Only Good Rebels Die Young

It seems like it's appropriate to follow up that last post by Lois on the anger of rebels with what to do if and how to notice when your Rebel energies are getting out of control. The passion--and sometimes the anger--that sharpens the courage of Rebels at Work enough for them to seek to change the status quo does not easily dissipate. But my experience and the conversations I’ve had with many other Rebels at Work tells me we need to be careful to heed the warning signs of rebel flameout. Even good rebels can self-destruct; perhaps it is good rebels that are most in danger of self immolation. So what are some of the signals that a Rebel should pull the plug, at least for a while? What are some particularly difficult scenarios?

  •  The potential for the greatest disappointments comes just after you thought you were about to make progress, about to get a hearing, and you didn't or it all fell through. Most organizations will make several failed runs at initiating real change, pursuing new directions. At these moments, they come looking for those individuals they know have different ideas and ask them to participate in all sorts of task forces and working groups. (My years in government taught me that working groups are groups that do no work but that’s a topic for a different time.) These are parlous days for rebels. They can become giddy with the potential for influence and drop, for a moment, the masks of studied skepticism or nonchalant bantering they wear to conceal the intensity of their feelings. Once the organization discovers that the recommendations for change steer it into uncharted territory, most will abruptly cut the task force off. This can happen multiple times and is crushing for Rebels. So if you can, manage your anger and disappointment, take weeks of deep breaths, go on a vacation, and, for God’s sake, don’t do anything rash.
  • Be mindful that it’s difficult to handle the emotional load of being a rebel when there’s something else going on in your life. And, of course, there is always something else going on in your life. In my case, I was dealing with career disappointments at the same time as I was thinking of myself as the person who could see the future better than most. I couldn't help but compare myself to peers who were advancing more quickly by, as I saw it, choosing to ignore reality. This kind of cognitive dissonance was not good for my soul or my common sense. If you’re experiencing such feelings, walk away.
  • Rebels should also walk away when they begin thinking they have become smarter than everyone else in the organization. This may or may not be true...(cue wry laughter) but it’s just not healthy when your mind starts obsessing over it. It means you have begun to personalize every skirmish and battle in the Long War of Change. Time to retreat and take a break.
  • When you start arguing with people who are your best work friends, then you know you’re reaching an unhealthy breaking point. If you’re a Rebel it’s likely that your good work mates are people who share some of your ideas. When they start looking at you strangely or when you find yourself snapping at them, find a way to recharge and recover before you lose important friendships.
  • At some point as a Rebel at Work, you may find yourself not recognizing others’ descriptions of yourself. This was certainly the case for me during my Agency career when people began to describe me as being cynical and negative. I remember thinking, whom could they possibly be talking about? And yet, unbeknownst to me, that was in fact the person I was projecting and in danger of becoming. When that happens to you, my advice is to divert your energies elsewhere for a while. Find a direct mission-related job and go do it. Look for a rotational assignment outside your own department. Be wary of sacrificing who you are in an attempt to get a troubled organization to become something it’s not ready to be.