Brainstorm Better, Bring Diversity to your Team, and Let Others Change your Idea–Answers to your Rebels at Work Questions

I’ve been participating the last few months in a new web platform–wiselike–where people can ask questions of practitioners in other domains. I’ve been answering Rebels at Work questions and I thought I’d post some of the answers here, unedited.

What is the best way to get an idea across to top management in a big company without antagonizing your immediate boss or those who will be affected by it?

Well, I don’t recommend going over your boss’s head. It may work once in a while, but the odds are against you.

The best way to get an idea across in that situation is to demonstrate it. Is their part of your idea that you can start under your own power so that people could see how it works?

Another important step is to get others to support and in fact change your idea. People will support an idea that they have contributed to. Your idea needs to grow and develop, and it will do so when you share it with others. You need to remember that it’s about improvement not necessarily about your sacred idea and certainly should never be about your ego?

Do you think a corporation could succeed if all its employees are ‘Rebels at Work?’

Nope, not every employee can be a rebel at work, but it would be good if every employee felt that they could express their ideas at work, within reason, without fearing penalty. Of course, just because you have an idea doesn’t mean it’s good. But too many organizations have a top-down mentality and don’t really want employees to do anything other than execute the plan. This is why so many American workers don’t feel engaged at work. In fact, something like 50% of managers report not feeling engaged.

Even though I was a manager for several decades, I actually think that the traditional practice of leadership is broken. I never liked to think of myself as the leader who “called the shots.” I much preferred to facilitate conditions that would lead everyone to provide the mission their discretionary energy. A leader can never make people give their discretionary energy; it is only ever volunteered.

What can I do in a company where all the managers are against a 360 feedback?

Geez. This is a tough one. Presumably the President is setting the culture of the organization and it is always tough to change a culture top-down. Couple of things I would suggest.

Is there a small thing that you can do under your own authority that moves you along the path you think is better? Seth Godin has a nice video about this

He notes that in organizations where you don’t have the power you have to get people to copy good ideas.

Given that he suggested people go to HR, I would see if there is a good person you could talk to in HR not about whatever your issue is but how can to turn this “go to HR” into a process, option that could actually have impact. For example, does HR report to the management team the issues they hear from employees. I bet they don’t. But that could really help. The problem with going to HR is that they will treat each complaint as an individual performance problem rather than as a symptom of an issue in the organization. You want the latter and not the former.

As an advocate of positive Rebels at Work.. How can we encourage diverse thinking within our teams?

It’s important to have a team composed of diverse individuals. This isn’t easy to do in the short term. So one way to encourage different thinking in the team, or at least implant it, is to invite guests to your team meetings. For example, someone from another office that you have to collaborate with. So they can share what will likely be their different perspective. When you do brainstorm, don’t jump into group thinking right away. Give people a few minutes by themselves to come up with ideas/answers. Research shows that this helps generate better ideas. Otherwise the whole group follows lemming-like the first few ideas generated. If there are many people, have several tables work individually on their suggestions, and then have each table report one idea at a time. This forces people to come up with a different idea from the table that went before them.

The manager or leader of a discussion has to say things and ask questions that invite different ideas and disagreement. What am I missing? What are we getting wrong? What is the opposite of this point?

Have a process for deciding which ideas to pursue. For example you could brainstorm a whole bunch of ideas and then bucket them by safe ideas and dangerous ideas And then commit to pursuing one idea from each bucket.

Who needs the soft skills?


Fearless Ideas cropped

“We think that technology people might benefit from some of the soft skills,” an O’Reilly exec said when he approached us about doing a video program based on our book, “Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change.”

Carmen and I smiled and agreed, holding ourselves back from being bad rebels and shouting, “Might?? Might?! It’s all about soft skills. You can’t get any kind of meaningful work done if you don’t know how to enlist support, have difficult conversations, build positive relationships with people who aren’t necessarily warm and fuzzy, communicate in ways that connect with heads and hearts, and develop personal resiliency so that you can weather those times when things don’t work out.”

Like good rebels, we calmly acknowledged that there is a need for soft skills if you work with people, and if your work requires you to get support for new projects or introduce new ideas, you need soft skills squared.

Then we got to work creating a program that’s like a graduate seminar in organizational dynamics and emotional intelligence, interviewing fascinating experts like Adam Grant, a Wharton School professor and author of Originals: How Non Conformists Move the World, Maria Sirois, a psychologist with deep expertise in positive psychology, Paul Furey, a psychologist who coaches business people in how to have difficult conversations.

Some soft skill highlights from the “Be a Brave, Big-Hearted Rebel At Work: Get Unstuck, Find New Perspective” video learning program:

  • The single most important “soft skill” to develop? Reduce the anxiety of people you’re talking and working with. Executive coach Maria DeCarvalho on how to deliver difficult messages.
  • The single biggest mistake to avoid? Creating disruption at work. Focus on developing relationships, not disrupting and alienating people. Corporate Rebels United’s Peter Vander Awera on learning from setbacks and failures.
  • What to do when the you-know-what hits the fan? Lean on your biggest strengths, and be more of who you are when you’re at your best.  Psychologist Maria Sirois  on developing optimism and resiliency.
  • How to find the right boss and place to work? When interviewing probe how open the organization is to people who want to introduce to ideas. Specifically ask: What happened to people who brought up unpopular ideas? What questions are off limits? (Ideally, none should be) What’s the biggest problem in this organization that everyone recognizes and no one talks about? Author and Wharton professor Adam Grant on what to look for in managing the relationship with your boss.
  • The amazingly simple way to settle down and not say something stupid when we’re becoming emotional? Say what you’re feeling. When we hear ourselves say what we’re feeling we settle down and become more rationale. Psychologist  Paul Furey on managing your emotions and anger.
  • What is the biggest reason so many good ideas never happen? We create solutions to the wrong problems. Maria DeCarvalho walks through the Immunity to Change framework, which helps diagnose the real problem in an organization.
  • What would happen if there were no rebels and change agents at work? Insanity. Art of Hosting master facilitator Tenneson Woolf in the Parting Shots video, a free segment with some “best of” advice.

Who needs to improve their soft skills? All of us.

p.s. – A recent study in the U.K. found that soft skills are worth £88bn to the UK economy. According to Neil Carberry, director for employment and skills for the Confederation of British Industry, “Business is clear that developing the right attitudes and attributes in people – such as resilience, respect, enthusiasm and creativity – is just as important as academic or technical skills.

Learn more about the Be a Brave, Big-Hearted Rebel video program here.


Rebel Resolve

What New Year’s Resolution are you making? Lose weight? Exercise more? Learn a foreign language? Save more money? Change jobs?

How about:

Become a Brave, Big-Hearted, and Effective Rebel at Work!

2015 was a difficult year in many ways, particularly for institutions. Greek debt crisis, European refugees, mass shootings, police-community relations, and of course terrorism—all of these and many more proved challenging to institutions responsible for dealing with them. Precious few solutions emerged. It’s clear the world needs an infusion of new ideas.

Rebels! Tag you’re it.

The world needs us.

But there’s one small complication. Most organizations don’t recognize they need new ideas. Oh sure, their leaders say the right things. They convene an innovation challenge. Or organize a hackathon. But somehow most of the ideas don’t rise above the drawing board and/or make an impact on how things have always been done.

And of course let’s not just pick on the leaders and managers. Our colleagues on the shop floor or in the cubicle farm don’t always welcome the rebel’s attempts to contribute. They suspect the rebel is just trying to advance her career at their expense. Or they just can’t imagine how things could be done differently.

And one way or another, the rebel’s new ideas are sabotaged.

Just the other day I came across a manual on how to sabotage, among many things, organizations. It was prepared by the OSS, the predecessor office of the Central Intelligence Agency, of which I know a thing or two. The Simple Sabotage Field Manual was written to advise resistance and opposition members operating behind enemy lines. In addition to ideas for ruining cars and downing electricity lines, the manual suggests some simple things individuals could do to make any organization less effective.

  • Insist on doing everything through channels.
  • Make speeches. Talk as frequently as possible and at great length.
  • Refer all matters to committees for further study and consideration.
  • Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
  • Haggle over precise wordings of communications, meetings, resolutions.

Rebels at Work is a different kind of manual, a handbook designed to help rebels help their organizations become more effective. So when you make that New Year’s Resolution to step up to all the challenges looming in 2016, to be an advocate of positive change, don’t forget your manual. And if you hadn’t heard, we just released a learning video overflowing with practical advice to help you succeed in at least one New Year’s resolution. In Be a Brave, Big-Hearted Rebel at Work, Lois and I talk to some of the leading thinkers and doers of organizational change and innovation. Check out a free preview here.

Happy New Organization!

Meetings: some counterintuitive advice

Meeting visualOh, the meeting, that time where you hope you can get through your PowerPoint presentation within the allotted time, have everyone love your ideas, and walk out getting exactly what you want.

Oh, magical thinking.  Meetings are never that tidy and easy.

Yet meetings are an essential part of introducing new ideas, one reason we developed an entire segment of our video learning program, Be a Brave, Big-Hearted Rebel at Work: Get Unstuck, Find New Perspectives, to this topic, interviewing the talented Brice Challamel, author, entrepreneur, innovation expert, and a master of running meetings.

Some of his recommendations:

  • The worst thing you can do in a meeting: present a fully formed, perfect idea. You’ll be tempted to want to shove the idea down people’s throats, cautions Brice. Instead introduce your idea as a work in progress and ask people for their suggestions, whereby they become your allies and collaborators. The idea will get better as will your relationships.
  • The best way to get people’s support: Ask people what it would take for them to support the idea. And then listen respectfully to their suggestions. If people feel they are listened to, they will listen to you.
  • What ideas people support: Their own. The best way to get people to support your idea is to make it their idea. Again, ask for what they think should be included vs. trying to get them to buy into your version of the idea.
  • How long you should talk: Spend a small time presenting the idea, and leave the majority of the time for discussion about what people heard. This is how you improve an idea and gain support. “It’s important to remember that the purpose of the meeting is to gain allies for later,” says Brice. It is during the meeting conversations that we’re able to do that.
  • What your PowerPoint needs to be: “Keep it as simple as possible so you have room for improvisation based on what’s happening in the room.”
  • When to let go of an idea: “Sometimes it’s better to lose your idea and save the relationships,” says Brice. “You’ll have other ideas, but it may be difficult to repair damaged relationships.”

Move ideas forward: new video learning program

Be a Brave Big Heared Rebel Video CoverWe are so thrilled to offer a 6.5 hour video learning program, “Be a Brave, Big-Hearted Rebel at Work: Get Unstuck, Find New Perspectives,” for people who want to get better at introducing new ideas and helping their organizations adapt to change.

After our book Rebels at Work came out, people starting sharing stories about where they get stuck, and where they needed more help. It’s no surprise that people especially struggle with conflict, objections, bosses, burnout, and culture.

So we invited some of the smartest, most interesting people we know from around the globe to share advice and practices on topics like:

  • Diagnose what’s really holding your organization back from acting
  • Manage your boss
  • Deliver difficult messages
  • Know who to trust
  • Handle common objections
  • Manage your emotions
  • Master the meeting
  • Find your rebel wild pack supporters
  • Frame and position ideas
  • Communicate like an activist
  • Create an internal word of mouth marketing campaign
  • Keep going or quit?
  • Recover and learn from setbacks

 Like a graduate seminar on organizational change

We love these wise experts, the practicality of their advice, and the joy we had in producing this program. It’s like a graduate seminar on organizational change.

  • Peter Vander Auwera, co-founder of Innotribe, SWIFT’s innovation initiative, and founder of Corporate Rebels United.
  • Brice Challamel, author, entrepreneur, expert in innovation management
  • Jeffrey Davis, author, founder of Tracking Wonder, and expert in how creatives flourish in times of challenge and change
  • Maria DeCarvalho, executive coach focused on helping courageous leaders grow their minds, hearts and souls.
  • Paul Furey, psychologist specializing in teaching people how to have the real conversations that solve business problems.
  • Adam Grant, the top rated teacher at The Wharton School, author, and one of the world’s 25 most influential management thinkers.
  • Paula Prober, counselor and teacher, specializing in gifted adults
  • Maria Sirois, inspirational speaker, author and psychologist with deep expertise in resilience and positive psychology
  • Linda Stroh, author and professor emeritus, Loyola University, Chicago.
  • Tenneson Woolf, facilitator, workshop leader, speaker and writer.
  • Lois Kelly, Rebel at Work
  • Carmen Medina, Rebel at Work

Ideas on how to use the program

 Our hope is that this program can help more people learn important skills for leading change, whatever their position. And we think the $129 price is a real bargain compared to what it costs to go to a conference or bring experts of this caliber into your company. Some ideas on how you might get value from it:

  • Use it as a professional learning course for your team, watching a segment a week and then discussing over lunch or as part of a staff meeting. (Some segments are just five minutes, others are 30 minutes.)
  • Ask your training, organizational development or HR department to buy it and give you access – especially if innovation, change management, agility, employee empowerment or other such buzz words are part of the company’s commitment.
  • Share segments on your company’s employee social network or intranet. (O’Reilly Media has many ways to access the program.)
  • Buy it for yourself, as part of your commitment to investing in your potential.
  • Consider it as an alternative to a book for your company’s business book club. (We’d be happy to do a Google Hangout or webinar to join your discussion.)
  • Give it to your boss from the team as a holiday gift.

Thank you for standing up for change and being brave enough to advocate for ideas that can make a positive difference at work. We hope this new material helps.



ps — You can learn more about the program here, and view three of the 22 segments at no charge. The final Rebel Wisdom: Parting Shots, above, is like a Greatest Hits compilation and will give you a good idea of the variety of topics covered by our contributors.


Conversations with strangers

Every year I do something to shake up my thinking. Rebel at Work professional development, if you will. This shaken and stirred adventure almost always cracks open creative juices, new business ideas, and personal growth. This year was especially rich.

Last week I spent seven days at the Savannah Film Festival, seeing 31 movies. While the films were mostly excellent, the “shaking up” part came from talking with strangers – waiting in lines, parties with filmmakers, chatting with seat mates before a show, lingering in the theater lobby with directors after searing documentaries, unwinding at the hotel bar after a 10-hour day of movies.

May I share some of the stories and what I learned? (Because if you talk more with strangers I bet you could go on a similar adventure, wherever in the world you live.)

First, I‘d suggest having a few good questions to open up conversations with strangers. The ones I used, which you could adapt in other situations, were:
• What attracted you to the Festival?
• What films have shaken you up?
• What or who has surprised you?

Some memorable conversations:

Shuffling in line: People were eyeing an elderly man in line who looked like a homeless or down-on-their luck person might. Their expressions not so subtly said, “What is he doing in line at a film festival?” and they kept their distance. Curious, I introduced myself and learned that this gentle man had been a cameraman for local television stations AND had composed music performed by symphony orchestras. We talked about how music is a Trojan Horse into stories, how he was trying to find the courage to meet with the new symphony director about performing one of his new pieces, and how practicing our creativity keeps us fully alive to life, whatever our age or financial circumstance. (His daughter gives him a ticket to the festival every year for Christmas.)

Waiting for Spotlight: As a Bostonian I was especially excited as I waited for the movie Spotlight to begin, a movie about the Boston Globe investigative reporting of the massive Catholic Church cover up of priest pedophiles. (It and Brooklyn will sweep the Academy Awards.) I said hello to the man sitting next to me, who also was from Boston and shared my excitement about the film. We did our Boston catch up and then watched the film. When the house lights came up he was crying. “Why did this go on so long? Why didn’t anyone help?” As I sat for a long time listening to this stranger talk about his church experiences the empty theater felt holier than any church.

The Hollywood stud: At an after party I walked up to a total hipster — leather jacket, shaggy hair, slightly arrogant but friendly. He told me how he had made serious money in Hollywood and talked about his film that was premiering at the festival later in the week. Then his attention went to someone walking out of the restaurant. He excused himself and ran out. When he came back his swagger was gone.. “Sorry, I had go introduce myself to Leonard Maltin. Every Christmas my aunt gave me Leonard Maltin’s latest movie encyclopedia. I memorized every detail in those books, and all I could think about was leaving the Midwest and going to Hollywood to make films.” The conversation got much more interesting after he got over the swagger and opened up his naked, kid-like heart. (He called Leonard Maltin, “Mr. Maltin.” Sweetness.)

A Cinderella story: Carla Patullo is an extraordinary songstress and music composer – also from Massachusetts – who shared how she had become fascinated with one of the first animated films ever, Cinderella: A Shadow Ballet by Lotte Reiniger in 1922. Carla wrote a soundtrack for the film, and made the old movie new, relevant and, well, gorgeous. Carla talked about musicians who have inspired her, like Stevie Nicks and Joni Mitchell, and about her life overall – love, loss, musings about what might be next. She was so open, accessible and comfortable in her skin. A pattern that emerged from my conversations with artists: the more open and curious the filmmaker, the more interesting their work.

Rape and the arson: I was shaken and enraged after seeing the documentary The Hunting Ground about widespread sexual assault on college campuses, and the schools’ reluctance to expel the rapists, most of whom are repeat offenders. The director Kirby Dick was hanging around the movie lobby after the screening and an emotional me told him the story of a family friend who had been raped last winter at school, how the rapist was allowed to stay at school, and the young woman had dropped out, fearing being on the same campus as the sexual offender. I kind of lost it emotionally and babbled on. Kirby listened intently and kindly. I then understood how he makes it safe for strangers to talk to him, one reason he is such a successful documentary filmmaker. Then I gave him something in return: “If a student kept setting college buildings on fire, they’d expel him for arson. But not rape?” Kirby asked if he could use that metaphor in talking with college officials and promoting the film. It’s the least I can do.

‘Cause girls just want to have fun: When you’re by yourself on an annual “shake it up” adventure, it’s also fun to be audacious. One night the paparazzi were lined up at the red carpet waiting for Meg Ryan. I walked over, confidently told the handlers I was Lois Kelly, and then walked down the red carpet, answering questions from reporters. What was my name? What did I do? (I said I was a writer. True enough, but not a film writer.) Could they use my photo? Had I seen Meg Ryan? The cameras flashed I threw my head back in laughter.

In her new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, MIT psychologist and scholar Sherry Turkle says that empathy and intimacy flourish when we have open-ended, spontaneous conversations where we allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable.

In fact, she says, “in these conversations, we learn who we are.”

I certainly did.

Want to have coffee?

Become a Meaningful Rebel at Work

Rebels at Work can obsess about winning the war of ideas in their organization. The company is headed in the wrong direction and new ideas need to be introduced; the rebel at work not only seeks to persuade; she needs to win.

But what if playing to win is not the right objective for rebels at work? In fact, isn’t the whole winning and losing framework just buying into the way traditional organizations think about making decisions? Once the leaders make their strategic choices, all other options fade to black.

Let’s think of another way. Instead of seeking victory, how can the rebel make his ideas more meaningful for his group and organization? Isn’t this a much better question, one that creates more space for others to contribute and that is more respectful of what is already positive about the organization? As Radmilla Prislin, Cory Davenport, and John Michalak note in their essay, Groups in Transition: Differences in the Context of Social Change:

Social change occurs when a group changes its position on what is normative.

Those were the ideas that ran through my mind this summer as I read the book Rebels in Groups, edited by Jolanda Jettsen and Matthew J. Hornsey. In an earlier blog post this month, I wrote about what this excellent book has to say RAW coverabout the contributions that dissent and rebels make to organizational health, including the awesome finding that rebels at work improve the decisions of their organizations even if their ideas don’t carry the day. See, it really isn’t about winning. It’s about making things better.

Rebels in Groups digests much of the recent academic research on how groups react to dissent and rebels in their midst. It’s consistent with the advice we provide in our book Rebels at Work—if you’re trying to affect change, you need allies, strategy, and a high degree of emotional and social intelligence. But the academic research contains some additional insights that can help rebels and dissidents be more effective.

Rebels need to understand the core norms of their group. The research clearly shows that it’s much harder for new ideas to gain support if they violate essential beliefs of the group. In our book we suggest that rebels at work frame their ideas within the context of what the organization already values. The psychology of the group also matters. Groups that are more cohesive handle dissent better. Groups that have a history of incorporating new members will be more open to new ideas

When presenting new ideas, rebels at work need to do so first within their group. Teams don’t take too kindly to being criticized in front of outsiders. This goes without saying, but it’s useful to know that the research supports good manners.

Instead of criticizing the views of others, rebels should frame conversations around the availability of information. What information shapes the rebels’ views; what information is viewed as important by others? Research shows that access to different information can account for variance in views; level-setting around what is known versus what is opinion can make conversations more constructive.

Rebels can overcome a group’s natural tendency to favor continuity by pointing to the external factors that support the need for change. This is a well-understood tactic in organizational change literature, but it’s nevertheless striking how groups make different decisions when forced to consider outside perspectives.

Rebels are received better by organizations when they behave consistently. We’ve all known individuals who every month have a different new idea for what the organization could do better. You’re better off as a rebel if you identify the one or two changes that would make the most impact and then work doggedly to advance them.

There’s much more to share from Rebels in Groups. The next post will distill the lessons it offers for managers of organizations who want to encourage constructive dissent and create a healthy space for alternative views.

Change is Collective Deviance

This summer I’ve been making my way through an essential book for Rebels at Work called Rebels in Groups.  Edited by Jolanda Jettsen and Matthew J. Hornsey, Rebels in Groups collects much of the most recent and compelling research on deviance, differences, and rebellion in groups. But unlike much of the previous social psychology research that emphasizes the tendency of individuals in group to conform, this book, to quote one reviewer:

represents a paradigm shift in how we think about the individual and the group. It is a welcome re-balance of our collective belief that conformity reigns in groups, and instead invites ‘rebels’ back into social psychology. For anyone seriously interested in group processes, this is a must-read.

rebels in groupsI agree. The book collects almost 20 essays representing the work of researchers from several countries who examined how groups respond to rebels, the conditions under which deviant views can become majority views, and the impact that individuals in leadership positions have on the process.

I think Rebels in Groups was intended as a textbook. It’s priced accordingly and is not an easy, casual read. But it’s a rewarding one and I’ll be sharing the insights I gained in this and subsequent blog posts. I wish I had known this book existed before we published Rebels at Work but I can report that its findings support all the major learnings Lois Kelly and I convey. The one area of focus in Rebels in Groups that I realize now we could have emphasized more in our book is the value that rebels gain through better understanding of their colleagues—their fellow group members. We write in our book about the importance of forming a Rebel Alliance, your Rebel Wild Pack, and of understanding the organizational landscape. But I learned from Rebels in Groups that it’s critical for the rebel to figure out the common identity of your community/team (more on that in a subsequent post).

Why Deviance is Important

For this post, I’d like to concentrate on some of the pro-Rebel arguments in the book. Various contributors to Rebels in Groups point out that without defiance and deviance, human society would hardly progress and improve.  Social change is essentially the product of collective deviance.  As Dominic J. Packer notes in his essay: The Dissenter’s Dilemma, and a Social Identity Solution:

A growing literature is documenting contexts in and processes by which the expression of divergent viewpoints enhances group decision making, reduces polarization, and allows for more creative, productive, and ethical outcomes…From the opposite perspective, adverse group outcomes are often attributed to an absence of dissent – the failure to elicit, respect, and heed competing ideas. Dissent is, by this formulation, important to the healthy functioning of social groups…and a failure to allow for dissent may result in difficulty adapting to changing circumstances.

While reading this essay—one of my favorites, I was reminded of the pressure so many organizations place on their leaders to be commanding and authoritative. I know I sometimes heard the critique that I wasn’t “hard enough” on my reports—whatever that meant. But there are in fact studies suggesting that the most successful management teams encourage dissent. Charlan J. Nemeth and Jack A. Goncalo remind us in their essay Rogues and Heroes: Finding Value in Dissent of a landmark study from 1998 on groupthink in seven Fortune 500 companies. The study found that “the most successful management teams encourage dissent in private meetings.”

I didn’t take much convincing on that point, but one aspect of Rebels at Work I had never considered is the value they provide to organization even when they don’t succeed and they’re not correct. Yup! You read that right. Rebels at Work can make organizations better even when their ideas are wrong. As Nemeth and Goncalo observe “minorities…stimulate thinking that is divergent; people consider multiple perspectives.” “Those exposed to minority views come up with more creative solutions to problems.” This dynamic is particularly important in juries where researchers have found that minority views need to be protected not because “they may be right but because even when they are wrong they stimulate thinking that on balance leads to better decisions…There is evidence that people search for more information on all sides of the issues; they utilize more ways of looking at facts.” (Emphasis original.)

Finally, I’m copying below a table that appears in the book that reminded me of the “Good Rebel/Bad Rebel” chart that we’re famous for and with which Lois and I have a love/hate relationship. People everywhere glom on to the chart, except for those who hate its over-simplification of a complex topic. Lois and I find ourselves agreeing with both the fans and the haters. So I’m quite happy to introduce a new categorization scheme that I think provides additional clarity.


A (non-exhaustive) Sampler of Deviances*

Tail of the distribution Random variation placing one just beyond the threshold of what is acceptable (e.g., a co-worker is ‘weird’ for liking a popular TV show just a little too much)
Norm shifting Not realizing that norms have changed, making one a deviant for abiding to obsolete norms, or joining a new group where one’s old norm-abiding behavior no longer has currency
Ignorance Not perceiving or understanding the norm
Inability Not having the resources or ability to follow the norm (e.g., mental illness, low financial resources)
Duress Being forced by external circumstances to break the norm (e.g., losing one’s job)
Compulsion Not being able to help oneself, feeling compelled to break the norm
Principled disagreement Refusing to follow a norm that one deems wrong
Disdain Feeling that one is above the norm, not beholden to it.
Spite Wanting to upset the mainstream, or a powerful minority
Desire for originality Wanting to be at odds with a norm, non-conformist
Self-interest Breaking the norm is rewarded so it is considered worth it despite potential social costs (e.g., crime)
 *Source: Monin, Benoît and O’Connor, Kieran. “Reactions to Defiant Deviants: Deliverance or Defensiveness?” Rebels in Groups Ed Jolanda Jetten and Matthew J. Hornsey   Wiley-Blackwell 2011


As you can see in the chart, the authors sort rebels/deviants into intentional/unintentional. The intentional category touches upon many of the same qualities we’re trying to describe in our Good Rebel/Bad Rebel chart. Throughout Rebels in Groups, different researchers note that deviants and rebels who disagree with the majority because of principle are more influential than other types of rebels. But the keys to success for even principled rebels are many, and I’ll write more about what Rebels in Groups tells us about that issue in my next post.

Stay Found

Stay FoundHave you ever had an epiphany, filed it away, and then been smacked with it again during a random encounter?

This is a story about a personal growth epiphany: trying to hide and trying to stay found.

Last month Carmen Medina and I spent a week at O’Reilly Media in Sebastapol, Calif., taping a learning program called, “Be A Brave, Big-Hearted Rebel at Work: Get Unstuck, Find Fresh Perspectives.”   It is based on our book “Rebels at Work” and explores skills and capabilities in much more depth than the book.

For four long and exhilarating days, from Monday to Thursday, we interviewed brilliant and fascinating people like Brice Challamel, Jeffrey Davis, Maria DeCarvalho, Paul Furey, Adam Grant, Paula Prober, Maria Sirois, Linda Stroh, Peter Vander Auwera, and Tenneson Woolf.

Each of us also taped our own short segments, sharing practical advice, exercises and personal experiences on topics like introducing new ideas, enlisting support, recovering from failure, etc.

I was ecstatic – and I rarely use that word – with learning from such wise, generous people, and from giving away what has helped me and helped me help my Fortune 500 clients.

Oh, no.

That Thursday night I went back to my lovely Airbnb room overlooking a vineyard, watched the tapes, and thought, “Oh no.”

I talked too fast, flailed my hands too much, came across at times as hyper, and tripped over words in my excitement to ask guests questions. Oy, oy, oy.

On Friday morning I went into the studio for the final day of shooting. We had to tape an important program introduction and do several segment introductions and wrap-ups.

After what I had seen of myself on tape, I switched gears, speaking slowly, calmly and deliberately. Hands and arms relaxed.

The producer/director, Kirk Walter, called, “Stop the cameras,” and walked over to me. “Lois, what’s wrong? You seem off.”

I told him I was tired, confessed how disappointed I had been watching the tapes, and explained I was trying to be much more professional this morning.

“Lois, you were you. We need the real you here this morning with all that energy you bring.”

Kirk’s words might be the kindest and most truthful thing anyone has said to me in a long time.  Just be yourself.

Just be yourself.

Over the past month I’ve done several things to stay true to myself. For example, I took down a long-running blog called “The Other Lois Kelly” because all my ideas are from the real me vs. from different “branded” personalities.

Sadly, I also caught myself trying to back pedal into the land of the safe, polished and controlled.

My new Book, “Naked Hearted: How Bullshit, Parkinson’s and John Lennon Changed My Life” is out on Amazon, but I haven’t started to get the word out. (Well, I guess I have now.) Why? I worry that I’ve revealed too much of the real me. It feels uncomfortable.

To which my 20 year-old son said, “It’s good to be uncomfortable, mom. It means you’re entering a growth cycle.” ( Maybe I don’t want to grow that much.)

Staying Found

Here’s the smacked on the side of the head part of the story.

This weekend at the Squam Lakes Science Center in N.H. I saw a poster for a program called: “Staying Found: Finding Your Way Without a Map or a Compass.”

Smack! How can I stay found? No hiding, going back to “safe” work or over-editing myself?

When interviewing Dr. Maria Sirois, a psychologist with extensive research into positivity psychology, she emphasized that optimistic, resilient people who bring their whole selves to work are contagious in a good way.

“People say, ‘Wow, she’s brave enough to do that, maybe I can, too.’”

So I’m going to Stay Found. And accept my hyper-curious, exuberant, fast-talking style. Even the Boston accent that wants a seat at the table.

Please, please join me in showing up as yourself.

The air is fresh, the breezes are gentle, and boy oh boy the views are spectacular when you see things for what they are.

Be a brave, big-hearted rebel at work

On Diversity and Measuring Sticks

There are so many adjacencies to Rebels at Work, and certainly one of them is the problem of diversity in the work place. Recently I was asked to write a post for another blog on why the CIA–my old employer–has such problems attracting and advancing minorities. You can read the entire post here but I’ve excerpted some key sections below.

As a Puerto Rican woman who spent 32 years at CIA and nine of those years as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service, you might think my experience revealed a few secrets for advancing as a minority at the Agency. But during my career, I was struck much more by the subtle (and not-so-subtle) barriers to entry and advancement that the Agency presented to people who did not come from a Western European background. Not all of the affected were members of officially recognized minority groups—you can be a different thinker regardless of your heritage or experiences. But the information CIA released on minority representation suggests ethnic and racial minorities have had the most difficulty adapting to existing cultural norms, both when they seek Agency employment and when they attempt to advance in the bureaucracy.

My hunch is that any effort to increase both minority presence and influence at CIA will falter as long as the subtle and not-so-subtle cultural barriers to entry and advancement exist. As the recently published Diversity Leadership Study concluded, the CIA does not consistently promote an inclusive culture. In my view, constructing a more inclusive culture requires the Agency to reset some of its cultural precepts, including some long-held, treasured beliefs.

One cultural precept at CIA I think harms diversity efforts is an American/northern European-centric view of the world. This perspective expressed itself in many ways, most of them quite subtle. For example, I often heard the phrase “American Exceptionalism” at CIA. Senior leaders would use it frequently, never imagining, I would think, how that might come across as patronizing to a sizeable percentage of the workforce. Even now, I feel compelled to add—lest my patriotism be challenged—that I am a proud American who believes the United States contributes in a positive way to the planet.

But I think that’s generally true of all cultures—they make positive and negative contributions to the world. It is perhaps inescapable that an American intelligence agency would default to the West as its model and icon of goodness. But Agency leadership could usefully audit their common phrases and mental shortcuts to remove ones that are egregiously Euro-centric.

Another example is a phrase I heard with some regularity from CIA officers that went something like this: “Everything in country X has fallen apart since the [pick your colonial power] left.” Although I shared my discomfort with friends, I’m ashamed to say I never pointed out directly to a colleague how such a remark might come across to members of a minority group – especially one from that particular nation.

It’s probably not obvious how such under- and overtones might relate to the lack of minority representation among CIA leaders. What I think happens is many officers struggle with being true to their own beliefs and cultural heritage even as they seek career success at the Agency. I know I did. The Diversity Leadership Study acknowledges the subtle ways in which this culture can impede the advancement of people who are different:

The Agency does not recognize the value of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, nor consistently promote an inclusive, “speak-up” culture where all opinions are heard, valued, and taken into account. Some officers disengage because when they share their thoughts and perspectives on mission or workforce issues they are not considered. [emphasis mine]

In its survey of Agency employees, the Diversity Leadership Study found that 25% of minority respondents agreed there were aspects of their identity they needed to hide to be successful at CIA, compared to 15.5% of non-minority respondents. (The percentages for LGBT and disabled individuals are even higher, at 34 and 29 percent respectively.)

So many Rebels at Work face the same difficult choice: being true to what they believe or playing the game by the rules established by the status quo. Speaking of rules, this blog post on the male measurement stick that dominates performance appraisals is well worth reading. Here’s a sample quote.

We use a standard that is completely blind to almost half the talent, and gifts in the world. And then we work very hard to get everyone to fit that standard. And everyone works very hard to fit that standard, ‘speak up’, ‘be seen’, ‘don’t hide your success’, ‘negotiate better’, ‘be more confident’.

Happy Reading!!

Holacracy and the Desire to Control

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been fascinated by the implementation of holacracy at Zappo’s. In case you haven’t heard of holacracy, it’s a “complete system for self-organization” designed to free organizations from non-flexible hierarchies. As the site explains:

Traditional hierarchy is reaching its limits, but “flat management” alternatives lack the rigor needed to run a business effectively. Holacracy is a third-way: it brings structure and discipline to a peer-to-peer workplace.

As an advocate for rebellious thinking at work and for a significantly different relationship between managers and teams, you might think that I’d be excited about holacracy. And I guess I sort of am. I’m all for self-organization and in principle would root for any effort to dismantle outmoded hierarchical concepts. But the recent reports that 14% of Zappo employees chose a buyout option over continuation with the holacracy implementation got me to thinking that holacracy might have its own issues. Just because hierarchy is suboptimal doesn’t mean that any other system would be better.

I’ll confess that I haven’t read the holacracy book–a condition that Zappo employees were urged to meet before receiving the buyout package. But I’ve checked out the holacracy constitution and wiki, and there are a few things that give me pause.

Holacracy, by its own admission, is about more structure not less. Quoting again from the website: “the work {in a holacracy} is actually more structured than in a conventional company, just differently so.” I don’t know about you, but this just don’t sit right with me. Holacracy makes decisions through a network of dozens if not hundreds of intersecting circles–each circle being responsible for some aspect of the organization’s business. Differences are resolved and decisions made in governance meetings where tensions and objections to policies are discussed in a process that has seemingly strict rules and a weighty formal tone. (Holocracy proponents say that you can’t judge the process by its rules in much the same way that you can’t judge baseball by its rulebook.)

Like, I bet, for most rebels at work, the small hairs on the back of my neck levitate when I find my actions governed by a strict process. Rules have always had a lowest common denominator quality for me. For me, a healthy workplace has productive relationships, comfortable and intuitive patterns of work, and yes flow–the state of being so completely involved in an activity that individual egos largely disappear. I know that many individuals aren’t happy in what is admittedly a messy environment. They want more control and more certainty, and many are actually happy to delegate upwards to the boss the responsibility for exercising that control. Perhaps, even, the world is divided into two essential types: those who enjoy a good mess and those who like to exercise control.

Another problem I see with holacracy is its assumption, implicit throughout, that humans will act rationally in the workplace

The strict rules for when and how to speak in governance meetings appear to ignore the essential emotional qualities of humans. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect that all the rational actor economists, having been defeated by the strong research findings of behavioral economics that humans are anything but rational actors, have moved over to support holacracy. For example, and quoting from the holacracy wiki: “reactions {a stage in governance meetings) are the only step of the governance meeting when people can speak freely.” What this means is that during most steps of the governance meeting, comments and discussion are circumscribed. I’m sure this is for efficiency’s sake–to prevent the type of rambling that we’re all too familiar with during staff meetings. But scripted meetings also will reduce the opportunity for the playful give and take, the bantering that is the foundation for the trust that fuels successful teams. As the research shows, teams become great in part because they laugh with each other and communicate freely. When you read the bylaws of holacracy, you’re hard-pressed to find the bit about having fun. 

I have to imagine that most organizations implementing holacracy don’t go exactly by the book. Or maybe when your governance circle functions like a well-oiled machine, trust is a byproduct rather than a prerequisite. Holocracy proponents say that their transparent processes eliminate the hidden rules and passive-aggressive behaviors common in so many organizations. That would certainly be a plus. But I have to think that some of the individuals that left Zappos did so because they didn’t quite see the advantage in replacing hierarchy and bosses with a controlling process.

What’s behind my anger, Estonia?

Anger can be foe or friend to rebels. Here’s a story about a hard-earned lesson I’ve learned this week about taming and learning from anger.

Under the Stars Kristjan Raud

After all these years maybe I should just get on the damned plane to Estonia and pick it up myself.

On a business trip to Estonia in 2006 I fell in love with a painting in the Kumu Art Museum, which had just opened. The museum was an extraordinary introduction to the art, culture and history of a country that had been occupied by Germany, then Russia, then Germany again in 1941 and then the USSR from 1944 until before finally becoming independent in 1991.

Despite these foreign invaders Estonians preserved their language, their national pride, and their ancient relatives’ worship of spirits of nature. Talk about determination.

After a busy week of speeches, I strolled through the museum on a sunny Saturday morning in May. I walked into a gallery and was captivated by a painting called “Under the Stars” by Estonian artist Kristjan Raud (1865 – 1943). I sat on a bench for over an hour looking at the folkloric painting, letting my mind wander, and in its wandering thinking about joy amid oppression, the healing and inspirational nature of the night sky, and, most of all, the wonderful people whom I had met during the week. They had inspired me with their sense of purpose, optimism, and perspective about anger.

But aren’t you angry with the Russians?

Earlier in the week during the annual national marketing conference, which was why I was visiting, a respected Russian professor talked about Russian history and culture for two hours. I asked the conference organizer why Estonians would ever have a speaker about Russia, given what Russia had done to the country and was still threatening to do.

“It’s important for us to understand,” he calmly explained. Rather than be angry and shut down thinking, they were learning from their anger.

I thought a lot about anger when I looked at the painting, too.

Before leaving I scribbled down the name of the artist and the painting on my Museum map and asked the people at the Museum store whether they had a postcard or print of it for sale. Sadly, no.

 Nine year obsession: Stage three agony

Over the last nine years I would often pull out the Museum map with my scrawled notes about the painting and Google it, hoping I could buy a print somewhere. I hit a lot of dead ends.

Eight months ago I wrote to the Museum and asked if they could possibly make a digital print that I could buy. A lovely woman said she would look into it. In January she told me that they could make a print and would I please provide some information for the billing. In April she sent me an invoice, requiring a wire transfer to the country of Estonia, as the Kumu Art Museum is a national museum. At every step I responded immediately, thinking about where to put this digital print of the painting once it arrived.

But over the last month this process has started to drive me nuts, largely because of weird and sometimes stupid problems with wiring the money from my bank to the country of Estonia’s bank. Should be simple, right? Ha!

This morning I stormed into my bank, furious because the latest wire transfer they sent arrived 7.24 Euros short and as a result the Museum can’t send me the painting. The Museum needs me to send the exact amount. My bank has a minimum for wire transfers so I can’t send the exact amount.

To make matters worse, I acted snarky, showing just how ugly anger can be. When the bank manager asked in a condescending tone, “Where is THAT country?” I said, “Near Latvia,” knowing she probably wouldn’t know where that was either. I could have politely and helpfully said, “Near Finland or Russia.” Oh, but my anger was turning me into a snarling animal.

The timing for this bureaucratic inanity is awful. I’m in what Sally Hogshead calls the Stage 3 Agony phase of some creative projects, the most grueling phase where we get stuck, stressed and start thinking the whole project – or our competency to do said project — sucks. I know if I can slog through this creative hell I may get to Stage 4 – Epiphany and Stage 5 – Finesse. But, as has happened to me before, Agony kills the work. I either consider the project done because I can’t stand the being stuck part or I give up.

So this painting paperwork is setting off what a beloved boss used to call my ”hot Irish head” where my passion turns into obsession and anger. Nothing seems to be moving in the right direction.

After leaving the bank I stopped at FedEx Office to get a poster made for a talk I’m giving at a Harvard Innovation Symposium on Saturday. They opened my thumb drive and found two old PowerPoint presentations but no poster file. Grrrrrrrr……

Good and worked up, I went back to my office and decided to see how much it would cost to fly to Tallinn, go to the Museum, hand them a credit card, and pick up the digital print myself. Enough with the bureaucrats, just make it happened within my own power.

Oh, anger, you torturer and teacher

And then I remembered a hard-earned lesson: What’s behind my anger?
Anger is really useful data, if we can calm down enough to be curious about it.

In this case I started wondering why this painting is so important to me. What about it keeps calling me, especially over the past eight months? Is it the painting or something else?

I don’t know about you, but it’s often something else. When I can somewhat objectively dig into that something else, I find helpful answers. Thank you anger, you torturer and teacher, you.

You see, I am struggling to make these new creative endeavors great and in this Agony Phase I am tempted to give up, say they’re “good enough,” or worse, say, “they’ll never be good enough” and quit. Oh, what our terrible self-talk can do to us.

The painting and the Estonian culture represent purpose, determination, hope, and joy to me. On the last night of my 2006 trip I went to the small, out-of-the-way Museum of Occupations in Estonia. How did these people persevere, I kept wondering as I learned more.

“Under the Stars,” I fantasize, will help me persevere, remind me to look up to the night sky and stay open to joy amid struggles. My creative struggles are so much less significant than want Estonians have had to endure.

Now that I’ve wondered about the anger, it’s diffused and I’m a tiny bit wiser.

I don’t really need the painting, after all.

But maybe, just maybe, I’m looking for a good excuse to travel back to a wonderful country rich in history, culture, possibilities and creative fun.

Did I also tell you Estonia is home to the Wife Carrying World Championships?

Prudent and Risk-Taking

Many people dislike the word rebel, thinking, perhaps rightly, that it connotes a person who opposes what exists vs. someone who is rebelling for positive change.

I’ve thought maybe we should talk about benevolent rebels or good-hearted rebels. But nothing has quite clicked over the four years Carmen and  been researching and supporting rebels at work.

Last week I read an article about an executive who was really shaking things up at her large corporation. She characterized herself as being risk-taking AND prudent.prudence-crandall-school-si

PRUDENT, from the Latin prudens, meaning far-sighted or seeing ahead.  Dictionaries define the word as: “acing with or showing care and thought for the future.

These are the qualities of effective Rebels at Work.

They are also the qualities of one of the earliest civil rights activists in the United States. Prudence Crandall (1803 – 1890) was an American schoolteacher who stirred things up when she insisted on educating African American girls at her school in Connecticut. Talk about far-sighted. We could have had more Michele Obamas earlier on had Prudence been successful.

Alas, she stood trial in 1833 for educating African-American girls and her school was forced to close because of the violence against it.  Such are the risks rebels take.

So if I must label myself, I will tell people that I am a prudent rebel at work.


Practices and Perils of Badass, Goodhearted Change Agents

Rebel’s Journey

A rebel’s journey can often look like this.

hero journey

Finding ideas in unlikely places

I’m sitting in the Surgical Family waiting room at Boston’s famed Mass General Hospital. People are talking quietly or reading hardcover books. A woman in her 40’s wearing black track pants and white sneakers is slumped across two chairs, snoring. An elderly  man sits upright as he naps, his head bobbing down to the collar of his violet dress shirt.

Out of the 40 or so people here no one is on a device. There are no televisions or bright lights. We’re all in a quiet waiting womb.

I, and I suspect the others, are feeling vulnerable, unable to concentrate on anything but our loved one. How will the surgery turn out? Will it be easier or more complicated than the doctors’ expected? Will we be able to take our son, daughter, mother, father, wife, husband, sister, best friend home soon or will surprises force a longer hospital stay?

We are all on alert, fully awake and quiet amid the stress of not knowing.

My son was hit by a car two weeks ago while riding his bike back to his dorm in Savannah, Ga. God caught him as he spun from the bike, bounced off the car and kissed the pavement with his beautiful 19 year-old face. He had no concussion,  a miracle. The local hospital stitched up the gash on his forehead, put his finger in a splint, and told him to find a plastic surgeon to repair the four broken bones in his face. So here we are.

Driving by the Charles River this morning at 6 a.m. on our way to the hospital my son turned up the volume of his favorite music group, The Head and the Heart (of all names), and mused, “I am so lucky I don’t have brain damage from bouncing off that windshield.”

This mother bear nodded in fierce agreement. Oh, how lucky we are.

But now I am on edge, waiting for the surgeon’s call.

And I am remarkably creative.

Ideas for an education program that I’ve been wrestling with floated out of nowhere an hour ago. It’s like I was taking dictation from some learned person who said, “Here is what people want to learn and what you need to teach them.”

“OK, got it. Wait, slow down. I can’t write down all these ideas fast enough.”

I’ve been struggling to figure out how to put this program together for three weeks and then — BAM! – done in 20 minutes.

What’s going on?

When we get jolted out of our usual routines ideas can say, “Thank you for taking down all those assumption and anxiety barriers. Now we can stroll right into your brain and you can welcome us.”

Sounds crazy. But research shows that when there’s less activity in our brain’s frontal lobes, we’re more likely to come up with an original idea.

According to Dr. Rex Jung of University of New Mexico, inventive brains are less packed and organized and so nerve traffic is slowed down. This gives the opportunity for more unusual connections to be made even if it takes a little while to do so.

Because my brain is much less full than usual as I sit quietly thinking about not much of anything but my son, my brain has been experiencing what Dr. Jung calls “transient hypofrontality.” This frontal lobe change has allowed my brain to make new connections, to think more creatively if you will.

Ian recoveryThere are far better ways to experience this calm brain state than sitting in a waiting room. Researchers recommend  running, meditating, walking, and other activities that require us to turn off our devices and noisy brain talk  and just be quiet.

My brain was so thoughtful delivering a creative gift of a new idea this morning.

The best gift, however, was the call from the surgeon telling me that my son’s procedure was over and was not as complicated as they had expected. Maybe we should play The Head and the Heart’s “Sounds Like Hallelujah” on the ride home.


Learning from the persuasion scientists

BigSmall book coverInfluencing people and decisions is complex, but there’s much we can learn from persuasion scientists. This past weekend I read the great new book, The Small Big: Small Changes That Spark Big Influence, by Steve Martin, Noah Goldstein and Robert Cialdini.

Here are some highlights, all based on fascinating research studies that the authors explain in the book.


  • Before a meeting or interview, write about a time you felt powerful and/or adopt a high-power physical posture. “High power” people are more persuasive.
  • Make sure to present your credentials before trying to influence a group. Authorities’ opinions dominate people’s minds, shutting down cognitive consideration of other factors.
  • Focus first on the possibilities and potential of your proposal, as potential arouses more interest than realities. Once the attention is focused on the potential, provide supporting information about the benefits, e.g., testimonial, research data.
  • Admit uncertainty vs. convey over-confidence. A person’s expertise, when coupled with a level of uncertainty, arouses intrigue. As a result —  and assuming the arguments that the expert makes are still reasonably strong — this drawing in of an audience can actually lead to more effective persuasion.
  • Similarly, consider using a list of “worst practices” instead of “best practices.” People pay attention to and learn from negative information far more than positive information. Also, downside information is more memorable and is typically given more weight in decision-making.

Influencing Decisions

  • Ask people to choose between two options vs. offering just one.  Then influence them to opt for your preferred option by pointing out what could be lost if they don’t select that option.
  • Similarly, people make decisions based on context and comparisons. By first presenting an option that people think is a bit too costly, or one that they might think will take to much time, you can achieve the desired impact of making the target proposal seem even more like the “Goldilocks proposal that it is – just right.
  • Determine whether you’re trying to get buy-in or follow-through. If it’s getting people on board, make the sequence of steps as flexible as practical and emphasize that flexibility when announcing the initiative. If the bigger issue is execution, give the rollout sequence a very structured order and emphasize how, once in place, the program will proceed in a straightforward, uncomplicated fashion.

Forming Relationships

  • Explicitly use someone’s first name more often when seeking to influence them.
  • Identify uncommon commonalities between you and another person, fulfilling people’s desire to both fit and still stand out.
  • When meeting someone for the first time dress at a level that matches your true expertise and credentials. This is in keeping with a fundamental principle of persuasion science – authority. Authority is the principle that influences people, especially when they are uncertain, to follow the advice and recommendations of those they perceive to have greater knowledge and trustworthiness.

Getting Commitments

  • Remind people of the significance and meaningfulness of their jobs, and show how what you’re asking them to do is related to that meaning.
  • To get people to follow through on promises, e.g. I’ll bring up your idea in the executive staff meeting, ask how they’ll go about accomplishing the promise they’ve given to you. This specificity helps them follow through.
  • If you believe that you will encounter resistance with your requests for an immediate behavior change, you might be more successful if you instead ask for a commitment to change at a given time in the future, say three months from know.
  • Appeal to people’s sense of moral responsibility to the future version of themselves.


  • Ask people to submit information before a meeting. This often increases the number of voices that are heard, potentially leading to a greater number of ideas generated. Similarly, ask people to spend a few moments quietly reflecting on their ideas, writing them don, and submitting them to the group. Doing this can help ensure that any potentially insightful ideas from quieter members won’t get crowded out by people with louder voices.
  • The person who leads the meeting always speaks last. If a leader, manager or family elder contributes an idea first, group members often unwittingly follow suit, leading to alternative ideas and insights being lost.
  • If you want to create an atmosphere of collaboration and cooperation, have people sit in a circular seating arrangement.
  • Creative sessions are often more fruitful when held in rooms with high ceilings.

Building your network

  • Just ask! People tend to underestimate the likelihood that a request for help will result in a yes. Plus, those who can help often don’t  offer because they wrongly assume their help isn’t needed. Why?  Simply because it wasn’t asked for.
  • People who help others but don’t ask for favors in return are much less productive than their colleagues. The way to optimize the giving process in the workplace is to arrange for exchange: a) be the first to give favors, offer information or provide service, and b) be sure to verbally position your favor, information or service as part of a natural and equitable reciprocal arrangement. (“I was happy to help. I know that if the situation were ever reversed, you’d do the same for me.”)
  • Provide explicit thanks and genuinely communicate your appreciation for the favors done and the efforts made on your behalf.

Rebel Jam 2015: Invitation to Speak

24-Hour Online Rebel Jam: Stories of Change > Friday, June 26, 2015

Calling all Corporate Rebels and Change Agents Worldwide to step forward to speak at our second edition Rebel Jam.

The intent of our second 24-hour Rebel Jam is to share what people around the globe are doing to try to create positive change at work.

All interested are invited to speak. All we ask is that you tell a story about something you tried to do, what happened, and what you learned. (And, of course, speak as much from your heart as from your head. Folks want passion not perfection.)

You can talk, sing, rap, use slides (or not), or show a video. (Hey, we’re rebels; creative expression is encouraged.) Here’s the link to the Google spreadsheet to sign up for a 20-minute slot.

Details on dial-in numbers and logistical information to follow. Spread the word.

Questions? Contact Lois Kelly,, Peter Vander Auwera,, or Simon Terry,

Hosted by: Rebels at Work, Corporate Rebels United, and Change Agents Worldwide.


Change Agents WorldwideCorp Rebels United jpeg

Random Rebel Ruminations

When you write a book, you can’t predict how people will react to it. Lois Kelly and I had certain expectations for Rebels at Work and many of them have been met. But what is actually more delightful, I think, are the unexpected “uses” that people have for Rebels at Work and the interesting ways it has resonated.

1. Rebels at Work is a book that bosses should give to the Worst Whiners on their teams. Ha! That’s a use case we did not envisage. But a friend told me recently that she’s recommending that managers give the book to the constant complainers and critics who don’t bother to suggest constructive ideas for improvement. A useful reminder that dysfunction in the workplace is rarely a one-way street. Our book is written for people with bosses that aren’t receptive to their ideas. But there are many individuals in positions of leadership who embrace an inclusive workplace but wait impatiently for others on the team to join the conversation. Maybe Rebels at Work can help spark the talk!

2. Rebels at Work is really about employee engagement. Organizations everywhere are panicking that their employees have no emotional/intellectual attachment to their place of work. The issue has become so pressing that Gallup is now measuring the engagement levels of US workers on a monthly basis—just like inflation. As we’ve surveyed the landscape of employee engagement initiatives, it’s striking how often success is measured by whether the survey numbers tick up, and not actually by whether employees are offering up more of their discretionary energy to the workplace. As one follower noted on Twitter:


We are immodest enough to think we’ve got part of the answer. The best way to improve employee engagement is by actually welcoming employee ideas. Everything else is just cosmetics.

3. One of our most loyal readers—and a veteran and authentic Rebel at Work—talked to me recently about the Split Personality issues affecting rebels. Reacting to the advice we give in the book, he offered that it’s tough for rebels, who passionately believe in the need for change, to behave cautiously and diplomatically in the workplace. You’re constantly playing a role at work and having to suppress—if only partially—your true beliefs. I resembled that remark in my career. I noticed that if you’re defending the Status Quo it’s OK to be tough and loud. But if you’re proposing change, it’s best to adopt a sweeter tone. I found it useful to have a friend you could process and safely vent with. And when that person wasn’t available, well my bathroom mirror felt my rebel wrath.

4. One last rumination. A friend was visiting a colleague recently, and spotted Rebels at Work on the kitchen counter. This individual had to read a leadership book as part of an individual development plan. Rebels at Work ended being the only “business book” the individual could stomach reading.

If we have a second edition, that could be the new cover blurb!!

Walk don’t Run…but Never Stop Walking

“If you stand still, your opposition has the power to knock you down, if you keep walking, they have to follow you,” she said. “I’d rather keep walking.”

Who’s the she who is giving us rebels such great advice? Princess Reema Bint Banda al-Saud. I saw her speak at South by Southwest Interactive two weeks ago. You  can watch and listen to her keynote here. I confess I attended her talk thinking that it would largely be a public relations activity for Saudi Arabia. I left mighty impressed with the practical rebel instincts of a woman who is taking concrete steps to improve the role of women in Saudi society. It is well worth the listen.

The “Walk don’t Run” part is my riff on what she said. Too often, rebels rush headlong into a change mission, totally psyched by their idea and/or disgusted by the current reality. But as we point out in our book, Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within, rebels are well-advised to adopt a more measured approach to getting their ideas adopted. Recalibrate your own expectations of immediate and glorious success, which are probably driven more by ego than by common sense. Take your time. But don’t stop.

Another great talk full of ideas for Rebels at Work was by Dan Pink who talked about Fear, Shame, Empathy and More Ways to Change Behavior. His talk is not available yet for viewing, but there’s a handy recap of his major points here. We don’t want to brag or anything, but most of his ideas line up pretty good with our advice to rebels.

  • Use good questions.
  • Enlist the Crowd.
  • Give people an easy way to act.
  • Try stuff. Pilots and prototypes are always preferable to messy and noisy failures.

But there’s one suggestion Pink made that frankly Lois and I never thought of.

Make Time to Rhyme – Rhymes increase process fluency. The message just “goes down better.” Think of it like linguistic comfort food.

So now I’m trying to think of some more poetic ways to talk about Rebels at Work. So we could do:

When your boss is a jerk,
You need Rebels at Work.

OK, that’s not very charitable. Let’s be more positive:

To succeed as a Rebel
Good ideas must you peddle
Of Allies have several
But around bureaucrats be careful

Enough from me.  No doubt some of you are more talented than I.

The Cowboy Trail and the 10% way to get buy-in

AlbertaI’ve been fantasizing about going on a road trip this summer to Alberta to experience the majestic Canadian Rockies.  While browsing possible itineraries, I keep noticing this advice:

“Leave the beaten path and take the alternative route of….”

If you’re trying to get new ideas considered at work, I’d like to suggest similar advice.  The best route may not be beating a path to your boss and the usual up-the-chain-of-command approval process. If she says, “NO,” then what? You’re sort of at a dead end.

An alternative approach is to reach all around you and get 10% of the people at work behind your idea. When you reach 10%  the idea is likely to be adopted, according to scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  The 10% can be people at any level; in other words the assumption that you need “executive buy-in” may be a faulty assumption.

“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,” said SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer.

“Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”

So if your company has 1,000 people you would need to get just 100 people to support your idea for it to spread. If there are 5,000 people, your aim is 500.  Many say it’s easier and sometimes faster to get 100 people to support a good idea than to work an idea through the traditional hierarchical approval chain.

“As agents of change convince more and more people, the situation begins to change,” SNARC research associate Sameet Sreenivasan said. “People begin to question their own views at first and then completely adopt the new view to spread it even further.

Use the tools: Work Out Loud

Influencing the 10% at work is not easy but it is easier than it was five years ago.

You can write blogs on the internal Intranet and work out loud (WOL) about the idea’s potential value, what it would take to make it happen, and asking for input from colleagues to refine the idea.

If you don’t yet know about the Working Out Loud concept, I urge you to learn more. It’s a BIG idea that is starting to reshape how people work, how new ideas develop, what it means to collaborate and innovate, and, of course, reach that 10% so new ideas catch on.

Check out John Stepper’s Working Out Loud blog to learn more about the concept, and get some useful articles about how to start incorporating this practice into how you work.

Of course, depending on the idea, you can also consider using external social channels to write about the concept, get ideas, ask for help and connect with people at work on these channels.

YOUR GOAL: Make the idea stronger by involving more people and by involving more people get to the 10% tipping point.

But what if my boss gets upset?

Your boss may feel uncomfortable with you Working Out Loud and socializing ideas with people outside his chain of command.  What happens if she pushes back and asks you to stop?

  •  First, acknowledge the discomfort and empathize: “I see this makes you uncomfortable….”
  •  Reassure her that the idea supports what the organization values or a shared goal.
  • Then explain how you’re trying to learn more about the viability of a possible idea and trying to get a sense of what would be needed for it to be successful.   Initiative, learning and research are valued in most organizations.
  • If you work in an organization espousing the need for greater collaboration, innovation, empowerment, or employee engagement explain that this is exactly what you’re doing.
  •  Invite your boss into the process so she can, too, can learn about the developing concept. Maybe she wants to follow you on Twitter?  Get alerts when a new blog post comes out?  Join the project community?  In the spirit of openness and Working Out Loud, don’t hide, invite.

And if you’re the boss?

  • Appreciate that you have someone in your organization with ideas and the courage and initiative to put them out there and get frank feedback.  (THIS is employee engagement at its best.)
  • Make it safe for your team member to keep going. Encourage and ask how you can be helpful.
  • Chill about a bad idea making you look bad. If people don’t like your team member’s idea, they are not going to get behind it.  The wisdom of the crowd will breathe life in or out of the idea.  Your job is to help your team members grow and achieve outcomes, not control how your team member learns, gets input and builds organizational support.
  •  Know that this is the future of work and a much better way of vetting possibilities than the traditional slow and often exhausting meeting-after-meeting approach. Be grateful that someone is helping you learn the value of working out loud and introducing ideas in new ways. Your team member is doing you a favor by helping you become more relevant.

The Cowboy Trail

While many will head to the popular Banff and Lake Louise this summer, I am learning about the alternative routes.

The Smith Dorrien Spray Trail, The Dinosaur Trail and the Cowboy Trail sound like they are just off the beaten path enough for this cowgirl rebel to find wonder and creative renewal.

Stop the worrying: manage your boss

“What’s your biggest obstacle when you try to introduce new ideas or improve things at work?”

That’s one of our favorite questions to ask people who come to our  Rebels at Work talks and workshops.

The number one obstacle: My Boss. (The second is fear.)

So what do you do if you’re championing a new idea? Learn how to manage your boss, particularly in these two ways:

  1. Understand what most worries your boss and find ways to ease those worries.
  2. Build credibility and trust with your boss.

Chart managing boss jpegBuild credibility with your boss

  1. Don’t mock your boss:  Whatever you do, don’t criticize your boss for being cowardly or too concerned about her own job security, because after all, that’s only human. The fact that you both want job security may even be a good way to develop a common understanding. Neither of you want to hurt your careers. If you can establish that as a given, perhaps your boss can begin evaluating your ideas on their merit.
  1. Don’t go over your boss’ head: This can seem like the only option if your boss is recalcitrant, particularly if he forbids you to discuss your ideas any further. Going over your boss’s head is like trying to draw to an inside straight in poker: the chances that it will turn out well are very slim and, when it doesn’t work, you end up with the worst cards at the table. Once a rebel shows one member of a management team that he can’t be trusted, he has almost certainly tarnished his reputation with every other boss in the organization. If you decide to do this anyway and it turns out badly, apologize sincerely and profusely. It’s your only hope.
  1. Don’t worry about your boss stealing your idea: We often hear rebels complain that management took their ideas and didn’t give them enough credit. Our take? When a manager likes a rebel’s idea enough to steal it, that’s a rebel win. As rebels, we often have to swallow our pride and savor the internal satisfaction that comes from knowing that we planted the seed.  If it’s any consolation, know that as a rebel you are likely to have new ideas, spot emerging trends, or figure out problems unimaginable today. Our creativity and vision form the pattern of our lives. They are a renewable resource we can depend on. Our creativity is our safety net.

Ask More Questions and Tell Fewer Lies

Lois and I made a conscious decision to write Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within for fellow rebels lacking leadership positions in large organizations. There were at least two other audiences we could have written for:

The Rebel Manager. Someone actually in a leadership position trying to take an organization in a different direction. That’s whom I usually think of when I hear the term Change Agent.

The Manager of Rebels. Here we’re referring to “bosses” who want to be helpful to their “rebels.” Often they recognize the need for innovation, but don’t have the ideas themselves. Or don’t want to be the front person for a change initiative but wouldn’t mind supporting people willing to take the lead. I think sometimes Rebels at Work can be overly critical of managers who recognize a problem but don’t want to push the solution directly. Sure, some of them are playing it overly safe, but others may have good reasons to demur. They may have fought many battles earlier in their careers, and just don’t have enough juice left for another push. Or they realize they may not have enough influence in their hierarchy to pursue a direct approach.

rebels-at-work-bookThese well-intended managers of rebels keep asking us some great questions at talks we’ve given recently. And a lot of them revolve around how to manage a team of individuals holding strong opinions. You would think managers would want teams of strong thinkers. HA! We all know managers are still trained and many are in any case inclined to achieve homogeneity and harmony in the work place What is otherwise lovingly referred to as CONSENSUS. As Luke Visconti of Diversity Inc. recently wrote in his Ask the White Guy column:

The dominant culture, regardless of who it is or where it is, is driven to value conformity.

If more businesses and organizations truly valued Diversity of Thought, the need for Rebels at Work would decline significantly. So I spent some time this weekend checking out the latest research on the topic.

The good news is that there is some recent research. The most noteworthy is an MIT study published this fall that examines whether diversity of teams in terms of gender and tenure was associated with 1. team harmony and 2. team productivity (as measured by revenue.) The study doesn’t measure diversity of thought per se, but gender differences and varying levels of work experience often are associated with the clash of ideas in the workplace.

The study has some interesting and sometimes counterintuitive findings. Teams composed of members who were hired at different times did not show lower levels of cooperation, but, according to the researchers, did show significantly lower levels of performance. Teams with higher levels of gender diversity, however, were associated with reduced team harmony, but in this case these teams were also associated with significantly higher levels of performance. (Interestingly, mixed gender teams easily outperformed both all-male and all-female teams.)

The press has popularized the study by reporting that diverse teams are more productive but less happy. But I think the study points to a more nuanced conclusion–the need for managers to develop better techniques for dealing with differences in the workplace, whatever their causes. The tension that comes with the clash of ideas is a frequent challenge for Rebels at Work. Often, the Rebel is so caught up in the excitement of advancing her ideas that she fails to notice and/or discounts the unhappiness and discomfort building among her teammates. The manager, whose training emphasized the need to build consensus but not how to navigate turbulent whitewater, is often just a bystander as his team blows up. Clearly, there’s a lot of work to be done here.

Some preliminary ideas for managers of rebels.

  • “Rethink your default settings”. The phrase comes from a report by a UK consultancy on how to increase diversity on boards. I’m using it here to refer to the habits and practices that managers of team rarely question. How do you run your meetings? Whom do you talk to first about an issue? What priorities does your calendar reflect? Examine everything and consider upending most of it. For example, if you have a new influx of team members, let them set the agenda for an upcoming meeting. Give them a chance to share their observations without interruption.
  • Acknowledge different categories of “expertise” for your team. I’ve seen many teams where only one type of expertise is recognized and valued. Either you are on expert on how things have always been done—standard operating procedures, or you’re here to learn. Sound familiar? But how about having a team discussion on the different types of expertise that could be useful to meeting team goals. Who is most familiar with the new research? Who here understands the growing Hispanic market? Who is on top of new technology? Just having an explicit conversation about the many categories of useful knowledge can be an eye opening experience for team members.
  • Talk explicitly about individual thinking and work styles. There’s any number of free tests on the internet about thinking styles and they are all useful. But recently I’ve found it to be just as effective to have team members describe “how they think” or “how they solve problems” to each other. Most people know if they are good with detail or if they prefer to play with bigger concepts. I’ve come to believe that most job performance issues are caused by asking people to do tasks for which they are not well-suited. Forget the job descriptions. Let individuals gravitate to the tasks they do well.
  • Ask more open-ended questions and tell fewer lies. OK, well maybe managers don’t tell lies on purpose. But in their effort to project certainty, they often make pronouncements suffused with an unjustified air of certainty. Monitor the number of declarative sentences you make as a manager and resolve to replace at least a third of them with questions. Here’s an example. A team member asks you how the team plans to meet a difficult deadline. Instead of providing your not-so-definitive answer, why not just reflect the question back to the team. “That’s a great question. What ideas do you all have.” You’ve now encouraged everyone on your team to speak, including the different thinkers and rebels.

I’m sure there’s many more ideas out there. Please do share in the comments.

Like a rebel boss

Like a teenage rebel boss jpegMy son is about to turn 20 and I’m so proud of him. Prouder still of me.

I didn’t throw sharp objects, nag incessantly, take away privileges, drone on about accountability and responsibility, or yell and scream like a raving maniac during those teen years. (Well, except for that one freak out. More on that in a minute.)

Reflecting on those years I realize that becoming a good boss of rebels at work can help you become a better parent. Especially during the teenage years.

There are many good reasons to be a good boss of those rebels and mavericks who, like teenagers, think current policies and approaches are stupid and want to change everything. If you help rebels, they’ll go to the mat for your organization and you’ll likely get a promotion, score a big bonus, look good with the suits on the executive floor, and be the person everyone in the company wants to work for.

But the real reason to coach rebels like a rock star is to train yourself for those teenage years.   If you have teenagers or have made it through, you likely know what I’m talking about. If you don’t yet have teenage children, take this advice and thank me later.

Like the rebels who work for us, we love our teenagers’ fresh thinking, their creativity, their intolerance for school and societal rules that just don’t make sense, and their willingness to go to the mat to do something about those stupid rules. They are so bold and vibrant and confident that it can take our breath away. We want to be them.

And yet they make us crazy when they skirt the rules, do dumb things without understanding the bigger context, let their emotions run wild, and screw up so badly that we have to have one of those dreaded meetings with the principle or the CEO where no one really knows what to say except, “Talk to her. Try to keep him in line. I know she’s basically a good student/employee. One last thing — let’s not let this happen again.” You walk away feeling like a reprimanded teenager.

Better for rebels, better for teenagers

So what helps us help rebels at work – and, in turn, helps us help our teenagers at home?

When we coach rebels and help them learn how to navigate within existing structures however screwed up they may be, they develop capacities for being effective, meaningful citizens of the world. If we simply insist they follow the rules, they just get angrier and more frustrated.  Saying, “the rules are the rules” to idea people at work and creative kids at home is like talking in a different language. Like a language with all guttural, ugly sounds. They just hear the hard edges and look at the spit coming out of our mouths and think, “How pathetic.”

I tried, not always successfully, to remark more on what my teenage son was doing well than on what he should be doing differently or better. I’d ask him what was working in school or share my work challenges and ask him what he thought might be the best approach. I valued his opinions because I knew they would be honest, frank and fresh. Not the usual blah-blah responses.

Rebels at work also provide this freshness. Don’t miss out on these perspectives. They’re foreign, like a teenager’s, but with more wisdom.

Conversations with rebels, like teens, can’t be superficial or disingenuous. They’ll tune you out, and you’ll miss out.

What worries you? What else do you think is possible? What are we kidding ourselves about? What might happen if we…

Questions teach, both them and us.

Rebels and teens know a lot. They think a lot. And they’ll help you gain new perspectives. Their ideas might make you feel uncomfortable. OK, they will make you feel uncomfortable. But that’s how we learn, right?

By hearing and considering their views, we build trust, love, mutuality, togetherness, bonding. Most importantly, we build their capacity to consider other views and learn how to disagree without being a jerk. To be able to talk about ideas where no one is right or wrong. To feel safe enough to disagree and still feel safe and valued as part of the family or as part of the organization.

Freak Out!

As long as they don’t steal your credit card to buy World of Warcraft add-ons.

This is where the freak out happened.

My son and I had had several conversations about getting the gaming thing under control. So when I opened my card statement and saw several different $25 charges from Blizzard Entertainment, I went nuts.

He came home from school all cheerful and I started screaming, channeling an Irish banshee, waving my credit card bill. I was maniacal, and one scary woman. To finish off my tantrum I slammed the front door, got in the car, and drove off leaving my son at home alone for several hours.

I am a calm person. He knew that a line had been crossed.

When I finally came home, he had written a letter to me, not only apologizing but also explaining how he would pay me back and, much more importantly, how he was going to cure the burgeoning World of Warcraft addiction. “That I’ve disappointed you is the worse thing of all,” he wrote.

He had a plan that was far better than anything that I could have constructed. He beat himself up harder than I ever would or could.

From having been the boss of rebels, I guess I knew that he would figure out a way forward that was more insightful and effective than anything I could imagine.

Because we had a relationship built on honesty and mutual caring, I knew we would recover. No one had to win or lose.

I love that boy, who I now have to call a man. He’s creative, passionate, dedicated, often unrealistic in setting goals, curious, and sometimes self-absorbed when he’s in the flow of a project.

Like a rebel. Like the best people who ever worked in my organizations.

So if you have a rebel working for you, rejoice! Coach, ask questions, let go of control while setting some boundaries, and make it safe to talk about the tough stuff.

You’re going to love the teenage years.


Why Bosses Say No

No!“There’s no money in the budget for that” is the most common management response to new ideas. The more creative or risky the idea, the quicker our bosses’ “Sorry, no budget” reflexes.

We walk away thinking, “Well there’s no sense on pushing that idea forward. There’s no money to fund it.”

But here’s an important truth:

Money is rarely the real reason ideas get shot down.


Six real reasons and how to get around them

1. It’s just not that important: When an idea helps an organization accomplish something that’s important and valued, that idea gets funded and approved. Many very good ideas get rejected because they don’t support what the organization most cares about. So show how your proposal supports what’s most valued.

Consider: Do you know what’s most important and valued? What’s appearing on the agendas of management meetings? What new buzz words creeping into conversations? Do this homework before you start socializing your idea. We’ve seen funds appear almost magically when an idea addresses an issue deeply important and relevant.

2. I can’t understand what the “it” is: Sometimes new concepts are so foreign that people just can’t figure out what we’re talking about. As the idea creators we easily “get” the concept, and make the mistake of thinking that other people will as instinctively understand what it is and how it benefits the organization.

Consider: Use an analogy to help people see how the idea is the same and different. When Bill Taylor and Alan Webber had the idea for Fast Company, they pitched it as putting Harvard Business Review and Rolling Stone in a blender and pressing the on switch.   What is your idea like – and how is it different?

3. Timing out of kilter: Your boss may love your idea and say no because the timing doesn’t fit with planning cycles. If you start lobbying for an idea in November but plans and budgets are finalized in September, you’re out of luck for a while.

Consider: Learn how decisions get made and the timing of decisions and budget planning. Work with the system.

4. Where are the best practices? Innovative concepts are just that – innovative and emerging. They haven’t been done before and involve risk and complexity. Alas, many people are extremely uncomfortable approving new ideas unless they can be backed up by best practices or controlled experiments. Without having some sense of certainty, people reject the idea. It’s just too risky.

Consider: If you can find supporting case studies or best practices, use them. If not, consider using the Cynefin Framework to engage in a conversation about the context of your organization (or the customer environment) and the implications of that context for making decisions. For example, if people agree the operating environment is becoming more complex, they are more likely to support novel approaches and acknowledge uncertainty.

5. I don’t like the idea. There will be times when your boss just dislikes your idea for all kinds of rational and irrational reasons, and doesn’t know how to tell you. So he asks you to do more research, puts off your meetings, and says things like, “Let’s keep this on the back burner.” The tough thing about this stall tactic is that you keep your hopes up and become more and more frustrated. It’s the equivalent of the movie, “He’s Just Not That Into You.”

Consider: if you think your boss is having a hard time giving you frank feedback, help her by asking questions like, “On a scale of one to 10, one being highly unlikely and 10 being very likely, how likely is it that this idea will get approved and funded in the next year?” (Ratings take the emotion out of discussions and give you useful data about intent.) Or say, “It looks like you don’t like this idea and you’d like to be able to tell me that. It would help me if you’d say it directly.”

6. I love the way things are. Some people just love the way things are and want to preserve what they think is working. They’re not so much opposed to your idea as they are in love with the status quo.

Consider: If you suspect your boss is in love with what exists, ask him, “Where do you see value in changing how we operate today? In what ways do you think this new idea could make us more effective?” If he thinks everything is going well and sees little value to changing, you have some important data. You can either build support around and below your boss to keep the idea alive. Or you can accept that he’s never going to budge and either drop the idea or go to work for an organization that values what you value.

 Emotion trumps logic

Remember that most decisions are based more on emotion than logic. To get to “yes,” find out what people yearn to be able to achieve (aspirations) and acknowledge the risks and how you’ll minimize them (fears). Aspirations and fears are a common paradox. Opportunities lie in the contradictions.

Lastly, manage your own energy and reputation. If the boss hates your idea and sees absolutely no value in pursuing it, you might not want to pursue it. At least not in his organization.

Whose responsibility is Debbie’s mother?

Debbie's motherDebbie’s mother has called me 32 times over the past three days. She started calling on Monday night when the storm kicked in.

The storm wound down last night, not as bad as predicted. But Debbie’s mother keeps calling. Six times this morning.

Debbie’s mother has the wrong number. I am not Debbie.

I explained this fact to her during several calls. But still she called. So I looked up the incoming phone number and found that it was from Cedar Crest Nursing Home.

I called the nursing home to tell them that one of their patients (residents?) was upset and desperate to talk to Debbie. Could they please help her find the right telephone number for Debbie?

“I’m sorry. We have three floors of patients here. There’s no way I can find the woman you’re talking about,” the Memory Loss floor supervisor told me. “Patients on my floor don’t have access to phones so it’s not one of mine. It must be someone on another floor. Sorry, I’m just too busy here.”

“Could you make a call to your colleagues on the other floors?” I ask.

“I’ll try,” said the Memory Loss supervisor and then hung up.

Debbie’s mother is trying to find Debbie. But Debbie’s mother is lost inside the nursing home. There is no one to hear her, except for me, the wrong number.

How many are lost at work, calling and getting no response?

In my work with big companies I often feel that people are lost, calling those in positions of responsibility with ideas, cautions, and worries, and getting no response. They feel like Debbie’s mother.

“I thought if I raised this issue, someone would be there to listen and do something about it,” people think. “I thought this was the year we could finally start to make a dent in doing work that would make a difference. But I guess not.”

After a while people stop calling, realizing that no one is going to pick up. They become complacent, doing as the floor supervisors request, yet worrying nonetheless.

We need people at work with the tenacity and hopefulness of Debbie’s mother. Maybe this time the call will go through.

What we need more are floor supervisors who care as much about helping people in their company who are lost and searching as they do about maintaining order in their small organizational silos. What might happen if more managers truly cared about EVERYONE and not just “their employees” or their patients?

A rebel calling: taking responsibility

I have a lot to do today. But perhaps the most valuable thing I can do is to drive to the nursing home and find help for Debbie’s mother.

In work and in life we rebels are often called to do things that we think someone else should be handling.

Responsibility is never neat and orderly.

My phone is ringing again. It’s Debbie’s mother.


The Stability Trap

Given my long career at the CIA, I still read widely on international relations and politics. One of the most interesting articles I’ve read in some time just appeared in Foreign Affairs–The Calm Before the Storm–Why Volatility Signals Stability, and Vice Versa.   Trying to figure out when and how a society becomes unstable is the bread and butter work of a political analyst in the Intelligence Community.  Nassim Taleb’s and Greg Treverton’s article is wonderfully contrarian, arguing that in fact the most stable societies have a history of healthy volatility in their recent past.

The best indicator of a country’s future stability is not past stability but moderate volatility in the relatively recent past.

Reflecting on my own career, I can remember many countries that I knew were going to implode at any moment, and yet somehow never did. And when there was a surprise–or, in other words, an intelligence failure–it was often because a pillar of the international community had suddenly–or so we thought–gone all wobbly on us.

And then I wondered whether this nifty piece of analysis could have broader implications.

Wait a Minute! Could this apply to companies as well? Could it in fact be the case that:

The best indicator of an organization’s future stability is not past stability but moderate volatility in the relatively recent past?

Rebels at Work know that one of the main reasons why their ideas don’t get a fair hearing is because most management teams prefer, indeed they crave, stability. My experience in government and the private sector is that one of the real reasons people avoid change is because they dislike disruption. Changing an organization is like staying in your house when you’re remodeling your kitchen. It’s messy and uncomfortable. As a result, people in an organization often will agree that the future end state is much preferable to the Status Quo, but nevertheless get grumpy at the thought of any disruption of their daily routines.

Organizations and managers need to rethink this aversion to messiness, to moderate volatility. And one of the best ways for a company to inject a healthy dose of ideational volatility into its operations is to be more tolerant, perhaps even welcoming, of its rebels, mavericks, and heretics. I can promise you that we rebels are very good at stirring things up if you just let us. Injecting new ideas into the tired debate about next year’s strategic direction would make all organizations stronger. Encouraging dissent from the prevailing wisdom in organizations is analogous to the “political variability” that characterizes countries that enjoy genuine political stability. As Taleb and Treverton point out, decentralization and political changeability makes countries stronger; authoritarian rule tends to only make them brittle.

Many companies and organizations today are brittle. They look strong but that strength is untested. The absence of diversity in their strategy and tactics leaves them vulnerable to any changes in the environment they fail to anticipate. Rebels at Work can serve as the anticipation engine of your organization.

But only if you let them!


Shame on Me (Maybe)

This post was anonymously written as part of Blog Secret Santa. There’s a list of all Secret Santa posts, including one written by Lois Kelly, on Santa’s list of 2014 gift posts.


Lois recently wrote a deeply sad blog post about shame. I read it a couple of times, and bookmarked it. Something nagging me…

Tonight I sat down to write my Blog Secret Santa post. I knew I would have to revisit the concept of shame. (Merry Christmas one and all!)

Then two things happened. I read this short message from Simon Terry

“In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.” – Czesław Miłosz

and, I was flicking through the new book by Seth Godin, “…and it’s always your turn.” In it, a quote by Alfred Hitchcock.

“There is no terror in the bang. Only in the anticipation of it.”

I took a photo and appended it to Simon’s post.

alt text

And now, I link them both to Lois’ post about shame and silence.

Shaming those we work with upsets me as a manager, as a colleague, as a worker. As if there was not already enough discord and discomfort to deal with in the workplace!

And now I see what was nagging me about the idea of shame. It is this:

What if they are talking about me?

I don’t think they are, but what if…what if?

I had a couple of slightly uncomfortable meetings in my team recently. Nothing desperate or sad. They were discussions about the future, and how we get there. They were strategic, and practical. Nothing personal – we get along as a team. But there was enough discord and tension for me to consider: do I know my team well enough? Can I well represent their needs and desires? Have I presumed too much?

I have plenty of self-confidence and assuredness in embracing the changing nature of work. I am a change agent and provocateur, an intrapreneur and disorganizer. I can deal with a lack of certainty, with the ebb and flow of constant change, I embrace a fail-forward approach to work. I cheerlead the team to try! To fail! To keep going! To self-manage!

I always see this as openmindedness, about creating opportunities for greatness. I care about my team deeply and want them to succeed. But what if…what if instead they feel stymied? What if my SHOUTY cheerleading holds them back? What if they thought / knew that their way – another way – would be a wrong way (in my eyes)?

I would never say any of the sentences Lois listed as symptomatic of the shameful leader… What’s your problem? et al. But what am I implying in my enthusiasm, in my single-minded pursuit of tomorrow’s workplace?

I am questioning whether I really let their voices be heard. I know my listening skills are less than stellar. Does it add up to a culture of bias to my way or the high way? Are they consequently lost or let down (if not shamed)?

There are too many rhetorical questions in this post. Apologies. Of course, like most of my blog content, I am talking and learning out loud. I am thinking: what is the BANG!, the pistol shot of truth that releases all the pent up…STUFF? How do we – me, you, the team – really get to that better workplace tomorrow?

Change agents and rebels at work like Lois are helping me navigate this leadership journey. That is their gift to me. This is a small one in return.


<–This Much We Know.–>

Calling bullshit

I call bullshit jpegI’ve had ridiculous years before, but never a year of bullshit.  Well, half a year to be more precise.

Here’s how all the bullshit started.

In June I was having dinner with a  close friend from college whom I hadn’t seen in 36 years, catching him up about my life and talking about all that I’ve done and accomplished.

“Lois, stop the bullshit,” he said.

What? Me?!

In other words, he felt that I was trying to impress him, which in truth may have been one of my defaults over the years. I never knew it was so obvious. (Or maybe it’s not, except to people who really know us.)

Being called on bullshit in June, I started to pay much closer attention to it. In myself and others.  Now I see it everywhere, especially in business situations.

Bullshit, according to philosopher Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University, is a lot like humbug but a less polite word.  Both mean false talk or behavior, absent sense or meaning. In verb forms they mean deceiving.

We love confident people

I don’t think most people at work are intent on deceiving others. But our society sees confidence and certainty as positive, desirable attributes.  Most of us have bought into the belief that confident people are successful people. By confidence in this context I mean the Merriam-Webster definition:  The quality or state of being certain :  certitude <they had every confidence of success>

We buy from confident sales people. We believe confident coaches, consultants and “thought leaders.” We want to follow confident leaders. We glow when teachers tell us that our children “exude confidence.”

But how much of all that confidence is just a veneer over uncertainty?  How much of it is “faking it until you can make it?” How much of it is bullshit, deceiving ourselves and others and hoping to God that we can deliver on what we’re saying?

My hunch is quite a bit.

What if we revealed our Dark Sides?

So what might happen if we exposed more of our uncertainty and vulnerability? Would people buy less from us? Choose to work for a different company or boss? Not pay attention to our ideas? Would they judge us less competent?

Or might they like and trust us more because of our honesty?

I’m participating in a program this month (Quest 2015) to help us creative types look at how we can lead a more creative life in 2015. On Saturday morning a prompt came from Todd Kashdan, a psychology professor and author of the book, “The Upside of Your Dark Side.

The Upside of the Dark Side: Which emotions do you feel most guilty about having? Afraid that others might find out? How could you spend this year trying to be open to the emotional window that allows you to be courageous?”

Whoa, Nellie. “There’s no way I’m going to share my most guilty emotions publicly,”  I posted to the Quest 2015 community Facbook page.  Sorry, gang. I like this community writing and sharing, but I’m not going there. I don’t do darkness. I’m the positive, optimistic chick. And, good grief, what would people think if they knew my real dark side?

Todd replied to my “NO WAY!” right away.

Thank you for sharing this, Lois.  Let me share two thoughts from the science:

  1. Shared pain serves as social glue. And binds us into greater intimacy than almost anything else. Sharing our vulnerabilities is a sign of strength.
  2. What we know is anxiety, sadness, anger, embarrassment, guilt, and boredom aren’t the problems. Our unwillingness to be in contact with these emotions and our unwillingness to listen to the information they provide is the problem.

What if we made space for these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings and still moved in the direction of what matters most? What are our intuitive emotional reactions telling us that we can learn from?

You’ll be amazed at what happens when you are open to them. What if our deep dark secrets are the same as everyone else?

Getting real is really hard

So after a few hours, I wrote my “Dark Side” story, shared it with the group, and turned off the computer.

You can watch and praise Brene Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability, but to lay bare your vulnerabilities is Really. Hard. Scary. Work. That’s why most people avoid it like an IRS Audit.

But guess what? Nothing bad happened. Only good. Ripping my soul open helped people see the real me.  Instead of judgment, I got encouragement and compassion, and a whole lot of love from people I have never met.  I’ve also seen some new light in my dark places.

All of this leads me to consider:

  • How can I show up more as my real self, making it safe for other people to come as they are?
  • How can I pay as much attention to the information from people’s emotions as I do to research data?
  • How can I more regularly call bullshit and invite people into honest conversations that need to be had to solve important problems?

Note:  Many of us rebels are good at calling BS, especially when we’re angry. But how could we call BS in a way that doesn’t whip up a shitstorm?  What skills can we put into practice so that we have honest conversations and not “I’m right, you’re wrong” debates with people who don’t agree with our ideas?

  • How as a society can we stop rewarding the bull shitters?

This is a one person at a time change, although some individuals can influence thousands. A recent client incident brings this alive for me.

The executive vice president of a Fortune 100 company was explaining the eight behaviors important to shaping their corporate culture.

“To be honest, I’m only good at these three behaviors, and I really struggle with these two,” he explained during a company Town Hall.

People’s reaction to his talk was off the “employee engagement” charts.
“I never heard an executive be that honest and self-aware – especially at this company. I thought this was going to be another BS session on vision and values. But this one executive changed my whole view about the company because he was so truthful,” an employee told me.

The gift of calling bullshit

In all honesty, I was upset with my college friend when he called my bullshit.  Today I realize he gave me an important gift.

– See more at:

Rebel Dangers: When your Boss Leaves

Readers of Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within keep providing us with ground truth and new insights about life as a rebel at work–many of which we wish we had included in our book. One of my favorites is this lament from a reader who is a longtime rebel at work. When a new boss took over his unit, he got the distinct impression that the new boss wasn’t fond of his work suggestions. As this reader wrote,

I feel like I’m being told to go sit in the corner and shut up!

Although it shouldn’t be this way, in most organizations rebel fortunes are tied to the personality and management style of a boss. As we discuss in our book, understanding your boss and gaining credibility are the first things rebels need to do. Life as a change agent is hard, and it gets even harder if you don’t have a plan and an order for your actions.

When your boss changes, you almost certainly will need to start over. New leaders are likely to be at least a bit insecure and therefore reluctant to continue activities they’re not comfortable with–i.e. they consider uncertain and/or risky. Don’t assume your new boss won’t have issues with what you’re doing. She will and it’s your job to gain her confidence. In our reader’s case, he senses that his boss is not comfortable with the “creative ideas that spill over into other domains than the one I’m technically responsible for.”

And that brings up another interesting dimension of being a rebel at work. Sometimes you’re shut down not because you have ideas for changing your own particular job, but because you have the interdisciplinary skills to offer ideas to help other parts of the organization. Rebels at work are often constrained by one-dimensional job descriptions and dysfunctional stovepipes. Rather than encourage individuals to contribute on issues they’re passionate about, many organizations prefer employees to stay in their own lanes. They do so so they can hit targets and have predictable results, but their “success” comes at a price: disengaged employees and unrealized potential.



Shame on you

Shame boyShame is one of those big, ugly words. It implies that detestable, dishonorable and hugely embarrassing acts have been committed.

Unlike embarrassment, shame is much more painful. Making a mistake can be embarrassing. Doing something immoral or disgraceful is shameful.

Carmen and I have written a lot about how uncomfortable it is to be a rebel at work, asking frank questions and suggesting new approaches that upset “business as usual.”

But we were truly taken aback during a recent workshop when we asked people about their biggest fears and so many started talking about SHAME. One, and then two and then several people said that their bosses had made them feel shameful for speaking up about issues in their workplaces.

Social scientists have done extensive research around the issue of why employees fear speaking up, coining terms like Organizational Silence, the Mum Effect, and the Spiral of Silence. (See the book “Voice and Silence in Organizations.”)

Despite the awareness of the problem and its causes, this fear of speaking up at work remains pervasive. Not because people are afraid of looking dumb or making people (and themselves) feel uncomfortable.

But because they are made to feel shameful by their bosses.

The Shame Game jpeg

The sad fact is that most people who speak up at work CARE about their organization more than most. They want to make things better. To consciously or unconsciously make them feel that speaking up is a disgraceful, improper act feeds a culture of fear and silence.

And no amount of money spent on employee engagement is going to fix that.

Perhaps managers’ 360 feedback surveys should ask questions like:

  • What do I do to make people feel comfortable raising uncomfortable issues about our organization?
  • How fearful are you about raising uncomfortable issues with me? (1 to 10 scale)
  • How often, if ever, have I made you feel guilty about speaking up and raising unpopular views?

And perhaps it’s time to write down questions  and comments that fly around the workplace that imply shame. Keep a list, and then share it with your boss or the corporate ombudsman or HR to have an honest conversation.

  • Why can’t you be a team player like everyone else around here? What’s your problem?
  • Do you really have to bring this up again? Why can’t you just let it go? All you’re doing is causing trouble and diverting us from our real work.
  • You should know better. Really, at your age and at this point in your career it’s kind of shocking that you can’t understand how the business really works.
  • You’re kidding me, right? You actually think that…

If we really care about our organizations, we’ll continue to suggest ways to improve – however uncomfortable they may be.

We rebels may also have to be the ones to raise the need for developing an important organizational behavior: learning how to consider new ideas, without being defensive or resorting to destructive behaviors like shaming people.

And if people refuse to learn this skill and continue to make us feel shameful? Well, that’s a signal that it’s time to find a new job.





Jerry Garcia was a reluctant rebel

Jerry Garcia, Reluctant Rebel at Workjpeg

There’s a pervasive image of change makers as hell-bent, fire-breathing, go get ‘em cowboy (or Steve Jobs) types of people.

Not really. Most of us are incredibly reluctant to get involved.

Not because we don’t care. But because we often feel that solving the problem requires expertise far beyond what we know. And because we know how HARD it is to change things inside a company, a non-profit, our children’s school, or any organization that has been functioning a certain way for a while.

We keep thinking that the people with the expertise should see the problem and step in. But when it becomes clear that the people with the expertise aren’t seeing the issue or acting, we feel that we must.

The fact is most rebels care too much to sit around and let a problem fester.

So we reluctantly get involved, even when we don’t necessarily have the expertise to solve the problem.

When the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead got involved in efforts to save the rainforests he famously said:

“Somebody has to do something, and it’s just incredibly pathetic it has to be us, with all the other citizens of the planet, and all the other resources out there, but since no one else is doing anything about it, we don’t really have any choice.”

 In a 1989 interview with High Times  Garcia explained his reluctance.

HT: You’ve made the statement that you think it’s pretty pathetic that you’re the ones who have to do it.

JG: Yeah, it is. It’s an alarming feeling. This is an earth problem — the whole earth. And who’s left talking about it? Us.

Come on! We’re not the ones. We’re not qualified to do it. But we’re going to do it unless, or until, somebody else does. We’re going to keep working on it. We’re going to get as much support from as many people as we possibly can.

If we lose it (the rainforest), we’re not going to get it back. It’s definitely life threatening, in the same sense that atomic bombs are life threatening, only this one is mindless. It’s gone along and there’s nobody at the wheel. Out of control. Something needs to be done about it. We’re alarmed — we’re just making an effort to communicate our own alarm.

 Rebel theme: “Something needs to be done about this. I guess I need to be the one to get things started.”


Adults at Work

“This book was written for me. I need to get a copy!”

“I’ve been waiting for a book like this!”

“Wish I could have gotten this advice years ago.”

That’s what we’ve heard from individuals who’ve read Rebels at Work, at least those individuals who aren’t managers in large organizations.

From the managers, at least some of them, the reaction is a bit more….muted, shall we say.

“Why would I want my employees to make my life even more difficult?”

“Are you suggesting that my employees are always right?”

“The last thing I want to do is to encourage dissent in the workplace!”

And we wonder why why we have a crisis of Employee Engagement in the workplace. Although we suspect the problem is not that employees aren’t engaged in their work–at least in the beginning. All of the new entrants into the labor force we meet–mostly those frisky Millennials–are super excited to start contributing.

And yet somehow they become DISENGAGED.

Employee Engagement implies that the attitudes of the workers are the issue.

Employee DISENGAGEMENT may be more to the point. Something leads them to reassess their commitment and disconnect from their jobs. And one of the main causes of disengagement is the sense they get from their organizations that their views and contributions are not respected.

Note that I didn’t directly blame managers. Sure, they’re part of the organization, but I suspect there’s something deeper at play. In a nifty piece in Fast Company more than a year ago leadership consultant Michael Chayes argued that the scientific management principles that emerged at the start of the last century bear much of the blame. As a result of these principles:

Managers became the “adults,” planning for and directing the more “child-like” workers, who lacked the capacity to manage their own work lives. The resulting culture of business promoted high productivity, but at the expense of workers who became little more than “cogs in the system.”

Rebels at Work is the book for those who believe we can all be Adults at Work. It’s not anti-management. It’s pro-humans.


Bring your soul to work

Stone spiralThe malaise of work is a spiritual crisis.

Not spiritual in the religious sense. But spiritual in our yearning to have more joy, kindness, respect and compassion at work. Spiritual in our desire to grow our capacity to learn, help, care, imagine, forgive, and support others – and they us — when we push ourselves into the scary territory of doing new types of work. Spiritual in that we want to be devoted to our work, but not slaves to it.

To single handedly change corporate cultures is almost impossible. But perhaps what we can do is  bring our best selves to work, allowing our spiritual longings to run free, and in doing so, infect others.

By our best selves I mean doing work that matters to us. That we, for some reason, are truly good at. So good, in fact, you could say we become devoted to our work.

I don’t mean devoted to our company’s purpose. The reality is that most organizations don’t have an inspirational purpose that stirs our heart and soul. They’re about serving customers, making money, and hopefully, providing decent wages and an ethical work environment. You can search a whole lifetime to find an organization with a “meaningful purpose” and come up empty. Or you can find one with an inspiring purpose and walk into a cold, cynical culture.

 Rather than focus on company purpose, perhaps we should focus on personal devotion. By devotion I mean what you care about find great satisfaction in being able to do well.

A friend who works for a global transportation company felt trapped in a job that left him spiritually bereft.

“I just don’t feel like this company is changing the world in any meaningful way. I need more purpose at work. Some days I wish I could just paint more,” he said.

“You’re an artist!” I asked. Who knew.

Over dinner he told me how creativity is so important to him, and then we started exploring how he could bring more creativity to his work inside a big company. How he might be able to devote himself to developing creative product and service solutions. How maybe he could devote himself to creativity at work, period.

He’s now head of innovation and happier and more energized than I’ve seen him in the past 10 years. His spirit is infectious, too.

This is the wonderful thing about being devoted to your work. Your human spiritual workings – kindness, caring, compassion – grow and affect others at work, as well as your family and friends.

The frame of your devotion can also help you envision where to take your work, reaching beyond companies, functions and specialties.

What are you devoted to?

I’ve always been devoted to helping people, causes and companies be understood. This has taken me from working in marketing positions, advising industry leaders, serving on non-profit boards, coaching sales executives on big pitches, and volunteering on community issues. The devotion is the same. The application is different. The meaning is always there.

One of my brothers owns a sand and gravel company. For years I thought he was devoted to making big buckets of money. But I have come to appreciate how devoted he is to helping his largely uneducated, immigrant employees live the American dream. He works so much because his work is a spiritual — though he would never probably be comfortable in talking about it in this way.

With the publication of the new book a co-authored with Carmen Medina, Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within, many people have asked me why I got involved in this topic. Rebels? Really?

Helping people in big organizations have their often-provocative ideas be understood fits my devotion.

Spiritual prophets at work?

The other reason is that people devoted enough to speak up for important and unpopular ideas may be the spiritual prophets at our workplaces. They bring courage, creativity, commitment and a belief that there’s always a way to improve work, making things better for people..

It’s hard to change the world or even our companies. But maybe, just maybe we can make work more spiritual by bringing our best selves to our work and positively affecting others.

The Latin meaning of devotion is vow.

What might happen if more of us vowed to do work that brings us alive?

The elephant in the room

More than elephants jpeg

Do Something

solve problems vs fixateInnovation managers from two Fortune 50 companies got together a few weeks ago and the conversation devolved into just how frustrating internal barriers are to getting anything substantive done.

Yesterday nurses from a prestigious Boston hospital group talked about patient care and the conversation turned to how impossible it is to improve health care because vice presidents are making decisions without any input from the people working directly with patients. In other words, the nurses.

These conversations can be pretty intense. There are enormous barriers to getting things done inside large organizations.

But talking over and over again about all the obstacles, politics and bureaucracy doesn’t help make anything better.  Nor does it make us feel better. Dwelling on what we can’t do saps us.

I asked the nurses what they had suggested to the vice presidents.  In what ways could the nurses be part of the VP discussions about important decisions affecting patients?


The nurses are so stuck in thinking that the “hierarchy is the hierarchy” that they hadn’t even considered proposing possible solutions.  ” What if,” I proposed, “you suggested that the nurses and VPs get together every three months for a session to discuss the issues and talk about different scenarios to consider?  Maybe you suggest doing this type of collaborative session twice as an experiment to see if it provides more value. If it works, it continues.  If it doesn’t the VPs can go back to their old ways.”

Wishing that things were different is a waste of time.

Similarly, one of the Fortune 50 innovation managers finally said, “Aren’t we wasting time wishing things could be different. What if we recognize how it really is and work on a success plan based on that reality?”

People across industries are frustrated with how hard it is do change things at work.  The opportunity for all of us  is to create possible solutions — regardless of our title or “rank” in the hierarchy — and suggest ways to test them out.

And maybe a way to get started is to NOT to focus on “disrupt the industry, change the world, innovate the business model” kind of ideas.

Sometimes big change starts just by getting the right people together — like hospital administrators and nurses — to talk about the real issues.

Magical thinking may lead people to believe that their thoughts by themselves can bring about effects in the world or that thinking something corresponds with doing it.

Andrew Colman, Dictionary of Psychology




The World Is Fast: An Ode to Daring Work

The world is fast.

Viral diseases.
Natural disasters.
Pop-up stores.
Food trucks.
Trending tweets.
Viral videos.
Bull markets.
Bear markets.
Sudden death.
Market crashes
Medical miracles.
Random collisions.
Unexpected introductions.
The three a.m. eureka.

We are slow.

Looking for proof.
Seeking certainty.
Denying our yearnings.
Discrediting our hunches.
Waiting for someone else.
Hoping for a hero.
Worrying about mistakes.
Seeing things through a warped lens.
Remembering before.
Longing for the predictable.

Take one step.

Then another.
Let go.
Dive in.

Feel the energy.

The wind helping you go faster.
The unusual friendships.
The laughter from the unexpected.

The surprise that you are safe.
The surprise that work is different.
The relief that you are relevant. Running rather than being dragged.

The world is fast and furiously asking us to take our feet off the brakes.

We are all skidding.

Take your foot off the brake.

Steer into your work.

Into your life.
Into the world.


Avoiding backlash

horses drawingThe fear of backlash silences so many people with great ideas.

While talking about Rebels at Work yesterday  a regional manager of an automotive parts company told me, “Lois I have plenty of good ideas on how to improve things at work and I know how to position ideas and connect them to what the company cares about.

“But if I  if I say anything the backlash will be horrible.  People’s careers are ruined for speaking up at my company. I just can’t risk my reputation.”


So here’s the deal. Don’t go it alone.


Find some allies who also believe there’s a way to solve the problem and together take it to your boss.  If there’s a handful of people supporting a new approach the boss is much more likely to consider the idea than if it’s just you, and there’s less likelihood of personal backlash.

Unfortunately it’s easy for a boss  to discredit one person who disagrees with the way the organization is being run.  “He’s over his head.  He doesn’t have enough experience. He’s such a damn know-it-all. Etc. Etc.   But to discredit five or 10 people?   Now the boss is paying attention.

If you really want to avoid backlash, get 10 percent of the people in your organization behind the idea.  Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when 10 percent of a population holds a strong belief, the belief will be adopted. (Here’s the link to the study.)

When you have to play corporate politics, play with a team.

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