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.

eeyore.jpeg

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.