Random Rebel Ruminations

When you write a book, you can’t predict how people will react to it. Lois Kelly and I had certain expectations for Rebels at Work and many of them have been met. But what is actually more delightful, I think, are the unexpected “uses” that people have for Rebels at Work and the interesting ways it has resonated. 1. Rebels at Work is a book that bosses should give to the Worst Whiners on their teams. Ha! That’s a use case we did not envisage. But a friend told me recently that she’s recommending that managers give the book to the constant complainers and critics who don’t bother to suggest constructive ideas for improvement. A useful reminder that dysfunction in the workplace is rarely a one-way street. Our book is written for people with bosses that aren’t receptive to their ideas. But there are many individuals in positions of leadership who embrace an inclusive workplace but wait impatiently for others on the team to join the conversation. Maybe Rebels at Work can help spark the talk!

2. Rebels at Work is really about employee engagement. Organizations everywhere are panicking that their employees have no emotional/intellectual attachment to their place of work. The issue has become so pressing that Gallup is now measuring the engagement levels of US workers on a monthly basis—just like inflation. As we’ve surveyed the landscape of employee engagement initiatives, it’s striking how often success is measured by whether the survey numbers tick up, and not actually by whether employees are offering up more of their discretionary energy to the workplace. As one follower noted on Twitter:



We are immodest enough to think we’ve got part of the answer. The best way to improve employee engagement is by actually welcoming employee ideas. Everything else is just cosmetics.

3. One of our most loyal readers—and a veteran and authentic Rebel at Work—talked to me recently about the Split Personality issues affecting rebels. Reacting to the advice we give in the book, he offered that it’s tough for rebels, who passionately believe in the need for change, to behave cautiously and diplomatically in the workplace. You’re constantly playing a role at work and having to suppress—if only partially—your true beliefs. I resembled that remark in my career. I noticed that if you’re defending the Status Quo it’s OK to be tough and loud. But if you’re proposing change, it’s best to adopt a sweeter tone. I found it useful to have a friend you could process and safely vent with. And when that person wasn’t available, well my bathroom mirror felt my rebel wrath.

4. One last rumination. A friend was visiting a colleague recently, and spotted Rebels at Work on the kitchen counter. This individual had to read a leadership book as part of an individual development plan. Rebels at Work ended being the only “business book” the individual could stomach reading.

If we have a second edition, that could be the new cover blurb!!

Rebel Dangers: When your Boss Leaves

Readers of Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within keep providing us with ground truth and new insights about life as a rebel at work--many of which we wish we had included in our book. One of my favorites is this lament from a reader who is a longtime rebel at work. When a new boss took over his unit, he got the distinct impression that the new boss wasn't fond of his work suggestions. As this reader wrote,

I feel like I'm being told to go sit in the corner and shut up!

Although it shouldn't be this way, in most organizations rebel fortunes are tied to the personality and management style of a boss. As we discuss in our book, understanding your boss and gaining credibility are the first things rebels need to do. Life as a change agent is hard, and it gets even harder if you don't have a plan and an order for your actions.

When your boss changes, you almost certainly will need to start over. New leaders are likely to be at least a bit insecure and therefore reluctant to continue activities they're not comfortable with--i.e. they consider uncertain and/or risky. Don't assume your new boss won't have issues with what you're doing. She will and it's your job to gain her confidence. In our reader's case, he senses that his boss is not comfortable with the "creative ideas that spill over into other domains than the one I'm technically responsible for."

And that brings up another interesting dimension of being a rebel at work. Sometimes you're shut down not because you have ideas for changing your own particular job, but because you have the interdisciplinary skills to offer ideas to help other parts of the organization. Rebels at work are often constrained by one-dimensional job descriptions and dysfunctional stovepipes. Rather than encourage individuals to contribute on issues they're passionate about, many organizations prefer employees to stay in their own lanes. They do so so they can hit targets and have predictable results, but their "success" comes at a price: disengaged employees and unrealized potential.



Adults at Work

"This book was written for me. I need to get a copy!" "I've been waiting for a book like this!"

"Wish I could have gotten this advice years ago."

That's what we've heard from individuals who've read Rebels at Work, at least those individuals who aren't managers in large organizations.

From the managers, at least some of them, the reaction is a bit more....muted, shall we say.

"Why would I want my employees to make my life even more difficult?"

"Are you suggesting that my employees are always right?"

"The last thing I want to do is to encourage dissent in the workplace!"

And we wonder why why we have a crisis of Employee Engagement in the workplace. Although we suspect the problem is not that employees aren't engaged in their work--at least in the beginning. All of the new entrants into the labor force we meet--mostly those frisky Millennials--are super excited to start contributing.

And yet somehow they become DISENGAGED.

Employee Engagement implies that the attitudes of the workers are the issue.

Employee DISENGAGEMENT may be more to the point. Something leads them to reassess their commitment and disconnect from their jobs. And one of the main causes of disengagement is the sense they get from their organizations that their views and contributions are not respected.

Note that I didn't directly blame managers. Sure, they're part of the organization, but I suspect there's something deeper at play. In a nifty piece in Fast Company more than a year ago leadership consultant Michael Chayes argued that the scientific management principles that emerged at the start of the last century bear much of the blame. As a result of these principles:

Managers became the “adults,” planning for and directing the more “child-like” workers, who lacked the capacity to manage their own work lives. The resulting culture of business promoted high productivity, but at the expense of workers who became little more than “cogs in the system."

Rebels at Work is the book for those who believe we can all be Adults at Work. It's not anti-management. It's pro-humans.


A Rebel Handbook

Have you heard that Lois and I have a book coming out this fall, published by O'Reilly Media, called Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within? Needless to say, we're trying to act really cool about it. I, for one, only bring it up three or four times a day in the course of ordinary conversation. RAW cover

When I mention it, I get some interesting reactions. Just this weekend a friend of a friend and  I were chatting about it; he's a successful businessman and lawyer. When I told him the title  and described the content he looked confused and said:

"And so you think corporations would actually pay you to come in and teach their employees  to be rebels?"

After thinking about it for a bit he offered me a new title: "Provocateurs at Work."

I'm not sure that's any less scary to large organizations than Rebels at Work. But what  interested me most about the conversation is the fact that my interlocutor, who would  probably describe himself as a libertarian, would get so queasy about the idea of helping  rebels inside large organizations. There it is again--that, to my knowledge unproven,  assertion that corporations operate best when employees conform.

There's clearly a lot of work to be done.

Another conversation was with a friend whom I mention in the book, Clark, who has always been much more comfortable with conflict than I have ever been. Learning to deal with conflict in the workplace is such an important developmental for rebels that Lois and I devote an entire chapter to it. Although Clark never really thought of himself as a Rebel at Work, he does acknowledge that his honesty in the workplace probably cost him some plum jobs in his career, assignments he wanted and deserved. Honesty at work is not career-enhancing, he said. But a need to be honest and say what needs to be said is a key driver for rebels in the workplace. As Lois and I write in our introduction:

Every day people in all kinds of jobs at all kinds of workplaces reach the point where they say, “Enough.” While every rebel’s reason for stepping up differs, almost all start with the same uncomfortable realization: “I have to do something about this.”