The Rebel Gardener

 I didn’t come easily to gardening. In fact, until I was about 55 years old (and that was almost 9 years ago) I paid gardening no mind at all. Zilch.

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All I could see in gardening was way too much physical labor, almost all of it during hot Washington D.C. summers. Just a lot of sweat.

But somewhere in my body lurked the gardening gene just waiting to express itself. Geneticists have determined that for some genes, expression is indeed a function of age. And clearly that was the case for my gardening gene. In the spring of 2010, it began to stick out its tendril-covered head. I began modestly with a few tomato plants. But in just a couple of years, I was starting most of my plants as seedlings and slowly reclaiming the ivy-infested parts of my lawn. It’s an ongoing project.

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I wish someone had told me sooner that gardening was a learning activity. Only by paying attention to how the plants behave under different conditions can you improve your gardening success rate. If you get into it, gardening is a deeply analytic activity. 

And, of course or I wouldn’t be writing about it here, gardening offers a series of lessons for Rebels at Work. Being a Rebel at Work calls upon your analytic talents. And the more experience you have as a Rebel, the smarter you will be about advocating for change in organizations. But beyond that…

Failure is an essential component of gardening and of being a Rebel at Work. It’s only been in the past year that, as a gardener, I’ve become comfortable in ripping out plants that didn’t work out where I put them. I used to think such bad outcomes were an indictment of my underdeveloped gardening skills. Now I understand that only through experimentation can I learn what works and what doesn’t. Now Rebels at Work probably can’t afford too many bad ideas, but if you can master the art of tiny pivots—small experiments that can test some aspect of a proposal, you can learn to leverage “failure.” Before gardeners invest real money in a new flower bed, they should first test just a plant here or there to see what works in the soil and light.

The shady spots are never as shady as you think and the sunny spots are never as sunny. This partly explains why failure is an essential component of gardening. Just a few feet of separation can produce significant changes in light. I once planted two rose bushes within three feet of each other on the southeast exposure of my lawn. One prospered but the other faltered because of the dappled sunlight that reached it through overhanging trees. When I moved the laggard to what I had previously thought of as the too-shady side of my lawn, it doubled in size. Rebels can sometimes make facile assumptions about what parts of the organization would be most receptive to change. The team you think is ideal for your prototype because the leader is so friendly may actually harbor bamboo spikes underneath its surface. Go beyond superficial appearances.

Some things just take time. Plants have to settle into their new environments. Weather varies year to year. My transplanted rose bush only gave one weak flower the first year in its new location. But now it’s a reliable producer, if still not as robust as its sun-blessed twin. And so it is with organizational change. Expecting immediate results should be a rookie mistake, and yet we see it everywhere. I often think the most successful change efforts are the ones that people don’t quite realize are happening. Tiny pivots accumulate and without sturm und drang the organization finds itself in a better place. Rebels who want instant ego gratification normally aren’t willing to take the tortoise approach. And so their garden doesn’t grow.

Do the work. I’ve always had a problem with routine tasks. I’m just downright lazy about them. But gardening has knocked some sense into me on this front. Unless I do the work, nothing good happens. Failing to do the work is lethal to gardeners and Rebels. The Rebel who enjoys talking about her vision but doesn’t come up with a viable implementation plan is failing to do the work. If the Rebel isn’t into details, then she needs to ally herself with someone who is. 

Someone has to sweat the details!

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Dream Teams: Diversity Isn't Enough

 One of the most valuable roles of Rebels is shaking up thinking by challenging group think, accepted assumptions and "business as usual."

One of the most valuable roles of Rebels is shaking up thinking by challenging group think, accepted assumptions and "business as usual."

Teams with diverse viewpoints, approaches to problem solving and life experiences outperform groups of the “best and brightest,” as researchers like University of Michigan’s Scott Page have long shown.

BUT diversity isn’t enough. In fact, diversity can contribute to organizational silence, where people hold back from speaking up and offering their ideas.

Consider the studies by David Maxwell that found 90% of nurses unwilling to speak up to physicians even though they knew a patient might be at risk. Or the 93% of people who said they don’t speak up when they know there’s a risk of an accident of work.

How could they not speak up? Being different is uncomfortable and when we’re uncomfortable we tend to hold back. Especially in cultures that allow abrasive behavior and abusive bosses (and physicians). It’s not safe to dissent, so people don’t.

Diversity also increases conflict, which people abhor. Every time Carmen and I speak and ask people about their greatest challenges when introducing new ideas, conflict tops the list.

“If organizations embrace diversity, they risk workplace conflict,” says Dr. Nigel Bassett-Jones of Oxford-Brookes University. “And if they avoid diversity, they risk loss of competitiveness.”

Add to that the research from Harvard, Berkeley and University of Minnesota that found most corporate diversity programs have “no positive effects in the average workplace” because when employees become scared that they might offend someone, they disengage, which contributes to more organizational silence.

The reality is that our brains are hardwired to want to be with people like ourselves – and naturally fear strangers or the unfamiliar. (Google “xenophobia” and “amygdala.”) That’s why so many of us naturally gravitate to groups, neighborhoods, and work teams with people like ourselves – and avoid the different.

So how DO you create Dream Teams?

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So how do you create Dream Teams where different people come together, overcome the tension of their differences, and work in open, direct ways that keep you in the magical “Zone of Possibility?”

That’s what Shane Snow explores in his excellent new book, “Dream Teams: Working Together Without Falling Apart.”  Shane is a great storyteller and weaves together fascinating research and stories from music, business, police forces , sports, and the gaming world to provide ways to embrace cognitive friction.

Some of my favorite takeaways:

Cast your teams: “Routine problems don’t require much (or often, any) cognitive diversity, while novel problems benefit from it greatly. Based on that do a casting session for who you need on the team. When  you take this approach we start to think of our differences as gifts.” (HT to Keith Yamashita.)

Bring in more rebels: Having a naysayer in a group shakes up thinking in valuable ways.  “Dissenting views by a minority of individuals stimulate the kinds of thought processes that lead to better decisions, better problem solving and more originality,” per Dr. Charlan Nement of UC Berkeley. The presence of a minority viewpoint helps groups look at issues “on all sides.” In other words, you need people to provoke group think and kick you out of inertia.

Play more: “Neuroscientists have demonstrated that play and laughter can actually change our brains to be less fearful…Playing can physically help the brain to get braver…and make us less afraid of cognitive friction.”

Don’t value your values too much: Shared values make us more likely to think the same, stop searching for better solutions once we have solutions that work, and add to organizational silence. “Seven out of ten American employees in companies with strong values hush up when their opinions are at odds with those of their superiors,” according to research by Warren Bennis at the University of Southern California.

Cultivate intellectual humility “Intellectual humility makes one more correctly judge when it is time to change” and is a predictor for openness to changing important opinions, curiosity, tolerance for ambiguity, ability to detect the validity of persuasive arguments. In other words, a more open-minded culture needs people with intellectual humility.

Activate oxytocin and empathy with stories: “When our brains release oxytocin for a person who is not in our in-group, the bias we have for them disappears. And one of the key ways we can do that is through sharing good stories.” This is why it’s so helpful for teams to share their personal stories, from hardships growing up to who in their life helped them achieve a dream.

Read more novels: “People who read a book or more per month, the data shows, are significantly more likely to have high intellectual humility than those who rarely read.” Stories cultivate empathy.

I highly recommend Shane’s book. And don’t miss the footnotes.

Do You Have a MAC?

Do You Have a MAC?

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No, this isn’t another installment in the PC/MAC wars. What we want to know is whether you, the plucky change agent at work, know your Minimum Acceptable Change, that first step—or perhaps just a half-step—that you believe will put your organization on the path to progress. I was introduced to this idea just a few weeks ago at a leadership seminar for civil servants in the Federal Government.

We put considerable emphasis on the tactics Rebels at Work need to use in meetings to be successful. For example, rebels should be parsimonious in the time they take to lay out their change ideas, and generous in the time they allot to discussion. The primary purpose of the meeting is not for the rebel to hear himself talk but rather for the rebel to listen to what others have to say. And that’s why obsessing over a “perfect” presentation may not be such a good idea; less perfect presentations provide more openings through which others can contribute. The worst aspect of wonky presentations is how closed they are to other people’s suggestions. When confronted with a slide chock full of bullet points, you have a hard time justifying adding one more.

By the way, on the topic of slide decks, have you all caught the clever commercial where a “Bond villain” tortures his prisoner with a slide presentation on his plans for world domination?

 

But I digress.

Another excellent preparatory step you can take before you present your change ideas is to have in mind your Minimum Acceptable Change. The MAC is that action, or series of actions, that you believe moves your group in the direction of improvement, toward goodness. The MAC will be different for each organization. In a sclerotic bureaucracy, the MAC may simply be an agreement to present your idea to the next bureaucratic layer. Because often in bureaucracies, climbing the hierarchy is a type of progress.

Knowing your MAC is useful in a couple of ways. First, it forces you to be realistic in considering what type of change your organization is likely to accept. It is rare indeed for a Rebel at Work to part the waters at her first meeting. But often that’s the only contingency she’s planned for so when the audience is not blinded by her brilliance, she has no alternative to offer. With a MAC in her back pocket, the Rebel at Work has a better chance of directing the discussion toward a viable interim step. A rebel I talked to last year told me that she’s all about Tiny Pivots, one quarter-step after another that eventually add up to change

Also, having a MAC allows you to avoid unsatisfying compromises. Indeed, your Minimum Acceptable Change can be quite different from a compromise. In passive-aggressive organizations, compromise is often a type of off-ramp—a way to get the rebel off the road where he can do less harm. So, for example, the clever bureaucratic black belt in the meeting might suggest that you go talk to the Talent staff about your idea, calculating that it will be months before he’ll hear from you again. But if you’ve thought about your MAC, you might be ready instead to suggest a small change in HR practices that could test your new idea.

The MAC strategy works best when everyone can agree that “We need to do something!” Often, we can all see that the status quo is unsatisfactory, but we can’t agree on how to fix it. A MAC proposal should have several characteristics:

·       The change advocate should believe it would be a useful first step.

·       At least one or two individuals who oppose dramatic change should be willing to support it. (This requires some discussions and prework before the meeting.)

·       It should not require significant changes in regulations or large amounts of new funding.

·       Its potential impact should be apparent early on, and the Rebel at Work should have an idea for how to observe/measure it.

During my CIA career, I pushed for the Agency to embrace digital publication methods and move away from the once-a-day “newspaper” format. But that was not my MAC. My initial starting point was a database that we populated with intelligence articles as soon as they were deemed ready. A small number of individuals had access to the database, but they soon testified to its utility. An unanticipated but essential benefit of the MAC was that it revealed many of the other issues that would need resolving before we could embrace digital media.

So before your next meeting, decide for yourself what the best small step forward looks likes. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up someplace else!

Rebels at Work Revolt at Nike

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The breaking news of women at Nike revolting and forcing change is a case history in how good Rebels at Work succeed.

First some backstory.

When women at Nike brought their concerns to managers who they were supposed to be able to trust, they were ignored. When they went through formal HR processes to report harassment and unethical behavior by male colleagues, HR also ignored them. While many executives were aware of the problems, they "looked the other way."

So the toxic work environment continued and women were repeatedly passed over for promotions by less qualified men, publicly demeaned and called things like "a stupid bitch," sexually harassed, and excluded from being part of an inner circle of male decision makers. 

But a couple of months a go a small group of women banded together and revolted. Six top executives have resigned in the last month, the brand's reputation is tarnished, and the CEO is under pressure. 

Using "good rebel" practices to revolt

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While our "good rebel/bad rebel" chart is not definitive, it has helped us spread the word over the past eight years on how to make change in large organizations even if you don't have positional authority. Here's a look on how Nike women put some of these practices to use.

Attract support, do it together:  The first rule of all effective change is to not go it alone. But rather create your own Rebel Alliance, just as the women at Nike did.  There is power in numbers.

Overcome reluctance: Like most Rebels, these Nike women revolted reluctantly. They loved Nike enough to tackle an ugly, pervasive problem and a group of powerful men. But there was fear about retribution from male executives and hurting their reputations. Few of us gleefully want to rebel. Rather, it's a duty.

FOR vs. just against: According to Amanda Schebiel, a former Nike employee, "No one went to just complain. We went to make it better." Rebels don't just complain. They want to create solutions to problems that are effecting the success of their organizations and team mates.

Get evidence: to get attention, Rebels find data and proof to back up their claims. The Nike women covertly surveyed their peers about whether they had been the victim of discrimination or harassment. Once the CEO received that survey data, several top executives "resigned." Numbers count. Demonstrating the magnitude of an issue with data helps make the issue real in ways that are more difficult for executives to discount.

Change the rules vs. break the rules: The Nike Rebels didn't want to break any rules. They wanted to create new rules, oversight and diversity commitments that would allow everyone to flourish at Nike, not just the cabal. They wanted Nike to live up to its mission and values.

Rebels forcing companies to address problems

We recommend reading the excellent investigative reporting on the Nike revolt by New York Times writers Julie Creswell, Kevin Draper and Rachel Abrams.

It's a story all too familiar to many Rebels at Work.

And it is a story that reminds us of the power of people who love their company enough to band together, get the data, persevere and be heard.

The kind of sweeping overhaul that is occurring at Nike is rare in the corporate world, and illustrates how internal pressure from employees is forcing even huge companies to quickly address workplace problems.
— "Women at Nike Revolt, Forcing Change At Last," The New York Times, April 29, 2018
 
 

 

 

Make dodgeball an Olympic sport (outside of work)

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Many are calling for dodgeball to be made an Olympic sport. In fact, the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) granted observer status to this non-traditional sport last fall.

But to become part of the games there needs to be proof that dodgeball is a widespread sport.

Dodgeball organizations need to include proof that the sport is practiced in more than a certain number of countries on multiple continents by both sexes, and they have to be compliant with the regulations of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
— Global Association of International Sports Federations

No problem! These are so easy to prove for dodgeball, unlike say, pole dancing, which has also been granted observer status.

Dodgeball is the unofficial Olympic sport of workplaces around the world, with tens of millions of people playing every day, sometimes all day. 

From my observation, women and men are equally skilled and excel with only mild stimulants like bad coffee, looming budget cuts, or a bad financial quarter.

The bigger, more bureaucratic and hierarchical the organization, the more likely you are to find people who could easily qualify to be part of a gold medal team. They’ve been training on the job for most of their working lives. They are so outstanding at playing at work that I doubt there will be too many problems with doping. Then again, the Russians might have another view considering their bureaucratic mastery.

Dodgeball rules and the 5D’s

For those of you who didn’t grow up playing dodgeball in PE class or on the street as I did in Boston, it’s a simple game: two teams try to throw balls at each other while avoiding being hit themselves. The objective is to eliminate everyone on the opposing team by hitting them with balls or catching a ball thrown by someone on the other team.

The balls are usually foam or rubber, so you don’t get physically hurt. Lots of running around and a simple strategy: don’t get hit and hit as many on the other team as possible.

It’s like a lot of meetings you’ve been in, right? Or when you’re trying to get more budget for your department. Or meet any performance metric that means someone has to lose for someone else to win.  (One CEO of a $70 billion company calls it “competitive collaboration.” Oy.)

Proficiency in dodgeball is all about mastering the 5D’s: dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge. Again, people at work excel in all five.  Every day you find people at work:

1. Dodging the elephants in the room.

2. Ducking uncomfortable conversations.

3. Dipping under the radar to avoid being asked to change how they work or to replace old systems and processes.

4. Diving for cover when a courageous team mate speaks up to the boss and you would rather seek cover than to be associated with your Rebel friend.

5. Dodging giving – and hearing -- honest and helpful feedback.

A dodgeball disadvantage for Rebels at Work?

While Rebels at Work are proficient in dodgeball – how could you not be if you’re employed and work with people -- Carmen and I find Rebels are better at playing offense, throwing the ball to get their change resistant colleagues and bosses out.

Dodging and ducking, not so much. We call out what no longer works and try not to duck difficult conversations and the general discomfort of change, as difficult as that may be.

While we’re always trying to support and promote Rebels at Work, I’m afraid we and our friends may not make the cut for the dodgeball Olympic qualifying teams.

But I like to fantasize about how much real change we could get done while our stuck-in-the-mud colleagues are off playing at the Olympics.

A straightforward mission

While it may take a while for dodgeball to become an Olympic sport, the 2018 Dodgeball World Cup competition will be held this year in one of the great office and bureaucracy capitals of the world: New York City.

The mission, per The World Dodgeball Association, “We want to achieve something straightforward.”

Don't we all.

 

Nothing Gets Approved Without This

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There’s a bad habit pervasive at work: not knowing what’s important to your boss and/or other people involved in approving your projects.

You keep sending project updates, adding more data to your PowerPoint presentations, researching additional industry best practices, writing emails warning that you need approvals now so as not to incur greater costs or fall behind deadlines.

And you hear nothing from your boss or client.

You complain to your team mates and become more and more frustrated. It’s like spitting in the wind.


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I’ve heard this story over and over again in advising project teams and self-identified Rebels at Work.

‘Do you know what’s most important to your boss? Is your project or proposal addressing what’s most important to her,’ I ask.

SILENCE.

And then a quick, "Wait, what?" and recognition of something so obvious people can't believe they have forgotten to do it.

They don’t know what’s most important to their boss. (As an aside: there’s often a disconnect between stated goals and what’s most important.)

This is why so many good ideas and projects get stalled. Bosses focus on what’s most important and ignore ideas that they don’t see as relevant.

Some suggestions:

  1. Ask your boss (or clients or others with whom you need cooperation) what’s most important to them and why.
  2. Show people how your idea supports what’s important.
  3. When seeking feedback, ask how important on a scale of 1-10 the proposed idea is to them. If it’s six or below, realize you're probably not going to make much progress. It’s not a priority. Put your energy somewhere else.
  4. Ask what would move the idea from a six to an eight or nine.
  5. During a meeting when people start talking why an idea won’t work stop the negativity quickly by asking, “How important on a scale of 1-10 is this idea to us?”  If it’s not important, move on to a different topic. If it IS important, reframe the conversation to “this idea will work IF we…” vs. “this won’t work because…”

Lastly, remember that bosses love learning what the organization can STOP doing. When you have a clear understanding of what’s important, earn credibility and trust by recommending what to stop.

It’s disappointing to learn that a great idea or new approach isn’t important. But the sooner you know, the sooner you can focus on what does matter.

ps – For all you bosses out there, be proactive and explain what is most important on a regular basis. You have no idea how much work and wasted energy goes on by bright people on your team.

The Lazy Manager

When I was but a pup, still going to graduate school, a professor came to me and said:

"Carmen I can tell that you're going to be a manager some day." {This came as quite a shock to me!} "And I have only one piece of advice for you?"

"What's that, Dr. Stearman?" {His name was William Stearman and Wikipedia tells me he is still alive. I always considered him a pro's pro in the national security realm.}

"Be lazy!"

Well that wasn't what I was expecting to hear and it took me years, if not decades, to understand what he was getting at. But as my own work style developed, I found that I -- and more importantly others -- had more success when I delegated, perhaps you might even say abdicated, and just let others do what they did well. Not fake delegation when you ask someone to handle a task and then hover around pressing them to get it done at your pace, not theirs. That's not delegating; instead it's a type of manipulation that comes second nature to many. 

Nope, when a manager is effectively delegating and appropriately lazy, she begins to entertain doubts as to whether she's needed at all on a work team. That's the indicator that you're lazy enough.

I reflected back on Dr. Stearman's advice recently upon reading this article about how procrastination is an effective management technique. The author contends that managers who are over-eager to answer employee questions and help them solve problems are getting in the way of their development. The author urges managers to procrastinate more, delay in being helpful. Dr. Stearman would have gotten right to the point: Be Lazy!

This discussion also gives me an opportunity to share a clip from my favorite movie about teams and management, Galaxy Quest. Ah yes, you may only know this movie as a humorous send-up of the Star Trek/Wars genre. But I have long wanted to organize a leadership seminar around the lessons of Galaxy Quest. In the movie, a group of aliens intercepts the transmissions of the Planet Earth television show Galaxy Quest and are so inspired by the brave crew that they successfully replicate the TV show's technology. Mayhem ensues when the aliens, unable to deploy the technology effectively against their evil enemies, "kidnap" the crew--now unemployed actors doing the "trekkie" convention circuit--to come help them fight the war. 

The lessons in the movie for organizations are many. Tim Allen plays the egotistical Captain Kirk character, and his fellow actors hate him. They only begin to succeed when they start operating as a team by respecting each other's contributions. We also learn about the importance of emotional resonance and how "being corny" can be an effective quality for leaders.

The clip below illustrates the value of procrastination/laziness by a manager. Tech Sergeant Chen, played by Tony Shalhoub, has been asked by the aliens to troubleshoot a problem with their reactor. Of course, Chen don't know nothing about beryllium reactors, but, by asking open-ended questions, he prompts the crew to solve the problem themselves. (If you Galaxy Quest devotees aren't familiar with this scene, that's because it didn't make the final cut of the movie. But it should have!)

 

In Defense of Meetings

Many years ago a leadership team I was part of took a personality test that evaluated our styles against four attributes:

  • ·       Motivated by Big Ideas
  • ·       Motivated by Human Relations
  • ·       Motivated by Completing Tasks
  • ·       Motivated by Analytics and Method

In the day-long feedback session, we sat with our fellow style peers—the Big Idea people all sat together, those who loved to get things done were all at one table, and so forth. I was sitting with the human relaters—we really liked people. After a few minutes of conversation, each group reported out what they most liked to do in the office and what they hated.

My people-lover group was stunned when the “Get Er Done” folks reported that the aspect of organization life they hated most was meetings. Us touchy-feely types had all agreed that we actually enjoyed meetings.

I remember that day every time someone disparages having to attend meetings. I most recently heard a young friend of mine do so. His work is technical and scientific and he briefed it recently to a group of colleagues in nonscientific support roles. He described the meeting as a waste of time so I asked him what he believed to be the purpose of providing the briefing to support staff. He thought about it for a second and said

“Well, they’re not going to provide me with any substantive suggestions.”

“Correct.” I said “so the purpose of the meeting is to…”

“Let them know what I do so they understand better the support they can give me.” He finished. With that context, he realized he described the meeting as a waste of time because he misunderstood its real purpose – the meeting was not about him as much as it was about them.

So meetings often get a bad rap because participants are confused about their purpose and/or because several of those attending had different agendas. My friend the scientist was used to sharing with his peers to gather their substantive feedback. But with the support group, it wasn’t about substance; it was more about camaraderie and creating bonds of trust and respect. Once he understood that goal, he realized he could be more lighthearted in his approach, sharing fun stories and even bloopers. (Although us people-people think story-telling is always a good communications strategy.)

Some common sense lessons I’ve learned about having better meetings – perhaps some readers may even grow to like meetings – or at least tolerate them better.

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Be clear about the purpose of the meeting—not the written agenda but what’s really going on. In general, you should have face-to-face meetings when there’s an important human dimension to the issue at hand. And us human-relater types think there almost always are important human dimensions – so that’s a real blind spot we have. But most other personalities in the workforce tend to think things like “the facts speak for themselves” or, much worse, “I already have the answers” and so they devalue the utility of meetings. (And by the way they also overestimate their own brilliance!) And when they do agree to a meeting, they conduct it like a standardized test or a fire drill. (a little more on that later!)

Don’t hold lengthy meetings just to update people or gather specific comments. Of course, updates are necessary but I’m sure you’ve been in work situations where the weekly update meeting is held even when there is nothing to update. It’s better to provide updates, according to business consultant Paul Axtell, as a sidebar to a meeting where some substantive issues are being discussed. And one of the worse types of meetings, I think, are what we called in the Intelligence Community “coordination meetings.” Ten people need to sign off on some type of content so they’re force-marched into a room where they wait their turn for their five minutes of air time. AAARGH! Often the person who came to the meeting with not much to say ends up droning on in some type of perverse payback for being forced to listen to everyone else. There are of course many occasions when a group discussion of a topic is useful—the topic is particularly controversial, for example, so everyone on the team needs to hear all perspectives. But determine that beforehand—ask your collaborators if they think it’s necessary to coordinate as a team before you put it on the schedule.

Recognize the socializing importance of meetings. I know this is the aspect of meetings that drove my more “efficient” colleagues crazy, but the small talk, the banter that occurs at the start or end of meetings is not trivial. It’s when colleagues catch up with each other as humans, when we share some funny story, when we perhaps reveal what’s really on our minds. Humans don’t establish trust by following orders or reporting out the latest numbers – they learn to trust by getting to know each other. That’s what happens during banter and small talk in the work place. One more point – the conversations that occur as meetings end can be quite revealing. We advise Rebels at Work to pay attention to those conversations—that’s when some people may finally mutter what they really think and when introverts who haven’t spoken up during the meeting might be more willing to share their thoughts.

Many of the meeting haters and efficiency experts have over the years recommended the ten-minute and/or standup meeting as a way to stop wasting time. I’ll concede there are scenarios where such fire-drill approaches are called for—in a hectic environment where every minute really is precious. But my suspicion is that they’re used more by managers who haven’t thought through the message they’re sending. When you tell your staff that you only have ten minutes to meet with them, you’re also telling them that you don’t have time for their ideas. It better be a life or death matter for a team member to bring up an issue, and it better be something that can be resolved in a minute or two. What complex, important issue can be resolved in 120 seconds? Not many I know of. We put standup meetings in the same category as “open-door policies” and “no problems without solutions”—management best practices that aren’t!

 

Grief and Growth at Work

 Appalachian trail: photo by ian Matta

Appalachian trail: photo by ian Matta

All change involves loss and some degree of grief, but we rarely help people – or ourselves -- process loss at work. Never mind learn ways to recover and become stronger. 

Losing a job. Losing work mates from downsizing. Losing the respect of executives because we challenged their beliefs -- beliefs that we know will soon cause problems. Losing the confidence in our employer because they sacrificed beloved organizational values to gain another two percent growth.

We deny our sadness and say things like, “It’s just a job, not brain cancer.”

We suffer. Beat ourselves up.  Become bitter. Curse our bosses and the rigid, hierarchical bureaucracies posing as progressive organizations. We get riled up and think, “Somebody should sue the bastards, for God’s sake.” 

Or we can choose to find meaning and learn from what happened, which not only eases suffering, but can potentially transform our careers.

Post traumatic growth

Admiral Jim Stockdale was repeatedly tortured for eight years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. He didn't have much reason to believe he’d ever make it home. He said he survived by framing the experience as something that would define the rest of his life. 

Rather than denying reality or taking on a victim mindset, Admiral Stockdale lived each day in prison trying to help the morale of his fellow prisoners. The overly-optimistic POWs without this mindset, however, didn’t fare so well.

Stockdale came out of the war experiencing post-traumatic growth, which is a positive psychological change resulting from adversity. (As opposed to the more commonly known syndrome of post-traumatic stress disorder.)

People who experience post-traumatic growth find a new appreciation for life, new perspectives on work paths, and a renewed sense of meaning.

In fact, some psychological research shows that finding benefits from a trauma can lead to personal transformation, according to University of California/Riverside professor Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness.

“Focusing on the lessons you can learn from the ordeal will help soften its blow,” says Lyubomirsky. “The lessons those realities impart could be patience, perseverance, loyalty or courage. Or perhaps you’re learning open-mindedness, forgiveness, generosity or self-control. Research shows that with post-traumatic growth you not only can you survive and recover, you can flourish.”

Social support, meaning and self-compassion

Three proven practices to experience post traumatic growth are social support, finding meaning, and self-compassion.

Carmen and I have always said that having a trusted tribe of friends is essential for all who identify as Rebels at Work. While your Rebel Alliance can help make your ideas better and move them through the bureaucracy, these friends can also help you recover from setbacks.

“Social support is pretty incredible, a strategy of almost magical proportions,” says Dr. Lyubomirsky.  “Talking to others about a traumatic experience helps you cope and see the event with a new perspective.”

A second strategy for coping is to find meaning and new perspectives by writing about the experience. 

Expressive writing forces us to organize our jumble of thoughts and feelings and construct a new narrative.  Dr. James Pennebaker of the University of Texas, who has been studying the benefits of writing for 30 years, found that it is a far more powerful tool for healing than anyone had imagined.

Writing for just 15 minutes a day for four consecutive days can produce lasting results in health, happiness and outlook. His recommended approach and writing prompts can be found here.

The trick, he says, is to not keep writing about the negative incident in the same way.

“If you catch yourself telling the same story over and over to get past your distress, rethink your strategy. Try writing or talking about your trauma in a completely different way,” Dr. Pennebaker advises in The Secret Life of Pronouns.  “How would a more detached narrator describe what happened? What other ways of explaining the event might exist? “

The third strategy is self-compassion, accepting that you’re human, acknowledging failures and frustrations and not dwelling on mistakes.

“Rather than relentlessly condemning ourselves when we fall, even if our fall is a spectacular one, we do have another option,” says Dr. Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.

 “We can recognize that everyone has times when they blow it, and treat ourselves kindly. Maybe we weren't able to put our best foot forward, but we tried, and falling flat on one’s face is an inevitable part of life. An honorable part, in fact.”

If we’re really pushing the envelope to do great work, we will fall.

Friends, self-compassion and finding meaning from what happened can help us rise up and push even further.

Even more faith

evenmorefaithby Jeanie Tomanek.jpg

Thanks to artist Jeanie Tomanek for letting us share her painting, "Even More Faith."  We think it captures the Winter Solstice and the soul of tenacious, optimistic Rebels at Work.

Carmen has often said that "Optimism is the greatest act of rebellion."

Optimism is a decision.

To look at setbacks as particular to a single problem, temporary circumstances or person.


To consider what needs to be learned or done differently to solve a problem or advance an idea.


To act versus sit on the wishful sidelines.


To keep going.


To support and help kindred spirits.


To remember when you have been successful to know that you will be successful again.

Pessimists blame, eschew responsibility, and give up. Research shows that they also do worse at their jobs and are eight times more likely to get depressed when things go wrong.

All emotions are contagious.

But positive emotions -- faith,  optimism, appreciation and joy -- attract support and inject a spirit of being able to achieve more and go farther than seems possible.

Here's to choosing more optimism and more faith in possibilities in 2018.

They are the emotions that carry new ideas forward.

On the Rebel Road

I've been on the road for the last few weeks. The second half of October saw me in Spain, my favorite destination in Europe because of the deep intermingling of several world cultures--ancient Rome, Catholicism, the Moors just to mention the top 3. My last stop was Barcelona where a real rebellions of sorts is underway as the Catalans seek independence from Madrid. I don't have an informed view on the issue of Catalonia's independence, although I'm never much impressed with the argument that stability is good for its own sake. In fact, arguments from complexity science tell us that the healthiest organisms live on the edge, in a state of almost constant adaptation. 

But it was interesting to observe how rebel behavior manifested in Barcelona, at least the three days I was there. The city seemed calm; people went about their business and/or pleasure as per normal.....except when they didn't. You would turn a street corner and run into an impromptu gathering. Catalans would rush by with their flags--which they seemed to have with them at all times just in case--to join the demonstration. And then they would disperse, probably to enjoy a bite to eat and a glass of cava. 

 Catalan Pro-independence demonstrators   

Catalan Pro-independence demonstrators

 

It appeared natural and spontaneous. There's a lesson in that for Rebels at Work: sometimes small moments of serendipity provide the best opportunities to mobilize your supporters. You don't need to wait for the big offsite next month to discuss your new idea; maybe your new method is so simple you can bring it up while you're standing next to a colleague in the lunch line. And unlike you--the rebel mastermind, your supporters don't have to live your rebel manifesto every waking moment. (Actually, we don't think that's such a good idea for the rebel leader either. Obsession is a pathology, not a strategy.) Everyone trying to make change happen at work needs to remember to breathe!

Speaking of the latest headlines, how about the shift change that's occurring in society around the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace? Actually shift change is an understatement: we're witnessing a volcanic eruption. In the future, historians will try to figure out what triggered the explosion. But for now, recent events lead me to reflect on two of my legacy Rebel truisms.

Everything stays the same until it changes.

and 

There is nothing so weak as an idea whose time has not yet come.

Indeed, everything stays the same until it changes. Rebels ALWAYS tend to underestimate how long a sclerotic Status Quo can linger, expecting change to happen much faster than it ever could. And Traditionalists always assume that when the rebellion doesn't materialize, that they've beaten back the pressures for change. Both parties are wrong at different times.

There is nothing so weak as an idea whose time has not yet come has a critical corollary. There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time is NOW!

The Last Trabi: My Fearless Failure

Trabi Berlin.JPG

Oh, the shortsightedness of people who espouse fearlessness. Especially when you find yourself in a fearlessness team building exercise and you keep stalling out on a major Berlin street at rush hour because you can’t get the clutch of your 40-year-old, East German Trabi car into second gear. 

Horns blare, BMWs cut you off, bicyclists appear out of nowhere. Fraulein, what are you doing? Get off the road.

I freeze in fear. How was it that I was driving this crapbox of a car for the past 10 minutes and now I am paralyzed, unable to move from 1st to second to third to oops, stop for a red light, don’t hit the bicyclists, and back to first and oh shit we’re stalled again. And, oh the crappy brakes. Will someone plow into us? Mein Gott, I’ve got two people in the car who are parents of young children.

A half an hour earlier 100 people from the company offsite were in a parking lot, dividing up into small teams of three, with one of the three volunteering to drive an old Trabi. To where we did not know. Oh, the fun of team building excursions.

Fearlessly volunteering for a team building exercise

Remembering how much I loved driving my first car, a red Fiat 128 with an amazing sound system and quirky stick shift, I volunteered to be the driver. How hard could it be?

Angela, Todd and I get in the car, me in driver’s seat. The jovial Trabi tour guide shows me how to work the shift. “See, one, two, up and in for three, then like this for reverse.” Not on the floor like my beloved Fiat, but on a 3-on-the-tree column shift. He points to a faded, peeling diagram on the dashboard that supposedly shows how to shift the gears. It is useless.

But I am fearless. I know how to drive a manual transmission car. I know how to drive in a crazy city. I learned how to drive in Boston. i am a Rebel at Work.

So what if it is dusk. And rush hour in a big, foreign city. And that I need to drive in this rush hour and listen to navigational instructions on an ancient car radio full of static. And that we are the last car in a long line of Trabi cars and the exhaust from the cars is engulfing us in noxious fumes we EPA babies have never experienced.  Let the fearless adventure begin!

Off we go. I’ve got this.

And then I don’t.

Stopping for red lights, bikes passing in front of the car, being in the wrong lane. The voice on our radio commanding, “Take the next right. Stay in the middle lane.”  Every traffic light, shifting, braking, engaging back into first gear, then second, then stalling in traffic. One, twice, three times. Now panicking. Throughout it all my team mates are supportive, reassuring, masking their worry, offering to drive.

The white Trabi is lost

The man in the radio comes back on, “We have lost the white Trabi. Everyone, pull over at the next intersection and we will hope that the white Trabi will catch up.”

My prefrontal cortex has shut down in fear and I can’t even get the crapbox Communist car into first.  Someone else has to drive. I pull over and Angela jumps into the back seat. I climb into the passenger seat and Todd climbs over from the backseat to the driver’s seat. It would be hilarious to see this human jungle gym if we weren’t all so rattled.

The gears grind but Todd gets our white Trabi moving, catching up with our crapbox caravan.  We’re supposed to be seeing the beautiful historic sites of Berlin as we drive around.  But our team can only focus on the Trabi.

After missing a turn, we lose the caravan. Todd bravely makes a U-turn to try to find the other Trabis being driven by our teammates, those lucky ones who seem to be easily driving, following instructions and enjoying the tour.  How are they learning about fear? Our car’s gears groan and we stop on a side street. The Trabi tour leader finds us and pulls up in his electric car.

“Ach, zee two cylinder is only catching one cylinder,” he tells us. “Do you want to take my electric car and I drive the Trabi?”  Not wanting to fail the fearless exercise, we decline. The nice Trabi tour guide reaches into our car, yanks on the clutch, and then somehow the driving is a little easier.

The voice from the radio tells the others to pull over and wait. The last white Trabi is coming.

Fifteen minutes later, like an oasis in the desert, we see a beautifully lighted restaurant and a long line of Trabis in a parking lot. It’s over. As we climb out of the car waiters serve us very good rose champagne. I drink two glasses, probably too fast.

I want my fear

At the end of the evening I tell the executive what I think about his “Be Fearless” mantra for developing a more risk-taking organizational culture. To his credit, he listens intently and with an open mind.

Telling people to “be fearless” and “fail fast” is superficial and lacks empathy.

Fear is one of the basic human emotions.  We shouldn’t deny its existence or value -- in ourselves and in others. Fear provides important data. Our desire should not be about having less fear but understanding what we can learn from our fears. 

Sometimes fear signals what we desire, motivating us to figure out what we need to do to get there.  Fear has preceded every major accomplishment in my life – saying yes to stepping off a corporate career track, saying yes to starting companies, saying yes to marriage, saying yes to becoming a mother at 40, saying yes this past summer to doing an improvisational monologue in front of an audience. Fear propelled me forward. 

Other times fear is our personal sonar system alerting us to danger, indicating what we need to learn, warning us from toxic situations, or giving us the energy to say no to commitments that sap our energy. Or that ask us to be someone we are not.

Fear gives us courage. It helps us to be fully alive and awake to the world in a way that confidence and bravery do not.

So yes, I hated that team building exercise because it made me fear FULL.

And I loved the exercise because it reminded me to ask for help, let my vulnerabilities show, and know that team mates are there to help. They want to help. 

We’re all in this together, especially when we see a Berlin city bus barreling down the street at us when we’re stuck in a stalled Trabi.

 

Breaking the Soil

The book on my nightstand right now is Willa Cather's My Antonia. I've come to Willa Cather way too late in life. Cather writes compelling novels, mostly about pioneers, that brim with insights about people doing hard things. In My Antonia, she describes the tribulations of the settlers of the vast Midwest prairies, focusing on an immigrant family from Bohemia and their daughter, Antonia.

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I had occasion to mention the book recently when I was chatting with someone who has so far been unable to change the conversation in his organization. He described a group of people so set in their ways that their skin had the bluish tint of rigor mortis. Agendas of meetings are so tightly controlled that it's impossible to introduce new ideas. What could he do?

"Break the soil" I said, channeling my inner Willa Cather. In My Antonia, Cather describes the difficult process by which the farmers prepared their soil after the frigid winter. Before any seeds could be planted, the settlers trudged behind their oxen or horses to break and turn the cold soil. Unless this work was done, sowing seeds was pointless. Seeds don't grow in ill-prepared soil.

And that's what needs to be done in frozen organizations where change seems impossible. Unless the Rebel at Work steps back to "break the soil", his seed ideas are unlikely to take root. So what does breaking the soil look like in organizations and businesses? We'd love to hear your ideas but here are some of ours.

  • Take advantage of any extracurricular activities, such as a "giving back to the community" days or the annual office picnic, to improve your relations with others, understand what makes them feel good, and perhaps gently encourage some reflection on how things are going.
  • Share articles, videos, etc. that promote interesting ideas. Don't pick negative articles; don't editorialize! Just share! And try to find ideas that the organization can claim it is already implementing--whether it's true or not! The group's perception of itself is key. If people start thinking of themselves as modernizers, they're more likely to consider other "new" ideas.
  • Engage in reciprocity. Do favors for others. Help someone advance an idea you're not that fond of in hopes they will do the same for you some day.
  • And one of our favorite evergreen ideas: have lunch with a bureaucratic black belt in your organization. Ask them about what's most important to the group and why. Have them talk about previous successful initiatives and what has worked in the past. When planting your new seeds, it's best to start with those that will thrive in the current soil.

 

On BIF2017 and giving a shit

There's enough to go around BIF2017.jpg

My big takeaway from the #bif2017 annual innovation conference is this:

Look at what you really give a shit about and then go do something about it.

This is the best way to feel fully alive and leave the world a better place.

Nothing changes when we sit on the sidelines. Or worse, it does change, but not how we want.

  • More people starve from poverty. (@eastvanbrand)
  • Crazy, narcissistic, self-serving billionaires get into office. (@alanwebber)
  • Teachers check out. (@100kin10)
  • People with cardiac issues don’t check back in with their doctors. (@MGHHeartHealth)
  • Systems of inequities and injustices oppress and kill people, bodily and/or in spirit. (@taliqtillman, @carrolldesign, @tenygross)

Complacency and apathy create danger. 

Accept the offer, know you are enough

Oh, but when we “accept the offer” of what life dishes out (@jazzcode),

recognize that we can’t go back to what was (@CajunAngela),

free the talented blue lobster people (@dscofield),

realize we are enough (@taliqtillman),

we can move mountains.

Especially when we get clear on what we fiercely care about.

The "give a shit" litmus test

When it comes to getting clear, the “give a shit” litmus test is a much better decision filter to me than the soft, passive words like purpose, passion, personal brand (gag). 

Language is powerful. It can oppress, judge, bore, shake us awake and kick our ass.

A Fortune 50 client today asked me to help her articulate a clearer purpose for her organization. Emboldened by BIF2017, I asked what she and her colleagues really “give a shit about” beyond the polished brand narrative. Now we were talking, for fu*k’s sake.

As an aside, if you’re someone who is offended by swearwords or think it’s lazy to use them, I urge you to read “Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing” by Melissa Mohr.

People swear about what they care about. As Carmen Medina (@milouness) said, some people deserve to be called assholes. And sometimes those assholes can open doors for you if you're looking forward.

Mohr tells us that “swearwords are the most powerful words we have with which to express extreme emotion, whether negative or positive…we need irreproachably formal and unassailably decent speech, but we also need the dirty, the vulgar, the wonderful obscenities and oaths that can do for us what no other words can.

I give a shit about helping people be heard.

Helping people to challenge the status quo and advocate for positive change in their organizations?  Well sure, that’s part of it, but that doesn’t mobilize anyone, including me.

In today’s world we have to stop the yak, yak, yakking and do something. No more waiting around for the proverbial “them” to save us.

Live your name as it's in the stars

In his story about courageous conversations Courtlandt Butts (@CC_AboutRace) talked about how he was ridiculed about his name in school. When he looked up the meaning of his name he learned that it is “messenger from the island.”

“You will live up to your name as it’s in the stars,” he said.

Today I looked up mine and found it means “Better Warrior.”  No wonder I so love the Rebels at Work tribe.

Following Angela Blanchard’s wise counsel I will continue to help people do the right thing, not the rule thing.

And I will honor grief and gratitude, forgiving the past so that we may all go dancing today.

Who knows, maybe Philip Sheppard (@PhilipSheppard) will be playing his cello.

 Rebels at Work at #BIF2017: Celine Schillinger, Dany DeGrave, Lois Kelly, Carmen Medina

Rebels at Work at #BIF2017: Celine Schillinger, Dany DeGrave, Lois Kelly, Carmen Medina

Rebel at Work or Reactionist?

Last week was the anniversary of Princess Diana’s death twenty years ago. The Wolf Hall novelist Hilary Mantel remembered Diana in a long article for The Guardian in which we learned that Diana thought of herself as a rebel. Mantel writes that Diana described herself “as a ‘rebel,’ on the grounds that she liked to do the opposite of everyone else.”

And then Mantel makes this key observation:

Throwing a tantrum when thwarted doesn’t make you a free spirit. Rolling your eyes and shrugging doesn’t prove you are brave…That is reaction, not rebellion.

Oh, I thought. Mantel has put her finger on a phenomenon Lois and I see all the time when we talk to groups about being more effective Rebels at Work. In the question and answer period, we always hear from several people who pose a question that goes something like this.

How do I get people to listen to me when I know they are wrong? When I speak up at a meeting I can see them all rolling their eyes.

Now, thanks to Mantel, I can explore whether their problem might be that they are just Reactionists and not really Rebels at Work. If you know your Russian history—and who among us doesn't—Reactionist sounds like one of those anti-Tsarist groups. Nihilists, Bolsheviks, Anarchists, and Reactionists. And like all of those groups, Reactionists can sometimes be just as destructive. They often disagree just for the sake of it; no matter what anyone says, they’ll take the opposite viewpoint.

It’s always easy to find fault with however your boss or your organization is running things. It’s much easier to mock a decision than to make one. But you know, that gets old quickly and your teammates will soon just start tuning you out. 

I know this from personal experience. During the 1990s at the CIA, I acquired a reputation for being cynical and negative. As one friend commented, “Carmen, I think the only thing that will shut you up is if we all acknowledge that you are right” I had to admit she had nailed it. I wouldn’t be satisfied until everyone acknowledged I knew more than they did.

Let me just say this is not a path to success.

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So if some of this is ringing true to you, the reader, let me offer a regimen to contain your inner Reactionist. (And none of us is immune to the Reactionist tendency, by the way.)

  1. At your next team meeting don’t say anything until the last ten minutes. Just listen. If you’re a veteran Reactionist, your very silence will shock your colleagues and provide you an immediate tactical advantage—the element of surprise!
  2. Because you’ve been quiet for most of the meeting, no doubt you will have generated a long list of stupidities that you want to comment on. Reflect on that list. If it’s particularly long, you can be confident that you are either A) on the worst team of ALL TIME, or—and more likely— B) A World-Class Reactionist, sort of an Eeyore and Cassandra wrapped up in one package.
  3. Assess your list of stupidities and decide to bring up only one of them. Obviously it should be one you think is important but more crucially—if you want to repair your Reactionist image—it should be something on which you can offer a constructive suggestion. And something you can frame in a positive way. Perhaps you can say something like this:
    I think doing X will take us in the right direction, and we could build on that by insert your suggestion.
     
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 as necessary.