really think of them, talk to that trusted ally first. You’ll be much happier.

Know how to pivot. Rebels at Work invariably have more than one idea for how their company or agency can improve. Moving on to a new idea when your first one hits too many roadblocks is a much more effective “gritty move” than continuing to pound your head against the organizational granite.

Develop a realistic timetable. How long will it take to get your ideas accepted in your organization? Well, that’s a function of both your organization’s resistance to change and your idea’s distance from current norms. But knowing how long your change initiative might take will make you more patient and help you be gritty and happy at the same time.

Laugh it off. When I think back on some of my rebel episodes now, they’re just kind of funny. I wish I could have had that perspective at the time. It would have been healthier for me. Finding the humor in your rebel journey is a powerful way to gain the perspective that will allow you to be gritty. Pick a trusted ally who can help you do that.

Don’t worry. Be gritty!


Bad rebel doing good

BoomIs there a place for the “bad” rebel — the person who storms into an organization and bulldozes his or her change agenda?

Usually, no.  But there are exceptions. Like the superintendent of an urban city school system.

Rather than slowly roll out his change initiatives by building relationships and developing coalitions of support, this educator introduced a dizzying number of reforms and new practices in a very short time in what some would say was an autocratic way.

Rather than be humble and patient, introducing change in small bites, he pushed forward big, bold ideas that set off bureaucratic fireworks among school administrators, teachers, parents, unions and the public.

That he was perceived as an “outsider” didn’t help, either. “He doesn’t know how things work in our part of the country,” many of his opponents told me.

“Why are you alienating so many people with your ideas,” I asked him.

“Superintendents of large urban school systems have a tenure of about three years  — at most,” he said. “If I want to have any impact on improving education in this city I need to get as many important initiatives going as possible in the hope that something will stick before I’m asked to leave.’

Sure enough, 18 months later there was a shift in politics and he was no longer superintendent.

Have some of his ideas stuck?  Yes.  As much as he would have liked? No.

If we want to create change and keep our jobs, building support and sequencing our change programs is essential.  If your position is precarious and the cause important, you may need to move fast and bold, trying to get as much “good” adopted, knowing that many will try to block your efforts and discredit your intentions.


Making change real after SXSW

Carmen and I enjoyed leading a conversation among Rebels at Work who attended our session at SXSW, all of whom worked for organizations with 100 or more people. Making change as an entrepreneur is challenging. Making change inside organizations is difficult, with many more obstacles.

Though Twitter crashed during our session, here are some of the Tweets and topics that resonated among the change makers at the session.

Do your organizational homework

  • Does your idea actually jive with the values of your organization?
  • Rebels at work need to understand what makes the organization work, what actually makes it tick. Listen for the secret code.
  • You need to link your ideas to what’s important to the organization and answer the SO WHAT?
  • Do your homework: will the idea actually work? And will it work within my organization?
  • What ideas most align with your company’s values? Go for a quick win to spur positive change.

Don’t go it alone

  • Rebels at work can’t be lone wolves. You need to build support for your ideas. You need 10% of the organization to back you.
  • It’s important to do your homework when trying to effect change. Who will support you? Who will join you?
  • Rebels don’t do it alone. Find your team when introducing your ideas – the thinker, the doer, the planner.
  • Make friends with the Bureaucratic Black Belts.

Getting ideas adopted

  • Context, relevancy and emotion create meaning and can help your ideas get adopted.
  • Ideas alone are not enough. They need to be followed up with a “so what” and “now what.”
  • Change happens in 3 steps: dreaming (coming up with ideas),  discovery (external and internal research), and determination (seeing it through)
  • Avoid falling in love with your idea. When you’re in love with an idea you don’t see its flaws.
  • Sometimes long-hanging fruit is rotten. (Why the adage of starting with the low-hanging fruit is not always wise.)

Useful habits and behaviors

  • Rebels: our velocity scares people. Be patient with people who move slower and bring them along gradually.
  •  Focus on positivity, and remember that all change starts slowly.
  •  Rebels need to do homework. Get smart. Expect challenging questions. Know what people want.
  •  Spend enough time staging your ideas. Sequencing uber important when introducing an idea.
  •  Sometimes you need to cut your losses.

Conflict and obstacles

  • Work for a micro-manager? Figure out if they’re afraid of uncertainty or afraid of risk, and respond accordingly.
  • Uncertainty and risk aversion are not the same. Need to understand what’s motivating the fear and get past it.
  • How to work with micro-managers: usually they’re insecure about not knowing what’s going on. Build their trust.
  • A good question to ask when your idea gets shot down, “ What part of my idea did you like the least?” Opens up conversation.
  • Whens someone raises a concern in a meeting, it means they are at least engaged.
  • How to get buy in from someone who always says no? Link to something they care about.  Develop a relationship with them.

Here is a link to the handout we shared at the session.

Working without an agenda

firefliesA danger for everyone at work — particularly us rebels — is becoming obsessed with our own agenda.

When we’re focused on pushing our agenda forward come hell or high water, we get blinded from taking in potentially valuable new information and from enjoying and learning from  our colleagues.

When our agenda has us, we are handicapped from being effective change makers.

This morning the wise  Pedra Chodron sent out this message. It reminded me to work without an agenda.

Living without an agenda

Could our minds and our hearts be big enough just to hang out in that space where we’re not entirely certain about who’s right and who’s wrong? Could we have no agenda when we walk into a room with another person, not know what to say, not make that person wrong or right? Could we see, hear, feel other people as they really are?

It is powerful to practice this way, because we’ll find ourselves continually rushing around to try to feel secure again—to make ourselves or them either right or wrong. But true communication can happen only in that open space.




The Rebel Penalty Box Revisited: Avoid Becoming a Bruiser!!

The text below is from our friend and fellow Rebel at Work Curt Klun. He posted it on the Google+ community Corporate Rebels United and kindly agreed to let us repost it over here. You can always tell a good metaphor when others can mine it for additional insight, and that’s exactly what Curt did. And just a reminder–the metaphor is not mine but from yet another Rebel at Work.


Olympic/professional players have to expect to endure the box, and from experience, it sometimes feels more like a “hot box” in Cool Hand Luke. While you can also take advantage of the penalty time to add new tool sets for the next opportunity of engagement, I’d recommend using the “down time” to decipher what sent you to the penalty box in the first place, for each set of referees (status quo keepers) have different rule sensitivities and histories. Did you receive the penalty because a) you were executing your coach’s plan too aggressively and outpaced the system’s ability to cope; b) were you receiving too much limelight chafing authority in power, overly threatening sacred cows, or clumsily revealing ugly truths; c) were you excessively operating outside your assigned role on the team; and/or d) did you forget that this is a team sport in that change requires official and covert partners and buy-in?

Learn from my burnt fingers, for I have unwittingly ran afoul of all of these offenses. The risk of becoming an unrepentant or repeat offender is receiving the reputation as being a dumb oaf or even worse, “a bruiser” — One, who like a raging bull in a china shop, runs over others towards what they see as their own goals or even intentionally hurt others. If one receives a reputation like that, the organization’s referees will be hyper-vigilant over the most minor infraction in order to perpetually neutralize you. You may even become a disposable hatchet man for other leaders; be marginalized back to a junior league team in Siberia, where you will do no harm; or be slated for rejection from the team, when politically convenient.

Our goal is to return to the ice with a greater understanding of the environment and a refined set of change finesse tools. Finesse is that much more important in order to keep the organization moving forward, while leading change. Surgical finesse is especially vital, when the sensitivities of others and risks appear that much more dire. For instance, when we have been asked to change the corporate engines while flying full throttle and at altitude.

We must also remember that as much as we love the mission and the organization that we serve, that we operate in a system of official and unofficial rules, and that there are consequences/opportunities, when we work the edges of these rules. The one thing to always keep forefront is having a keen knowledge of what the rules are, the reasoning and equities behind the rules, and how one needs to behave in order to work the seams and processes to advance the organization in the right direction, while avoiding being called out for a penalty or doing harm. In honing such skills of finesse, we will hopefully increase success, engender trust, and open opportunities for advancement into positions of greater influence.

The Rebel Penalty Box

The other day I was having lunch with a friend, a rebel at work and she was telling me that she was finally out of the Rebel Penalty Box at the office. Immediately I knew what she meant.

“How did you get in the Rebel Penalty Box?”Alexander_Sazonov_2011-09-26_Amur—Heftekhimik_KHL-game

“Well, actually the year it happened I thought I was doing the best work in my career. I thought I was really getting things done that would make a difference, implementing change. But I guess my boss didn’t see it that way. And I received a lesser ranking in my performance review that year.”

“Whoa!! What did you do then?” I asked.

“I decided to just go low profile. Just do exactly what was expected of me. And wouldn’t you know it, that worked I guess. This year, my performance rating was raised to its previous level. So I guess that means I’m out of the penalty box.”

That story was so familiar to me and I bet to most of the rebels reading this post. At some point in your work life you will get a minor penalty or a 5 minute major, and you will need to find a way to get through it without losing your sanity or your rebel core–they’re kind of one and the same thing, right? In my friend’s case, it came as a complete surprise–she thought she was excelling at doing the right thing and was jazzed up about her performance. Only to find that, in her case, a change in upper management meant a new definition of success. My time in the penalty box was longer, I think. Most of a decade. A five-minute major. And I kind of knew it was coming. I wasn’t doing the best work of my career. I had let myself become cynical and negative and eventually people just became quite tired of me. I deserved that time in the rebel penalty box.

So, if you find yourself in the penalty box, how should rebels think about it? What can help them get through the period?

Try not to dwell on the fact that it’s unfair. Of course it’s unfair… in a way. But you’re probably in the penalty box because you broke a rule of the organization–either explicit or implicit. In my friend’s case she did not factor in the likely behavior of a new boss. They almost always reconsider the priorities of the previous regime–it might as well be a rule. We’re not saying don’t ever break the rules, although we do think changing rules is a much better strategy for the long term. But just keep in mind that if you’re out doing something new, the chances rise that you’ll be called for a penalty. It’s the risk you run.

Take your helmet off and cool down. In ice hockey, players are advised to remove their helmets so they can release more heat and cool off from the exertion of the game. Not a bad idea for us rebels. The relative peace and quiet of the penalty box can be a great opportunity to think things through, replay the moves you made, and think about how your future strategy. In my friend’s case, she minded her p’s and q’s to regain her footing with the new boss. We know some rebels might find that distasteful, but remember that in ice hockey, fighting when you’re in the penalty box will probably get you ejected from the game.

Be thankful you weren’t ejected. Unless of course that’s your goal. Maybe you’re so tired of trying to make people listen to your ideas that you’ve decided to leave. Getting thrown out is your grand fireworks finale. But just be careful how that plays out. Your firing might be the example that sets back change efforts in the organization for years to come.

Look for an opportunity to score when you leave the box. There’s no more exciting play in ice hockey then when an aware teammate passes the puck to the player leaving the penalty box. It usually creates a scoring opportunity. Perhaps you can look for a new position where there’s more tolerance for new ideas. Or maybe new leadership arrives that’s more amenable to change. Having been in the penalty box, the rebel is more likely to observe larger patterns at work that he can begin to take advantage of.

This blog, of course, was also inspired by the Olympics and the exciting men’s hockey game between Russia and the USA this weekend.


Innovation is Common Sense

I’m in Bilbao, Spain right now (a very pretty city home to some very innovative Basques) getting ready to speak at the third annual Global Innovation Day hosted by Innobasque–the Basque Innovation Agency. It’s just a wee bit daunting getting ready to give a talk in Spanish, even though it’s my first language I have almost no education in it. But my spirits were hugely lifted yesterday when I received the following message from a fellow Eastwood Trooper (my old high school).

Your “rebels at work” writing has really changed my life and my business. It has made me, instead of firing a rebel for insubordination, allow him to move forward with his “crazy newfangled ideas”. It’s changing my company drastically for the better. I am backing off and working less and letting the rebel lead. Without having read your articles and knowing enough to trust you, this would not have happened. I’ll keep you posted on our success. So far, so good! Thank you for opening my old eyes and mind to an ever changing business world. Common sense and innovation. I get it now!

Thanks so much for that message, that vote of confidence, and the affirmation that sharing what you know and have learned can actually make a difference for others.It’s very exciting to hear that the ideas behind Rebels at Work can help small business as well. Some of the most interesting innovations I’ve seen personally in the last couple of years is occurring in family-owned businesses eager to show that they too can prosper on the leading edge.

Rebels at Work is first and foremost intended to be a community where we can all learn from each other. I’m looking forward to learning from the audience later on today in Bilbao. Maybe, with any luck, we’ll receive our first Spannish Rebel stories from members of the audience. Adelante!!

Messengers at work

A lot of people don’t like the word rebel, which I latched onto because it gets people to pay attention and it conveys people with the courage, conviction and commitment to stand up for change.

“Messenger is a much better word,” my friend Maria has been telling me for several months. “It’s positive. Rebels are angry fighters.”

Last week Maria and I got together for our annual two-day marathon where we help one another set our goals and intentions for the year.

As I launched into talking about how to help the Rebels at Work tribe, Maria listened intently and then said, “ Remember the idea of messenger instead of rebel? Well I looked up the Greek meaning of messenger. Messenger means angel. And angels’ first words are, “Be not afraid.”

 Be not afraid.


Perhaps one of the greatest responsibilities we have in bringing new ideas to our organizations is helping our colleagues and bosses not to be afraid.

  • To show the path to a new and better way with kindness and purposefulness.
  • To help people understand the difference between risk and uncertainty.
  •  To balance experimenting and acting recklessly.
  • To acknowledge grief being about letting go what we once excelled at, and which is no longer relevant.
  • To recognize fear and lead fearlessly despite uncertainty.

As messengers of change our responsibility, like angels, is guiding influence.

And making it safe for people to step into new ways.


Angels purpose jpeg

Rebels Everywhere!!

Often something happens or I have an encounter and I think I should blog about this, but then it strikes me as too thin for an entire blog post. And so these ideas bounce off my head, like poorly struck soccer balls, never to be seen or heard from again. Not this time!!

Rebel Miscellany:

1. The Diagnostic Power of Laughter. Almost two months ago now I attended a great workshop on creativity from Brice Challamel and his company Act One. His content contains many useful hints for Rebels at Work, but my favorite and one I have turned to again and again in the weeks since is the importance of paying attention to when people in a meeting laugh at an idea. Laughter occurs when your brain hears something that disrupts its normal way of thinking, what it has anticipated would happen. Thus, the eruption of laughter tells Rebels at Work that the audience views their idea as disruptive and unusual. If you can, call out the significance of that laughter right away. Point out that the laughter means that the audience finds the idea particularly unusual, indeed…rebellious. Ask people if they can explain why. Even if you don’t feel comfortable doing that type of instant analysis of a room’s reaction, take account of it as you move forward. The idea they laughed at has tremendous power and potential. And if there is no nervous laughter in your meeting, well then maybe you aren’t being rebellious enough.

2. Uncertainty and Risk: Not the Same Thing. This insight comes courtesy of Richard Boly, who just left government after setting up eDiplomacy at the State Department. We were catching up just before Thanksgiving and Richard reminded me that often times people oppose a new way of doing things just because it is uncertain. But they don’t usually describe their concerns as being about uncertainty. They will say instead: “Your idea is too risky.” It might be useful for Rebels at Work at that point to gently remind their interlocutor that uncertainty and risk are not the same thing. Exploring a new idea is one of the ways in which you determine whether there is indeed any risk involved. Not being willing to pursue a new idea just because it is uncertain is just about the dumbest thing really–OK…don’t say that! If something is not uncertain, then it ain’t new.

3. The Bitcoin Rebels. Yesterday I spoke at the Future of Money and Technology Conference in San Francisco, which was dominated by discussions about the virtual currency Bitcoin. This is not the place to talk about the very complex new phenomenon of virtual currencies except to say that I left the conference much more intrigued about its world-changing possibilities. But I was struck at the rebel energy in the room…and the visions. Listening to the heads of startups talk about how they could change the course of humanity with their ideas must have been what it was like listening to individuals in the early 1990s chat talk about what the Internet could become. If only we could bring such energy inside existing organizations. If only…

4. The Hacker Ethic. Finally, and also brought home by the Bitcoin discussions, I was struck by the similarity between Rebels at Work and the Hacker mentality. Both want to explore the art of the possible and do it because of their passion for the work, the mission, and for just trying to figure out how great things could become if we just pretended there were no boundaries and precedents. Just like Rebels at Work, you can have Good Hackers or Bad Hackers. And just like Rebels at Work, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.


Your faithful correspondent,


Happy planning season!

FocusIt’s that time of year — business planning, which means this is a great time to show how your idea supports whatever your organization’s 2014 mantra may be.

I’ve been fortunate over the past few months to facilitate strategic planning sessions in several very different industry sectors. Yet all shared a common theme:

How can we better focus, collaborate and simplify work?

If you were trying to get a new idea approved  in one of these companies or universities, a useful strategy would show how your idea simplifies work, develops greater collaboration, and focuses on the organization’s most important goal.

What topics are creeping into conversations where you work?  Can you link your  idea to one of those topics? Show how your idea is a way to achieve what executives are yearning for?

Ideas that support what an organization most wants to achieve are ideas that gain traction.

“Tis the season to get your idea positioned and approved.



How Obamacare Fell into the Athena Trap

We here at Rebels at Work have never been afraid of courting conspiracy. Heck, as a Rebel at Work, you pretty much decide to marry controversy. That’s why we are writing today about the Affordable Care Act. Yup, we want to discuss Obamacare.

As change efforts go, the Affordable Care Act, is of Olympian proportions. And so are its problems–most of them centered around the non-usability of its website. Even the supporters of  the ACA concede that multiple things went horribly wrong.

But we think that trying to find exactly what went wrong–or what two or three things went wrong–misses the point. The Affordable Care Act, like so many change efforts, was destined to start off very badly, because of the single most powerful dynamic that affects change initiatives–the Athena Trap.

We’ve written often about the Athena Trap or Syndrome. Athena, you may recall, is the Greek goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, just war, mathematics–lots of really good, powerful stuff.  Most of our readers probably already suspect that being a Rebel at Work has a lot of similarities with Greek tragedy–although the reason why Lois and I maintain this blog is to make that less so. But we think Athena, in an indirect way, offers the most important lesson for rebels and individuals seeking to make humongous change.

According to her legend, Athena arose fully formed from the forehead of Zeus. Fully armored, fully functioning, and just about perfect. And that’s where the trap part comes in. The status quo almost always reacts to a change idea by demanding that its architect, the mastermind of the new idea, know exactly how it will work from Day One.  Like a good architect, the change agent, the rebel at work is supposed to know where every nail will fit. More often than not, the advocates of change accept that challenge, and to be fair they usually have little choice. Unless they exude oodles of confidence that they know exactly what they are doing, they are unlikely to get beyond the visioning stage. The new program is launched with great hoopla and, with almost tedious predictability, fails to meet expectations. appears to have followed this plot almost to the paragraph.

The opponents of change of course are delighted when the Athena trap is sprung. They rarely ponder the origin legends of their own status quo, which of course did not arise fully formed from the foreheads of congressional committees. Or even from the foreheads of our founding fathers. As we wrote almost two years ago, the status quo also started off as “half-baked ideas and almost always took turns and detours unanticipated by their originators and early supporters.”

“And, this is the important point, we shouldn’t want it any other way. For only through a process that allows a “thing” to react to the environment around it, change and adapt, can we hope to produce organizations, processes, customs, and institutions that actually work, that deliver most of their promise, that are organically one with their environments.”

I have no hope that government will be able to avoid the Athena trap at any point in my lifetime. Our ideology-based political process doesn’t seem to want to deal with the reality of uncertainty. (Although it should be obvious to all of us that writing a piece of legislation is probably a crazy way to try to do something new and complex.) But rebels should take heed. Don’t pretend you know what you’re doing when you really don’t.

But the people in the best position to avoid the Athena Trap are in fact the managers of organizations who approve change initiatives. As we said last year:

Don’t be the senior executive whose expectations for neat and orderly change are so…well..delusionary that you force your enthusiastic future-thinkers to become hypocrites and to package their proposals in Power-pointless slide decks. Because if you demand certainty, you not only will buy into intellectual fraud, you will also eventually tear the heart out of your change champions.

The appeal of subtraction

Erasing a path

You may have heard the self-help gurus talk about how paralyzed people have become by all their stuff, jammed into their houses, garages, storage units.  It’s overrunning people’s lives and making them miserable.

The same thing is happening at work. We have so many programs, processes, special initiatives, goals, strategic mandates, task forces, and focus areas that people are overwhelmed.

I recently met with a company task force that was trying to figure out a way to communicate  the brand messages, corporate vision, company purpose, employee values, and four new “pathway to success” programs, all with their own titles and acronyms.

“What should we do,” they asked.

“Subtract,” I said.

No one cares about all your messages and programs.  It’s too much.  What are the one or two, maybe three things, that will guide and possibly inspire your tens of thousands of employees in their work?  What matters for what you’re trying to achieve?

The kill your babies message is never popular, but to move forward we have to look at what we can let go — and do far less of.

This is especially important when rebels are trying to introduce big new ideas.  Leaders are reluctant to keep adding without some subtracting.  There’s not enough budget and the “add add add” mentality creates bloated bureaucracy that slows everyone and everything down.

A new library director at a major United States university presented an inspiring vision for what the library could become.  The vision, the value, the thinking were superb. The funding needed to realize the vision was $12 million.  The provost said, “No.”

The library director went back and found a way to cut $7 million from the existing budget. When she went back to the provost he said, “Here’s the other $5 million you need.”

If your big change idea is stuck in budget approval limbo, ask yourself,

“What can we subtract to get the support to do what’s most important?”

The Courageous (im)Patience of Rebels

Recently in the vast Twitter river, but so quickly that I do not remember details, I ran across a phrase attributed to Admiral Hyman Rickover:

“Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous patience.”

COURAGEOUS PATIENCE. What a great phrase I thought and how it captures an essential virtue of rebels. COURAGEOUS PATIENCE.

Lois and I have written frequently about optimum rebel tactics. We have learned from many of our rebel profiles that perseverance and persistence are key rebel traits. Great rebels never surrender their visions to the bureaucratic swarm. We may suffer setbacks but we bide our time waiting for our opportunities, preparing for them.

Not all rebels, of course, believe in biding their time. Many launch themselves into frontal assaults against the bureaucratic landscape, usually without fully understanding the pitfalls that lie ahead. They stumble; some fall. Many observers think these individuals are the courageous ones, brave enough to take the establishment head on. And in many respects they are.

So who was Admiral Hyman Rickover? I imagine most of you under 50 have no idea who he was. The one sentence biography is that Rickover was the father of the nuclear navy. Soon after the development of nuclear power, Rickover came to understand what it could mean for the Navy, but most Navy thinkers did not agree with him. As the Wikipedia article notes:

Rickover’s vision was not initially shared by his immediate superiors: he was recalled from Oak Ridge, and assigned “advisory duties” with an office in an abandoned ladies room in the Navy Building. He subsequently went around several layers of superior officers, and in 1947 went directly to the Chief of Naval Operations, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, by chance also a former submariner. Nimitz immediately understood the potential of nuclear propulsion and recommended the project to the Secretary of the Navy, John L. Sullivan, whose endorsement to build the world’s first nuclear-powered vessel, USS Nautilus (SSN-571), later caused Rickover to state that Sullivan was “the true father of the Nuclear Navy.”

And now for the really odd part.

What I also learned from researching the Rickover story is that the quote attributed to him, COURAGEOUS PATIENCE, is  a misquote. He actually said exactly the opposite.

“Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience.”

Check it out for yourselves. Internet Quote sites have the Rickover line one way, the way I prefer it honestly and think is most provocative, but if you visit the US Navy’s virtual museum, you learn presumably Rickover’s correct insight.

So which is it then? Do good ideas need courageous patience or impatience?

I suspect the reason the quote is so corrupted is that both statements are true. The passion of rebels drives many to want to act immediately; they are impatient for others to see what they see. Others choose to wait, looking for their best opportunity to advance. They evince patience and the courage of self-control.

Quote confusion aside, Admiral Rickover’s life story captures the complexity of most rebel stories. has an excellent summary of his leadership principles in his own words. I particularly like this paragraph below, which describes quite accurately how the worldwide conspiracy for the preservation of mediocrity actually works.

A major flaw in our system of government, and even in industry, is the latitude allowed to do less than is necessary. Too often officials are willing to accept and adapt to situations they know to be wrong. The tendency is to downplay problems instead of actively trying to correct them. Recognizing this, many subordinates give up, contain their views within themselves, and wait for others to take action. When this happens, the manager is deprived of the experience and ideas of subordinates who generally are more knowledgeable than he in their particular areas.




Top Five Plays of Intrapreneurs in Government

For those of you who participated in our 24-hour Rebel Jam in May, you may remember hearing a presentation from two Deloitte consultants who were just completing a research project on being successful intrapreneurs in the public sector. As you know we rebels go by many names–mavericks, heretics, troublemakers–but one of our favorite labels, if you insist on putting one on us, is intrapreneur. The two authors, Liz Arnold and Shani Magia, have summarized their paper’s findings for us to post on Rebels At Work. Lois and I think it will resonate not just with you who work in government but with all Rebels out there.

Please feel free to contribute your ideas in the comment section.

Intrapreneurs in Government

Government intrapreneurs can be visionaries, armed with strong communication skills, the ability to persevere in the face of uncertainty and opposition, and a deep passion for public service. But even this array of talents often isn’t enough.

Earlier this year, we interviewed individuals who have successfully achieved meaningful change in government. We talked with more than 20 civil servants across the federal government, from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Department of Labor, and collected some of the best “plays” intrapreneurs have used to overcome barriers. Although their strategies are wide-ranging, these intrapreneurs all share a common quality — they are tough and scrappy, reflecting their need to make the best of suboptimal or difficult circumstances. 

  • Find an advocate: Many intrapreneurs face a predicament when they try to make change happen in government: they may find that their initiatives violate existing agency rules and/or they could risk their careers by being change advocates. To help them handle these risks, they can find managers or sponsors in the organization to help navigate organizational processes and procedures to achieve change.
  • Connect seemingly unrelated dots: Potentially big impacts don’t always require the invention of something new. Intrapreneurs often bring ideas from outside their organization to address an unmet need.
  • Identify Allies: Building a team can be a way for intrapreneurs to gain support for important initiatives. Team members can help generate and validate ideas, and provide and collect feedback. Extra hands help anchor the effort and foster a culture of bottom-up commitment to change.
  • Look for detours: Intrapreneurs don’t let rules get in their way of creating positive change. Intrapreneurs can leverage their networks, build new connections and become salespeople for their ideas to find the detours that make progress possible.
  • Adopt a “beta” mindset: When introducing a new idea or approach, there can be a tendency to have a “ribbon cutting” to celebrate its success. Intrapreneurs can use pilots to test new ideas, and get stakeholders to buy into new ways of doing work.

What are your best plays?

Different approaches may work better at one organization than another. It’s up to the intrapreneur to decide how best to push an idea through. The passion intrapreneurs have to improve the way their organizations work is what drives their creativity — their toughness, their willingness to fight for an idea – their scrappiness. It’s what makes them successful.


What strategies do you use to create positive change in your organization?


To learn more about our research about Intrapreneurship in Government, please read our study “Intrapreneurship in Government: Making it Work” on Deloitte University Press.


Jerry Maguire, Rebel at Work

Here’s the famous scene from the 1996 movie Jerry Maguire where Jerry writes a new mission statement for his sports agency “The Things We Think and Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business.”

For so many clients we had forgotten what is most important to them…I had lost the ability to bullshit. It was the me I’ve always wanted to be.

After distributing his mission statement to everyone in the company, Jerry walks into a company meeting to wild applause from his colleagues. They love that he spoke the truth about what they know is wrong with the business and how it could be better.

But Jerry still gets fired.

Lesson: courage and great ideas aren’t enough for a Rebel at Work to get change adopted. It’s only the start.

A Rebel at Work changes and empowers women at Sanofi Pasteur

Avoid distractions from Benevolent Bureaucrats

Climbing wallWe’ve written much about Bureaucratic Black Belts, those defenders of the status quo who try to stop rebels from achieving change.  But there’s another type of person at work who can slow you and your project down too, The Benevolent Bureaucrat.

These kinder, gentler bureaucrats tend to be people who see that your change idea is becoming a Big Deal with senior leadership and want to be associated with the Big Deal in some way. Yet they don’t know enough about your initiative to provide substantive value so they pick on small things.

For example, HR may step in and say that to succeed you should use their new interactive training methodology and world class learning platform. Or the former journalist in the marketing department may nit pick language describing the initiative. “Is this really the right word to describe what you’re trying to achieve?” Or the IT people want more meetings to discuss how to establish baseline Intranet analytics so that the program measurement will be as accurate as possible.

Before long a rebel is stuck in bureaucratic meetings that can slow the project progress WAY down.

What to do?

Ask people for to give you their recommendations in writing by a certain date, the sooner the better so that you can stay on track and focus on the most important next steps for  advancing your initiative. Often they’ll miss the deadline.

Thank them for their ideas and tell them you’ll circle back to them when you think the timing is right to focus on training or wordsmithing or analytics.

By all means keep going. Don’t let the Benevolent Bureaucrats’ desire to be somehow involved slow you down.

Your success is about achieving results important to your organization  Going to unnecessary meetings with nice people whose ideas aren’t especially relevant slows down the time to success and results.

So exactly how LONG should you wait for Change?

The other day I was in a conversation with a long-time rebel (first-time caller) who has been tirelessly constructing a radical new work practice for an organization. For years. Except that now he’s gotten kind of tired. Perhaps you might even say fed up. His ideas are not really moving beyond the prototype stage and it’s been…years.

“People keep telling me that ‘Change Takes Time’ but my question is: How much time is TOO LONG?”

As a card-carrying member of the “Change Takes Time Fraternity”, I realized I had never asked myself that question. Sure, real change takes time but when does that truth become just empty words for the Status Quo to hide behind?

My friend had worked some of this out for himself.

“Many organizations realized the need to move into a different model at around the same time. A decade ago. Most of them now are well underway into making the transition. Some have completed it. But we’re still futzing around.”

“That’s how I know our change is taking too long.”

Rebels need to have an idea (maybe even a timetable?) for how long it takes to complete certain types of change in comparable organizations. They need to use this information (cleverly) to establish expectations not just for themselves but also for the organization around them. Because in most change initiatives, the Status Quo remains in fact the most important player.

I can imagine it would be quite effective to let the bureaucratic black belts know what the typical transition time is for comparable change initiatives. Status Quo leaders may not always buy the idea for change but they are quite inclined to support the need to keep to a schedule. And talking explicitly about how long you expect something to take and “how long too long is” will also prevent the passive-aggressives in your organization from availing themselves of one of their favorite techniques–using the unmonitored passage of time to wait the rebels out.

Finally, having a clearer framework in your mind to help you determine when change is taking too long will help you avoid rebel burnout. Rebel self-care is essential and yet most rebels are horrible at it. We really do suffer from the sunk costs phenomenon, particularly because our sunk costs usually represent emotional and psychological investments.

Rebels sometimes also need to think about whether they are prepared to stay in their position long enough to see a particular change through. Are you strong enough to hack away at your organization’s undergrowth for let’s say five years to make something happen?  Be honest when you answer that question. Because change takes time.


Rebel Lessons from Wendy Davis

Wendy DavisTexas state senator Wendy Davis is a rebel at work. Changing the rules by playing by the rules.

Her 13-hour non-stop filibuster on Tuesday to stop a piece of legislation being passed is an example of how rebels create change.   Regardless of your views on the issue, Senator Davis’ strategy is an example of how to take on the Bureaucratic Black Belts at work, in government, in our education and health care institutions. (Hint: if an organization is referred to as an institution, rebels are especially needed and need to be especially canny.)

Tuesday’s example in Texas showed that:

  • You have to play within the system to change the system.
  • You need supporters. You can’t go it alone. Her supporters filled the legislative gallery, supporting her throughout those 13 hours of non-stop speaking on the issue.
  • You will feel discomfort, but discomfort means you’re being true to your convictions. Aside from the intellectual challenge, Senator Davis could not go to the bathroom or take a drink of water in 13 hours. She had to stay on her feet talking about that one issue without pause.
  • The stronger the force of the opposition, in this case conservative Republicans, the more vulnerable they are. The more force and the shorter the fuse of people trying to block you, the greater your opportunity. This signals they have likely run out of strategies and are starting to feel at a loss. This is the cue that it’s likely a good time for rebels to act.  (See Mistake #2 in Top 10 Mistakes Rebels Make.)
  • The drama of the act, in this case the filibuster, is not the end. It is just one action of many more that will be needed.  Sometimes rebels get caught up in the spectacle and drama and forget that the hard work is still to come, and it’s likely to be the small, tedious things that will push change over the finish line.

I’ve always had a hunch that Texan women are especially good rebels.  They can be sweet and mean, getting their opposition comfortable and then bringing out a formidable no-nonsense will to get things done. It’s only a hunch, but Wendy Davis  sure convinced me that I may be on to something.

Don’t go it alone

We can’t do it alone,

whether it’s changing things at work

or living through personal challenges.  

As Carmen and I have written here so often, don’t go it alone as a rebel at work. You need allies, to both accomplish change and stay positive.

While I know this to be true, I have been guilty in trying to go it alone.  I am the fire-starter, the organizer, the person who gets things done.  My  husband has a similar mindset. So when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease two years ago, we found one of the most renown Parkinson’s neurologists, got the medication,  read the books, and decided that we wouldn’t let Parkinson’s define our lives.

It was with great apprehension that we went to a five-day a “wellness retreat” with 57 other people with Parkinson’s and their care partners last week at Kripalu, the yoga and spiritual center in the hills of Western Massachusetts.  Since the program was sponsored by the National Parkinson’s Foundation, we thought that we would learn a great deal  from medical experts about research, symptoms, medications, resources, and what to be aware of as the condition progresses. And we did.

But what I really came away with is less anxiety and more confidence that I can do this, no matter how wonky the disease may affect my husband.  The wisdom, practical know-how, and generosity of those 57 people in the retreat was a stark reminder that it’s better not to try to take on difficult situations alone.  There’s always much to learn from people  who know more and have experienced worse. One self-less act really brought home this message.

Now to the one self-less act. Yoga Dance

Selfishly I wanted my husband to participate in a noontime event called Yoga Dance, open to everyone at Kripalu not just the PD folks. It’s like a wild-ass dance party with great music and free form dancing. Makes me feel like 19 again. I asked each man in our PD wellness workshop if he would go to yoga dance, explaining that if a bunch of guys went my husband would too.  They all agreed, including Ray who was having a particularly tough day with his PD.

Ray and his partner Richard went into the big dance room, music blaring, lots of athletic yoga people dancing like joyful fools.  Feeling very uncomfortable Ray told Richard he needed to leave, his body just couldn’t move to the music.  They left the room for a few minutes and came back, where Ray tried again.  He and Richard soon left a second time, and then they came back in for a third try.

Ray was upset that he couldn’t move. Richard was upset that Ray was upset. It was a horrible, unsettling incident that reminded them both of the realities of Parkinson’s.

While they struggled my husband and I danced like young lovers. Ray and Richard didn’t know, but it was our 30th wedding anniversary.

Genuine collaboration is what Ray did coming to that lunchtime yoga dance.  He came  from a deep well of thoughtfulness and wanting to help me.  Even though it was so, so hard for him.

As I reenter the “real” world, I keep with me a new question as a rebel at work:

What would Ray do?



Can women be rebels?

dragonfly camoflageAn incident last week jolted me awake about women in the workplace, and made me wonder about women as rebels.

I participated in two days of new employee orientation for a financial services client.  About 70 percent of the 40 people in the class were women, the rest men. As part of a group exercise the instructor asked for a representative from each table to stand up and share the group’s work.  A man spoke for every group but one, that being my table where I stood up.

I was shocked and saddened. Why are women letting men dominate, even in non-threatening situations like work orientation games?

When I was in my 20s we women boldly stood up and spoke up, knowing that our views were as valuable as the guys, oftentimes even more so.  We weren’t very good at slinging the bull shit like some of our fearless men friends. So our responses were often more considered and thoughtful.  My guy friends admitted this to me on many an occasion.

We women knew we had to speak up.  Trailblazers like Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzeg had worked hard and sacrificed much to help us move into the corporate world. We wanted to pay it forward by succeeding and helping other women in their journeys.  Having a say and being heard was essential.

When I was working at AT&T early in my career I was promoted into a job where I made $22,000, taking over for a man who hadn’t been performing so well at the job but had been making $48,000.  More than double what I was paid for the same responsibilities. I raised this disparity with HR, which told me that the man had more experience, and, confidentially,  “if you keep speaking up like this you could hurt your career.”  I loved telling that story, and I more loved seeing the pay gap between women and men shrink.

We’ve made such gains over the 30 years, but apparently not enough.

Aside from my fear that women will continue to not get promoted as quickly or make as much as men if they do not speak up and believe in themselves, I worry about businesses being able to adapt and grow.  Research shows that the more diverse the thinking  in an organization, the faster and better it can solve problems.  That’s why we need rebels. That’s why we need women, and women rebels.  Without diverse thinkers, organizational performance will suffer.

I was recently planning a conference with a wonderful, enlightened European man.  He recruited the first 12 speakers.  Eleven of the 12 were men.  When I pointed out this imbalance, he was taken aback. He hadn’t even noticed that he had invited almost all men.  I am pleased to tell you that this conference is now equally represented.

Today the Fast Company blog  had a story that caught my eye, “Eight Successful Entrepreneurs Give Their Younger Selves Lessons They Wish They’d Known Then.”  When I clicked on the story all the entrepreneurs were men. Really? The writer couldn’t find one successful female entrepreneur?

Let’s call the media on this imbalanced view of business.

Let’s also get back to more consciously supporting and encouraging women in the workforce.

I don’t know about you, but I thought we had come farther.  I thought my  diligence in helping and promoting women had worked and now I could move on to new issues.

Those women in the financial services company looking down when the instructor asked for volunteers will stay with me awhile.

Just as Sheryl Sandberg is doing with her,  we need to help women stand up and be heard for their considerable talents and perspectives.   If they don’t speak up confidently they will be overlooked  for promotions and for increased compensation.

Worse, we won’t be able to solve today’s issues without the equal voices of diverse thinkers. This Rebel at Work movement is really about empowering diverse thinking at work. Organizations desperately need people — women and men –who think differently from one another.  Diverse thinkers are the way to solve complex problems.


PS — this Hay Group study just came out yesterday.  Female and male executives should be concerned about the scoring on the last item.

Hay Group women leaders chart

Top Ten Mistakes of Rebels at Work and One More for Good Measure

Looking over our posts at Rebels at Work, we have captured many lessons from the community’s experience, written about many mistakes and offered suggestions for how to avoid or minimize them. But perhaps it would be a good thing to capture most of them in one place. What follows is a list of what we think are the most common rebel mistakes. In some ways the list is an unpacking of the Good Rebel/ Bad Rebel chart, although I think we all know from painful experiences that “good rebels” can make audaciously bad mistakes.

There’s one issue I haven’t included in this list that we have written about often elsewhere: dealing with conflict. We think avoiding conflict at all costs is a mistake; if your idea is meaningful and significant it will engender conflict. But the complexity of conflict can’t be captured by viewing it just through the lens of mistakes.

And now for our list, presented in an order of sorts.

Top Ten Rebel Mistakes

10. Assuming coworkers who are quiet, don’t express a view, or are dull are against you.

Most Rebels at Work have some unfortunate strain of DNA that forces them to speak up when they think something needs correcting. They then assume, I know I have, that those at work who aren’t as vocal don’t get it, don’t want to get it, or just want to get you! Don’t make this assumption and certainly don’t act on it. There are many good reasons why people stay quiet, having to do, for example, with temperament and personality. Some perhaps need to see more evidence before they can commit to a particular course of action. Others choose to defer to authority or existing practices, but, when a new course is set, get wholeheartedly behind it and offer sound improvements.

9. Breaking the rules because rules aren’t for you.

Sometimes rebels can get so disgusted with the bureaucratic nonsense in their organizations that they start ignoring certain rules that particularly offend them. Of course, there is no dearth of such rules to ignore; bureaucracies create rules the way urban freeways create traffic jams—and pretty much to the same effect. But deciding unilaterally that you are not going to follow certain procedures is a reliable way of getting identified as a troublemaker in your organization—and thus being denied the maneuvering room and credibility you need to make something really important happen. Rebels need to learn to carry their indignations lightly.

I always thought of myself not as a rule-breaker but as a rule-changer.

8. Being Against the status quo instead of For something.

A common rebel mistake particularly at the start. You can easily see the problems in the current situation without having any idea of what you would do differently. Many rebels never get beyond the “diagnosing the problem” stage. In fact they appear to fall in love with the problems, admiring their many intricacies, reveling in their history. This is always a fatal mistake. The news flash here is that most of the defenders of the current system are painfully aware of its problems. They are not blind to its faults. Far from it. They have made a career of getting the work done regardless of the brickbats the status quo throws at them. The rebels’ tattoo of criticism just seems silly to these scrappy realists who have learned to just get on with it.

By always talking about what’s wrong, you also paint yourself into the pessimist’s corner. People will dread hearing from you at meetings. You become Dr. Doom. Nobody follows a pessimistic rebel.

7. Talking AT people, frothing at the mouth.

A close cousin of Mistake #8, frothing at the mouth is what happens when you as a rebel become so impassioned (or captured) by your change agenda that it becomes your only topic for conversation. You become not unlike a narcissist, only instead of being absorbed with yourself, you are obsessed by your vision. There is no conversational dynamic you cannot turn into an occasion to lobby for change.

A variation of this condition is when the rebel becomes a policy wonk. So even if you focus your attention on solutions rather than on making love to the problem, you can still be off-putting if your dialogue sounds like someone reading an operations manual out loud. Although at some point you will need to lay out how your alternative vision works, it is more important to spend time addressing the values and aspirational nature of your proposals. Linking your aspirations to the values already dear to your colleagues is a good first step.

6. Going All In the first time your organization pursues a strategic change effort.

This is a classic rebel error born out of enthusiasm and misplaced optimism. We all know this scenario.  After years of ignoring calls for change, the organization one day announces a strategic refresh. Perhaps they even appoint some known rebels to the working group that will devise the recommendations for the corporate board. A dangerous moment indeed. Although obviously some organizations will be sincere in gathering the input of rebels, others will either be going through the motions to deflect mounting criticism or—more likely—balk once proposals involving real change are tabled. Proceed cautiously. Don’t assume this is the moment to tell everyone exactly what you think. This is a situation where your befriending of bureaucratic black belts can really come in handy. Before you go all in, gather some good intelligence about how far the organization is really prepared to go.

5. Getting caught in the resource trap.

In those cases when the strategic change effort does amount to something legitimate, then another trap emerges.  Rebels can end up with programmatic responsibility for a change initiative. In these situations I have seen rebels get drunk with bureaucratic power. (A particularly bad drunk.)  Usually in an attempt to test the organization’s commitment to the new agenda, rebels demand that their initiatives be fully funded, even though the organization has already had to do some uncomfortable shifting of resources to free up the monies for the new initiative. In our experience, organizations that have decided to proceed with an important change effort are in a delicate mood; doubters probably still sit on the corporate board just waiting for an excuse to shut this silliness down.  Our advice: be a good corporate citizen. Only take on the resources you absolutely need to prove your concept. Think lean and mean.

4. Losing their Sense of Humor

Watching baby videos can help.


3. Flirting with the Dark Side

Things get dark for rebels when their only goal is to advance their own agenda.  Of course, your ideas are important, but more important than any single idea is the creation of an ecosystem in your organization that is permanently hospitable to honest reflection and change. Perhaps the greatest calling for Rebels at Work is to help organizations evolve from what they are now—protectors of accepted orthodoxy—to what they can become—discoverers and promoters of new ideas.

Rebels can also come to believe they own the change agenda in their organization. Their experiences and the way they like to do things become the new orthodoxy.

Avoid these behaviors at all costs.

2. Putting things in the wrong order.

Ironically, successful Rebels at Work must be able to mimic good bureaucrat behavior. Specifically, they have to approach their change agenda in a disciplined fashion and make careful and thoughtful decisions about how they will sequence their activities. What do they need to do first; what can come next; what can only be attempted after they have reached a critical mass of supporters.

A common rebel sequencing error, one in fact which I’ve been guilty of more than once, is advertising your reform intentions before you have assessed the organizational landscape in which you are operating. In the government making your goals public before you have a firm action plan only gives fair warning to all those who will oppose you.  They will sharpen their passive-aggressive claws to stop you before you even get started. There’s much for a rebel to do before they give fancy speeches or—God forbid—put together their Powerpoint deck.

And the last and arguably worst Rebel mistake is

1. Wasting your opportunites.

At some point we hope all rebels get several chances to speak to an important audience about their core beliefs. Or perhaps write an important memorandum that will be read by people with influence. When that opportunity comes, don’t fritter it away with an ill-prepared brief, particularly one that just feeds into the preconceived notions many in the organization have about Rebels at Work.

Be organized and substantive. Each organization has a different template for briefings that are to be taken seriously. A Rebel at Work is unlikely to be 100% compliant but don’t go so far off the norm that people aren’t comfortable listening to you and get lost. You don’t want your medium and media to obscure your message. I always want to inject some emotional value into my briefings and talks—often through compelling images, buts at some point I return to what the organization considers “serious.” It’s just a question of respect. Each of us can find a way to communicate our ideas that preserves our integrity.  We just have to think about it and prepare.

Do your homework. I cringe when I think of briefings I’ve attended where the proponents of new methods just didn’t have their facts straight, got critical details wrong, or can’t answer the most fundamental question about what they’re advocating. Aaaargh! How do you expect me to care about your ideas if you don’t care enough to get the facts straight? Consult with everyone you can so that you anticipate likely questions.

Don’t try to fool your audience. Another cardinal sin. Oy! Have you been involved in preparing a briefing where you knew you didn’t have a good answer to a question, so you tried to orchestrate the briefing to avoid having that question come up at all? Is that ever a good idea? NOOO! I particularly enjoy asking the question the briefing team doesn’t want to have to field. I actually think you’re better off admitting up front the questions you still don’t have answers to. After all, change is a work in progress. (For more on this topic see avoiding the Athena trap.)

Tell stories. Have a narrative. Speak to people. See the discussion above about not being a policy wonk.

Take as much time as you need and not one second longer. My rule of thumb: the better you understand your idea, the more concisely you can explain it.


We promised one more mistake for good measure and it’s this:

The worst mistake a true Rebel at Work can make is never speaking up about what is important to them.


If you’re still reading at this point, thanks very much for your attention.

Obsession and Controversy: One is a Rebel’s Friend; the Other his Enemy

Can you guess which is which?

I was reflecting the other day about how, once we become seized with the need for an important change in our organizations, the issue can become all-encompassing. You can’t stop thinking it about. You become obsessed.

You start bringing up the topic in almost any conversation at work. Any meeting that doesn’t address it just seems like a colossal waste of time. I know when I was a rebel at my old agency I had a tendency to bring up my existential angst at what really where the most inappropriate moments. Perhaps we were having a modest conversation about reforming the performance appraisal system. It didn’t matter. I would find a way to inject some comment about the need for fundamental change.


You know, people can get pretty tired of that. They start avoiding you. Before you know it, you have a reputation for being cynical and negative. This is not a guess. It’s a fact. I lived it.

Here is my depiction of The Rebel Arc–the stages of being a rebel. (This is a Beta version, so all ideas, as always, welcomed.) The line between advocacy and obsession is admittedly a fine one, but only for the rebel herself.  Her audience immediately senses the difference between the two, and reacts accordingly.

So be sensitive to how often you talk about your big idea. Rebels will have more credibility if they are seen as still functioning members of the team, and not as one-trick ponies. Choose your opportunities to talk about your ideas judiciously.

Now to the topic of controversy. It’s not up on the chart because it’s a consequence of rebel actions–not a rebel stage itself. I’ve often spoken about how rebels need to understand that handling conflict well is a necessary skill they must develop. The precursor of conflict is, of course, controversy. As soon, if not before, you reach the top of the Rebel Arc, you will, if you have an idea that is truly challenging to the Ways Things Always Are Done, engender controversy.

Controversy is your friend! Honest! It means people have begun to pay attention.

But how rebels handle this controversy will be a key determinant of how their proposals and careers will fare. These moments of controversy offer rebels opportunities to gain new allies (and new opponents) and will help temper their ideas. Just like the status quo, your ideas are imperfect. Dismissing others’ suggestions is the first step toward obsession.

One last word on the Rebel Arc. OK, so it makes being a rebel look pretty miserable. I know, I rode it all the way down during the middle part of my career.

But there are several exit ramps available.  The ideal takeoff point is just at that moment when your proposals become controversial, i.e. you have captured the attention of your organization and people are energized negatively or positively. Like anything important in life, not every factor determining the outcome is under your direct or even indirect control. Rebels that have surveyed the bureaucratic landscape will be better equipped to take advantage of the controversy by, for example, having anticipated some of the issues and by lining up key supporters who can make the rebel’s argument on their behalf.  But rebels need to realize that if their ideas don’t begin to gain traction, the rebels will be viewed as obsessive. That’s not fatal, but negativity usually is.

Working in a bureaucracy trains us to give up on our ideas prematurely. But the danger for rebels is the opposite: hanging on to your ideas long after they no longer have a future, at least for now, in your organization. There is nothing as weak as an idea whose time has not yet come.


Get things under control

“The Cardinals are tired of reading about financial corruption, sexual improprieties and infighting at the Vatican. They want a Pope who can get things under control,” explained Father Thomas Reese to Tom Ashbrook on his NPR “On Point” radio show today.

When there are calls to “get things under control”  there is no hope for control.

Whether it’s trying to control clergy in the Catholic Church, parents angry over school policies, or customers  tweeting unfavorable product reviews, there is no control.

When I hear “get things under control” I know it’s a situation that can only be addressed by getting at root cause issues.  It’s not a “handling” or crisis communications issue, it’s a systemic issue requiring that the real problems be addressed.

No new Pope can get the Catholic Church “under control” without addressing some deep seated issues.

No business leader can get customers under control if customers  hate the products or customer service.

No school official can get parents under control if they feel their children are not being served.

No politician can get voters under control if they believe the politician is more interested in getting elected than representing their views.

No good can come from trying to control.

The performance review

This is a personal story from my journey being a rebel at work.  

I had two bosses at the agency, and both tried to keep me in the box of being what they viewed as “business like and professional.”  They wanted me to be able to follow in their footsteps, making it from account executive to account supervisor to vice president.

Both were planners, conservative, careful and deliberate. They rehearsed client meetings and presentations for longer than any of the meetings or presentations ever lasted.  They liked to be sure about things. As was their boss.

All were really nice people. Committed to helping young professionals  learn the skills to get promoted to the next level. Caring and considerate when people had family problems or health issues. Always good to their word. If they made a promise, you knew they would keep that promise.

They were in the office early, worked late, and diligent about making the monthly and quarterly earnings forecasts.

During the eight years I worked for them, I, too, learned how to make the numbers and become more business like, for which I will always be grateful.  For five years I commuted two nights a week from Rhode Island to Cambridge to take graduate business classes at Harvard’s Extension School. Financial accounting. Market research.  Computer science. Organizational management. Though a few years earlier I had decided not to get an MBA after being accepted to the University of Virginia because I feared it might be a slog, I was now slogging to do what I was told was necessary to become a respected business person.

I learned to read financial statements and write annual reports. My team’s utilitization rates were some of  the highest in the agency. My monthly client reports were chock full of results and proactive activity.

I was promoted to senior account executive, account supervisor, senior account supervisor, and then the coveted vice president title. All before I was 30, which my bosses said was quite an achievement.

And I was miserable. I was suffocating in the box that they told me was necessary to be successful.

Rebelling for creative freedom

The new VP title emboldened me to start leaving the conservative cocoon.

My first act was telling the bosses that I could not, would not be able to rehearse client presentations and meetings.  I was fine with being clear about what we wanted to convey to the client, what the agenda should be, and what we wanted the outcome of the meeting or presentation to be.  But I couldn’t stand up in our conference room and word for word practice the words that I would then repeat word for word in the client’s conference room a couple of days later.

I then told them that they needn’t come to my client meetings. My team and I had things covered. In fact, I loved my team and my clients, and the feeling was mutual. Without my bosses the conversations were free flowing, veering all over the place from talking  wild–ass ideas we might try to what Plan B we should have in our pocket if our big ideas fizzled to what we were all doing on the weekend.

I sort of, kind of followed an agenda in those client meetings.  A good client meeting outcome to me was not whether we got through the agenda, but whether we all felt energized by whatever we were trying to do, and whether we had a game plan for getting done what we REALLY thought would make a difference.

Without my serious bosses, there was much more laughter in meetings. The ideas got wackier, veering off from the typical definitions of what public relations was suppose to be.  I started forging partnerships with advertising agencies, speaking at conferences, and selling more and more business on my own.

My bosses and their boss hired a famous new business development expert to come to the agency and teach us how to sell more strategically and create presentations that sold vs. told.  This expert had been a former Shakespearean actor, who exuded passion, charm, and curiosity. His laughter was infections.  I loved that class. I applauded my conservative boss team for bringing in such a character.  At the end of the week-long training, Toni asked me if I might be willing to work with him and his team to better market his business.

What a blast.  Who knew work could be so much fun.

The unsigned performance review

My annual performance review was scheduled for a Friday, with just one of the bosses, as two seemed overkill.  “How about we go out to that new place on Dorrance Street for lunch and do the review there,” one of the bosses asked.

“Sure, great,” I said, believing that I was now free of the performance review anxiety of my youth, where I was told to improve on so many things.  Now I was running more than half of the agency’s business, and had sold in three of the four major new accounts that year.  This was going to be more about reviewing the new restaurant’s food than me.

So I guess by now you’ve got a good inkling of what happened.

My boss acknowledged “my contributions” and then got serious.

“We think that you’re too passionate in client meetings. You get too excited and it’s distracting for clients,” he said.

“What are you talking about?” I said in complete and utter disbelief. (I was not as self-aware then as I am now.)

“Well, at the Acme Company meeting you started talking about ideas that were unrelated to the topic and the clients were confused, having a hard time following your logic.”

“But in the end we came up with a couple of great new ideas,” I said defending myself.  “Of course the conversation went off the agenda and rambled a bit. When they gave us their business update it was clear that there were new ways to help them. I was excited about the possibilities.”

“Yes, but that’s not the way a vice president should conduct herself.”

“Okay, let’s move on,” I said.  “I don’t agree with you on this, but it’s my opinion vs. yours.  We’re not going to agree.”

“Well,” he said. “We think you need to improve your presentation skills.”

“Wait,” I said cutting him off.  “You do know what happened last week during the presentation training?  I have tons to learn, I’m sure, but even the big time expert thought that I’m pretty good in the presentation department.”

I don’t remember what my boss said next. My brain had shut down. Furious.  He was devaluating my passion and energy and those things where I performed well, the very things that helped me win new business and have such great client relationships.  If he had talked about improving process management skills or even proofreading, I would have been receptive.

What I do remember about what happened next is that he slid the performance review with both boss’s critique across the table and asked me to sign it, part of the company’s performance review process.

“I’m not signing that,” I said without having to think.  “I don’t agree with it. I don’t accept it. I think it’s wrong.”

He pushed his glasses up his nose, the anxiety of dealing with me causing him to sweat. This was not how these things were supposed to go.  Lois had always been agreeable and pleasant.  The train had gone off the rails, this wasn’t what he and the other boss had rehearsed.

Within two months I took a new position with another agency. Many of my clients followed. The old agency tried to sue me, but eventually backed down. Clients could work with whomever they wanted.

I had found my real self, my creative self.  I was never going to rehearse success again, I told myself.

Of course, as happens with rebels, I would eventually slip back into work situations that felt  somewhat stifling or slow to change.  But I would never again let my passion be up for review.





The change process

50 reasons not to change

Love order, hate bureaucracy

One of the great misperceptions about rebels at work is that we are trying to change everything.

Not so. Most of us focus on the things that get in the way of  achieving things that matter, and suggest better ways. We are not anarchists or people who want to reinvent every wheel.  We’re much too practical to change what’s working well.

We do, however, put a lot of effort against eliminating bureaucratic rules and widely accepted business practices that slow down progress without adding any value.

Bureaucracy creeps in slowly. Consensus bloats processes.  The “need to know” inflates what needs to be included in standard reports. Legal and quality control “extra safeguards” minimize risk and maximize time to completion, often putting companies at competitive risk.  Insecure  or inexperienced people add more layers instead of revising what exists.  Some duplicitous types create bureaucracy to confuse and hide unscrupulous business practices.

After a while few people inside the organization can see what’s dragging things down or maybe can’t even understand what the regulation or rule means.  Or, they don’t know how to fix it.  That’s where the value of rebels comes in.  Unlike troublemakers who rail and rant about how screwed up things are, we are often bureaucratic fixers.

Create clarity from complexity. Love order, hate bureaucracy.

As a lifelong rebel, one of my personal mantras has been, “Create clarity from complexity.”  With clarity you can better see what matters, clear away the extraneous bureaucracy and useless processes, and get to valued outcomes faster.  When I look back over my career as a rebel at work this is the thing I do best: creating clarity.

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure to spend a couple of hours talking about rebels with Lars Bjork, the CEO of QlikTech. (FYI: Lars considers himself a rebel and is a CEO who values rebels.) His mantra: “Love order, hate bureaucracy.”

“Order is where you put a process into place because you want to scale the business to a different level,” he says.  “Bureaucracy is where nobody understands why you do it.”

Order is necessary for organizations and systems to function. But what we need is provisional order.  In other words, the order works for now but will be changed as circumstances evolve and change as they always do.

One role of rebels is of simplicity analyst, diagnosing how the order — rules, processes, regulations, systems, cultural norms — needs to change to serve the organization’s desired outcomes, and recommending new types of order that can help rather than hinder desired outcomes.

Who you gonna call?

This morning I was thinking of the “Ghostbusters” soundtrack and started to think of rebels and bureaucracy.

If there’s something strange
In your neighborhood company
Who you gonna call
(Ghostbusters)  Your rebels
If there’s something weird
And it don’t look good
Who you gonna call
(Ghostbusters)  Your rebels

I ain’t afraid of no ghost  bureaucracy
I ain’t afraid of no ghost bureaucracy



Innovation is NOT the Answer

So I’m hearing lots of people these days talk about the need for organizations to innovate. It’s on everyone’s lips. Innovation is the medicine for whatever ails you.

And Rebels at Work, of course, are all about Innovation. We often define ourselves in the context of what we want to change.

But as the term Innovation has become ever more popular, it has begun to sound funny to me, nonsensical. The way any word will lose meaning if you just say it over and over again.

And so these are my questions to those who speak of Innovation: Exactly what is Innovation? and, What are you trying to Innovate? Are all new things innovative? Do we have to innovate everything we do?

If you dismount from the Innovation Bandwagon, I think you’ll realize that Innovation in and of itself doesn’t solve anything. Coming up with a new idea may or may not solve a problem you have or advance your organization’s mission or make something better. The issue is not so much whether you are innovative as it is whether you are thoughtful about what you’re doing.

Innovation is not, let’s say, like process re-engineering or Lean Six Sigma. It’s not a series of steps that lead to a magical outcome. It’s not a board game.

Innovation is one possible outcome of being thoughtful about what you and your organization do.

Instead of talking about Innovation, let’s unpack the term and have different conversations around these questions, all of which ask us to think about what we do.

  • How do we know when it’s time to refresh our processes and doctrine?
  • Do we have a process to help us determine when we need to change something? Who’s involved in that process? Anyone?
  • What are the habits of my organization? I think perhaps one useful definition of Innovation is “the opposite of habit.”
  • How easy is it for individuals in my organization to experiment with something new? Is it much, much easier to just keep doing what we’ve always done? Do individuals in the organization have to be courageous super-hero’s to experiment? 



Optimism lifts

What advice do you wish someone had given you earlier in your career?

“Don’t climb, lift,” said veteran analyst John Bordeaux in his Rebel at Work story.

There’s much to take away from this advice. One question might be, “What allows us to lift?”

Optimism lifts. Skepticism requires climbing.

I remember my first week on a new job talking with a team of discouraged people, demoralized because their client was unhappy with their work.

“Let’s try to show the client how much we’re accomplishing. How about we change the monthly report formats and list everything that we’ve accomplished each month in bullet points, right at the top,” I suggested.

“Yeah, right,” said Cindy. “What happens if we don’t achieve those kinds of results?”

Though I had only been at the agency a couple of weeks I was optimistic that we’d be able to achieve more, especially if we changed a few approaches to the work.

“If we do these two things every month I really think we’ll be able to report some results that will make the client happy. Let’s just try it for a couple of months and see what happens.”

This optimism accomplished two things. The team didn’t resist my new ideas, although they were contrary to the way most teams did things at the company, and the team did in fact achieve results that surprised them and the client. Someone genuinely believing they could succeed lifted the team, and they achieved more than they thought possible.

Optimism has a powerful influence on people. It helps us to take a chance, do something new, invest in an alternative approach.

This is not about chirpy, fake platitudes and those motivational “Dare to do the Impossible” posters posted on bulletin boards near the lunchroom. I’m talking about adopting a mindset focused more on possibilities than problems.

In a world where the voices of the skeptics and naysayers seem to shout the loudest, we optimists quietly and persistently keep going. We do so because we believe that our idea is possible. We see the reasons why it can work and the value it will provide. We follow our passions, know and use our strengths, are open-minded and open-hearted, and we often reflect about what is working and where we can do things differently.

Sure we fall back and get frustrated, too. Big time. But it’s how you respond to setbacks that influences how likely you’ll be able to find the energy to get up and continue on.

How optimistic people achieve more:

  • Attract supporters. People prefer to be part of teams that believe what they’re doing is achievable. They also get energy from being around optimistic people, so they like to be on your team.
  • Get the ear of more people. Even if people don’t agree with our ideas, they are more willing to listen to us and have a conversation.
  • Self-motivate themselves. When you believe something is possible it motivates you to stay with the idea, keep gathering information, ask questions, get input, think how to improve on it. Doing this makes the idea even more likely to succeed.
  • Determination without stress: Persistence and determination are easier to sustain when you have an optimistic attitude. Make no mistake that being a rebel at work is stressful, but a positive perspective can make it less exhausting. Optimists ride the possibility wave to keep motivated. Pessimists tackle persistence and determination by pushing a rock up hill. People want to surf with you. Pushing heavy objects up steep hills, not so much.
  • Trigger contagiousness. Positive ideas get talked about. Ones that connect with rational and emotional desires hop on the word of mouth train. “Here’s a way we can do our work faster, easier, safer, with more fun, and with much fewer headaches.” Sign me up to help.
  • Look inviting. People who are negative show creases on their foreheads, furrows between their eyes, squint marks by the sides of their eyes, bags under their eyes from lack of sleep. I admit this is a superficial benefit of optimism, but looking healthy and restful also attracts more people to you than when you look haggard. Think about it. Who do you like to chat with around the proverbial water cooler? A positive, healthy looking person or someone who is stern, overly serious and coiled like they might strike if you say the wrong thing?

The science of positivity and optimism

The science backs up these views on optimism.

Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a scholar in social and positive psychology and author of Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3-to1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life, has found that positivity opens our minds and hearts, making us more receptive to ideas and making us more creative. Positive emotions helps us to discover new skills, new knowledge, and new ways of doing things – and to recover more quickly when things don’t go well.

She suggests that we try to achieve at least a 3:1 positivity ration.

“This means that for every heart-wrenching negative emotional experience you endure, you experience at least three heartfelt positive emotional experiences that uplift you,” Dr. Fredrickson explains. “This is the ratio that I’ve found to be the tipping point, predicting whether people languish or flourish.”

You can’t force optimism and positivity, using insincere, gratuitous gestures and words. That will backfire. You have to really feel it and mean it. No platitudes and smiley faces. People see right through that.

In fact, the subtle difference between positivity and optimism is action, according to Elaine Fox, a psychologist at the University of Essex in England and author of a book on the science of optimism, “Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain.”

“Optimism is not so much about feeling happy, nor necessarily a belief that everything will be fine, but about how we respond when times get tough,” she writes. “Optimists tend to keep going, even when it seems as if the whole world is against them.”

Optimism practices

  • Use new words. If something doesn’t pan out, refrain from calling it a “failure,” or worse, saying “I failed.” Sometimes things don’t work out. The idea may be too risky for the organization. You piloted a concept and the data indicated it wouldn’t achieve enough of the right results. The thinking was sound but the investment costs were far greater than the likely returns. You get the picture. If we use failure words, we label ourselves and our efforts in ways that diminish the likelihood of trying again, or of people supporting us again. We rebels are idea people. Some ideas will work brilliantly, others not so. We’re not failures. We’re thinkers and experimenters.
  • Hang out with optimistic people. Not the Pollyannas but realists who see what’s possible. Creators vs. complainers. Avoid the Debbie Downers and Negative Nicks wherever possible. Including in your personal life.
  • Picture it. Envision how people will feel and be better off if you’re successful. Keep this image clear. Present this image when taking about your project so people are reminded of the big picture benefit. Ask an artsy friend to make an image of it, for you to use when you have to make a presentation about the idea. Or find a metaphorical image that inspires you. (I like the rising moon image in this post.)
  • Try to work on things that interest you. This isn’t always possible but when we’re determined it’s interesting to see how we can shift assignments and responsibilities, especially when we can demonstrate why the work we WANT to work on is important to the organization.
  • Tune out. Though we rebels tend to have insatiable curiosities, there are some things we should stay away from. Like people who over use fear and anxiety to get attention and manipulate feelings. Hysteria clouds perspective and balanced thinking.
  • Do one scary thing a year. Something that interests you but you find intimidating, as in “I don’t think I could ever do that.” Or, “I’d be way out of my league if I took that course.” “What would I say if I agreed to give a speech like that in front of those people?” The thing about doing one scary thing a year is that it builds up your confidence. You will almost always find that you do better than you think you could, or you were welcomed warmly by people you don’t usually associate with. The benefit? Your optimism increases. You believe that more is possible.
  • Turn to learning: When you hit roadblocks and frustrations turn to learning and questioning. “What could I learn that would help me figure this out? What’s beneath what’s going on here?” Questions open you back up to possibilities and restore optimism. Don’t stay parked in dead ends.

Knowing when to quit

Two weeks ago I was leading an American Marketing Association workshop about how to gain approval and adoption of new ideas. We covered the first four items on the following list through a series exercises and then I asked everyone which of #5 – 10 they most wanted to spend time on.

1.   What’s at stake?

2.   Make the status quo unappealing

3.   Use the SCARF model

4.   Uncover the hidden motives

5.   It’s an experiment

6.   What’s the real issue?

7.   Move away from drama

8.   Befriend the Bureaucratic Black Belts

9.   Stay under the radar

10.   Know when to quit

People loved #10.  I have to confess I was surprised and perhaps not prepared enough.  How do you know when it’s time to let an idea go? Or  stop trying to get a project funded? Or get people interested in adopting a new way? Or even leave a job?

Here’s what I suggested:

  • Rate importance: Ask your boss or client how important a particular project is to them on a scale of 1 – 10.  If it’s below six, it’s just not that important.  At this point you’ll probably have a hard time getting it to 9 or 10.  If they say 7 or 8, ask them what it what would make it a 9 or 10.  Then listen very carefully.
  • Just ask:  “We’ve been talking about this idea for a while, but it doesn’t seem to be moving ahead. I think it helps us (insert important organizational goal). What do you think is holding it back? What advice can you give me?”
  • Is the energy waning?  Do fewer people show up for meetings about the idea?  Is the idea put early on the agenda (probably still interested) or last (if we don’t get to it, no big deal.)? Is it even on management meeting agendas?
  • Not performance objective worthy: If you set your annual performance objectives and your boss doesn’t view your big idea as an important for your objectives, he or she doesn’t think the idea is important.
  • How much are your colleagues willing to help? If your work friends just aren’t into helping you with the idea, it may signal that they don’t see the value of it. Another sign that it may be time to quit the idea.
  • Are you becoming not yourself? If you’re starting to be angry, judgmental or righteous, this might be a sign that it’s time to let go.

Yogi Berra allegedly once said, “If the people don’t want to come, there’s nothing we can do to stop them.”

Sometimes the time isn’t right for an idea. We rebel thinkers work ahead of most people, and it takes a while for them to catch up with our ideas. Sometimes you just need to wait a while and reintroduce the idea.

Sometimes you may need to more clearly communicate the value and relevance of the idea. It’s easy after a while to get so down into the weeds of how a project or idea will work that people have forgotten why it’s such a good idea in the first place. (Go to #1 on the list: show them what’s at stake, what the idea makes possible and how that’s so much better than what exists today.)

Don’t beat yourself up or take on all that failure language or people will begin to see you as a problem person vs. the creative person who knows how to come up with great ideas.

Even if this was the greatest idea you think you’ve ever developed, know that there will be more great ideas.  Creativity doesn’t stop.

Unless, of course,  you spend all your energy hanging on too long to an idea no one cares about.

When your horse dies, get off.

Tight pants

By last Friday afternoon I was exhausted, having worked on an especially rebel-worthy assignment.

This meant I had to maneuver around Bureaucratic Black Belts (BBBs) and move people off assumptions that they were willing to fight (me) for. All very congenial, but intense nevertheless.

It also meant that I had to find ways to help people see a better way, be confident while also being honest about the uncertainties, and remain steadfast and open-minded.

Talk about paradox. Can I also say once again how exhausted I was?

Two themes I find about change: there can be no progress without paradox, and leading change is often exhausting. Not always. But often.

On Friday afternoon a good friend was kind enough to listen to me talk about what had happened, and ask good questions to help me clarify the best next steps.  She also said, “You know, being a rebel is a lot like what Terry Pearce said in his book Leading Out Loud.”

“There are many people who think they want to be matadors, only to find themselves in the ring with two thousand pounds of bull bearing down on them, and then discover that what they really wanted was to wear tight pants and hear the crowd roar.”

Real rebels are not afraid stay in the ring.

Many of us also take long naps on the weekend.



10 truths about skeptical employees

I was cleaning my office (!) and came across a speech that a former Bell South leader gave to MBA students at Dartmouth’s Tuck School 18 years ago.  Theses truths seem as relevant as ever, and perhaps especially relevant for leaders of rebel employees.

  1. We’re smarter than senior managers think we are.
  2. We think senior managers are smarter than they are.
  3. We hate it when you make us feel stupid.
  4. We have short attention spans.
  5. We have long memories.
  6. We’re desperate for direction.
  7. We want to be able to think on our own.
  8. We want the company to succeed.
  9. We don’t want to leave.
  10. We want to believe.


As We Labor in the Bureaucratic Vineyards…

Happy New Year (from Carmen!!) Friday Lois shared some great ideas about how to handle disagreement vice just ignoring it. I’ve had a couple of experiences recently that offered some similarly good and practical advice/insight about the rebel life.

Run toward Controversial Projects. This follows on nicely to Lois’s piece on leveraging disagreement. On Wednesday I sat in on a panel that was evaluating proposals for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. Here is a link that describes their innovation program. I had a lot of fun, by the way, and learned a lot about environmental science.

About 8 outside reviewers had gone through the proposals beforehand and given them preliminary ratings. On many of the proposals we reviewers pretty much had similar reactions, scoring in a tight range. But on some proposals the range was huge. Some of us would give a proposal the highest score possible–a 5, even as others gave the exact same proposal the lowest score possible–BIG FAT ZERO. As we talked we realized that these proposals were often the most intriguing. Perhaps the inability of panelists to agree on its value was actually an indicator of a proposal’s high innovation potential.

This is important both for rebels and managers who want to help rebels succeed. Or indeed organizations that are starting an innovation process. I know from my vast experience toiling in the bureaucratic vineyards (NO SARCASM THERE!) that organizations have a tendency to go for proposals that everyone agrees upon. This is like a mistake when you’re trying to do something new. The new should invite controversy. Of course, this scenario requires someone to make a decision about how much risk the organization is willing to entertain. Which reminds me yet again that Consensus is a way to AVOID making decisions.

Which highlights why innovation is so hard for organizations. Bureaucrats are individuals who fear Controversy and Disagreement. I had this epiphany recently when I ran across a former colleague who wryly remembered all the controversial issues I had been involved with. I could all but see his shudder as he considered how distasteful such controversies would have been if they had involved him.

The Accidental Rebel.  Most of the time we are writing for people who can’t help but be rebels at work. But in mid-December at a conference in Israel I was exposed to the concept of accidental rebels. Nonintentional rebels. Let me explain.

The conference was hosted by Maala, Israel’s leading NGO on corporate social responsibility. About a couple hundred individuals were in attendance representing both other NGO’s and Israeli businesses. They invited me to speak because they believe people who are advocating for corporate social responsibility in many ways are perceived as rebels and also need to use rebel best practices to survive.

I started my talk by speculating that the room was divided into two groups: people who had wanted to work on corporate social responsibility for some time and a second group of folks who had been drafted into this work once their company realized they needed to tackle the issue or at least appear to be doing so. What this second group probably had never anticipated was that they had also been drafted into becoming a corporate rebel. They were being asked to do something that was at least foreign if not unpopular in their company. To succeed they would have to be both good rebels and effective ones.

Judging by the vigorous head-nodding I had struck a chord that resonated with their realities. Several came to me afterwards to say that I had finally identified why things were so hard for them. Many said they had initially looked for allies among those who already embraced corporate good citizenship and now they appreciated need to find some bureaucratic black belts who could help them.
So I bet there are many more examples out there of individuals who are not rebels by nature but are nevertheless drafted to do what is essentially rebel work in their organization. The diversity champion. The sustainability champion. I suspect any job role with the word champion attached to it is a rebel role.
We’re probably not going to reach them through the rebel trunk line because they may never realize they are rebels. So we’ll have to go door-to-door, identifying likely roles in organizations that need rebel coaching. If you have some suggestions where we can find some of these lost accidental rebels, do let us know.

Facilitating healthy dissent

When we corporate rebels disagree, it signals we care about an issue. That we want to wrestle with it to find better approaches. So why do people so often try to shut us down?

Many people think disagreeing means that we’re being unkind and insensitive.  Or impolite. (Egads!) “Let’s take this off line,” they say.

What’s unkind to me is pretending an uncomfortable issue doesn’t exist when everyone knows it does. There’s a tension at work when this happens. Nothing is moving forward, corporate inertia is draining us, and we’re becoming ever more skeptical about the cry for greater collaboration.

Furthermore, the longer an issue is ignored, the more frustrated and demoralized people become. Even worse, trust and respect among people erode. And when that’s gone, the organization gets crippled.

“When someone comes to a meeting and states an opinion or makes a suggestion that his teammates don’t agree with, those teammates have a choice: they can explain their disagreement and work through it, or they can withhold their opinion and allow themselves to quietly lose respect for their colleague,” says organizational health consultant Patrick Lencioni in his excellent book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.

“When team members get to choose the latter option — withholding their opinions — frustration inevitably sets in. Essentially, they’re deciding to tolerate their colleague rather than trust him.”

More than most, we rebels see healthy dissent as a team sport, where everyone with something to contribute is expected to contribute. If you don’t speak up your silence can be interpreted to mean that you agree and have nothing to add.

We view dissent as a way of together getting stronger, like a team preparing to hike Mt. Everest. All the potential issues are honestly discussed and worked through to increase the likelihood of a successful expedition where no one gets hurt. We’re fed by the positive energy around these conversations. We appreciate and value what our colleagues have to say.

We also listen fiercely and ask frank questions.  It’s about inquiry vs. preaching.  But most organizations practice advocacy instead of inquiry in their conversations, say Sue Annis Hammond and Andrea Mayfield in The Thin Book of Naming Elephants.

“Advocacy is a win-lose form of communication…each person is trying to convince the other that he or she is right and there is only one right answer.  Dialogue assumes people see the world differently…each person assumes he or she can learn something new from others.”

Practices for inviting healthy conflict

So what can you do to move from advocacy to inquiry? To help foster healthy dissent vs. angry debates?  Here are some suggestions.

  1. Establish agreements: set some guiding principles at the start of a meeting and keep them posted on the wall as a reminder. If someone starts to violate an agreement, bring everyone’s attention back to the list on the wall. Here are some guiding principles that I have found helpful:
    • Judge ideas, not people.
    • Focus on solutions and ways forward; stay away from drama and problems.
    • Observations are more useful than opinions.
    • Let each person complete their thought; avoid interrupting.
    • Ask questions that illuminate, not interrogate.
    • Ask questions that are brief and to the point without adding background considerations and rationale, which make the question into a speech
    • Respect other people’s truths.
    • If you want your views to be heard speak now. Not later in backroom side conversations.
  2. Set the tone: Open the meeting by going around the room and asking everyone to respond to a soft but relevant question where there is no right or wrong answer. No one comments on what a person says, just respectfully listens. This helps to put people at ease, build personal connections, make sure everyone’s voice is heard, and get comfortable with listening.  I recently asked a group about  the most creative thing they had done outside of work in the past month. The answers were hilarious, and that laughter set a relaxing, collegial tone to dig into important issues.
  3. Set up what’s at risk: Frame the conversation by succinctly stating what’s at risk and why it’s so important to debate the issue and get everyone’s views.  This focuses the conversation and reminds people why it’s worth their time and honest input.
  4. Make sure you have enough time. Issues worthy of inquiry and debate usually require more than the typical one hour time allotment. One hour meetings are good for updates and touching base.  Strategic conversations where we value everyone’s involvement need more like three hours, maybe a even a day or more.
  5. Facilitate or use a facilitator.  Effective facilitators carefully listen, guide, inject good questions to open up new conversation veins, move people off dead horses, prevent any one person from hogging the conversation, help the group to recover if someone has said something hurtful, and adhere to the meeting agreements. If you are facilitating, know that it will be difficult to participate. As a participant you’re focused on the ideas not the meta conversation. Understand what role you’ll be playing, participant or facilitator.
  6. Ask the wind-down question. It usually gets to the real issues: About 30 minutes before the meeting is to end ask, “What hasn’t been said that should? Is there something you feel we’ve been avoiding?  If we never talked about this issue again, would you feel satisfied that we honestly examined all the important aspects of it? If not, what needs to be said?”  Inevitably someone speaks up and speaks the truth and the real conversation starts.
  7. Close with insights: After summarizing highlights and next steps, ask everyone to briefly respond to a closing question, which further respects views and makes sure voices are heard.  Possible closers might be:
  • How did your thinking on this issue shift?
  • What one thing did you find most useful from the discussion?
  • What was the high point of this discussion for you?

For more helpful ideas on facilitating healthy dissent, read Carmen’s post, “Advice for Managers: Do You Make It Easy for People to Disagree with You?”