We 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.
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.