The Bearable Discomfort of Rebels

“The problem with Rebels at Work…” my good friend and fellow rebel said “is that it makes being a rebel seem very glamorous. And you know it doesn’t seem very glamorous to me at all. In fact being a rebel is just a miserable thing and you’re doing a disservice in your talks and writings by making it sound fun and easy. ” Well, I’ve always known my friend to be very direct, but still his exposition pushed my back into the chair. I asked him if I could share his views, without attribution, and he agreed. Why without attribution? Because life as a rebel is hard and employers often don’t appreciate rebel free speech.

Poor employers. Life isn’t so easy for them either, even the ones who have good intentions. They’re caught in what seems like an impossible dilemma. Most enlightened businesses want to be seen as  places that empower staff and encourage different views. And yet the very last thing any traditional company wants is to be known as the home of a growing rebel movement. The classic DIYD/DIYD problem.

So let this be a cautionary tale. If you feel the rebel instincts stirring within you; if you, as Umair Haque wrote in a blog post earlier this year for HBR, care about doing deeds that:

  • Stand the Test of Time
  • Stand the Test of Excellence
  • Stand the Test of You

then be warned that you will rarely feel comfortable in your work skin.  (Umair Haque, by the way, refers to the above post as his “tiny statement of rebellion.”) An important sign of rebel maturity in the workplace is the realization that being an effective rebel, being true to yourself, means you will often feel uncomfortable at work.

Someone actually came up to me 15 years ago, seemingly out of the blue, to deliver this important piece of advice. I was at a business function and this woman, my memory is that she worked at DuPont, came up to me and said she could tell I was a heretic in my workplace. (Apparently I walk around with a vivid flashing neon sign atop my head.) Her piece of advice: “You’ve got to learn to stop fighting this feeling of discomfort. You have to learn to accept discomfort as the indicator that you’re being true to your beliefs.” Short pause. “And you know it’s not enough to accept the feeling of discomfort. You’re going to have to enjoy feeling uncomfortable. You have to see the positive in it or you won’t survive.”

I confess I don’t think I ever quite reached that higher level of enlightenment. But I always thought of that woman from DuPont as my guardian angel.

And, as I implied above, it’s not easy being the manager of rebels either. Traditional management practices equate consensus with power and efficacy. It is truly difficult, particularly as most managers have senior leaders above them judging their performance, to sustain an environment where individuals can speak freely and act meaningfully. A leader prepared to support the insurgency will also feel uncomfortable; but, as is the case with countries and nations, rebels often can’t make a difference until they gain the support of at least one important legacy player.

Our hope is that Rebels at Work can start gathering the knowledge (and remember that knowledge includes both accomplishments and mistakes) that will help rebels be better rebels and give managers the tools and best practices they need to support ideas that matter. We’re starting by trying to collect as many rebel stories as we can. So if you think you have a rebel story to share (whether you’re a rebel or a manager) please consider filling out our short survey. Most of those who have taken it already tell us they learn a lot just by reflecting on their past experiences.

Finally, I just want to note that I (Carmen Medina) will be at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas starting next Friday, 9 March. Just reach out to me through Twitter (@milouness) if you want to do a rebel meetup.

Rebels do it together!