For Active Adults Only

Employees seeking empowerment.

Employees seeking empowerment.

There’s a new development under construction in my neighborhood and a big sign at the construction site advertises the new complex will include an “active adults” community. And every time I walk by I ponder how the phrase “active adults” means almost exactly the opposite of what the individual words signify; I’m anticipating that many not-particularly-active adults are already queuing up to lease or buy.

This has led me to reflect on several terms that appear almost every day in the business literature—terms I have grown to dislike and which usually end up meaning the opposite of what the words signify. So here’s a few of them.

EMPLOYEE EMPOWERMENT. Some of my favorite recent “headlines” on this topic (along with my parenthetical, snarky asides) include:

The Ultimate Starter Guide to Employee Empowerment (So you want to empower your employees, but don’t know where to begin…)

Don’t be Afraid to Give Employees Real Autonomy (I guess as opposed to fake autonomy.)

Corporate America’s New Flexible Dress Code is Indicative of a trend toward Employee Empowerment (I just don’t even know where to begin here!)

These headlines reveal what I think is the problem with the discussion around employee empowerment. Empowering the staff appears to be a tactic the manager/leader can use if they want. Rather than what I think it should be: a fundamental principle at work. Talking a lot about employee empowerment is a telltale sign that there isn’t any.

DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION. Aaargh!! Where to begin? I know that the usage of this term is often well-intentioned. Leaders recognize that just increasing the diversity of their staff is insufficient; they need to ensure that diverse voices have meaningful (equal?) impact in the workplace. But the use of the word inclusion is, I think, a mistake—actually counterproductive.

The use of the word “inclusion” just leads me to wonder how come I don’t naturally belong. Why does there have to be a “special” effort to include people who for whatever reason differ from the corporate norm? Why do we have a corporate norm in the first place? I can’t put it any better than Aubrey Blanche who wrote in a recent post that

Inclusion is like someone calling you saying: Hey, I am having a party and the people I wanted to come over are not joining, so you can come now. I am not interested in being included in spaces designed for specific groups of people who have no interest in what I can bring to the table. 

COLLABORATION. I remember a young man I knew briefly in college—not well—who was agonizing over how to acquire “class.” I guess he suspected he was lacking in it (although I have no idea why he thought I might be helpful in this regard.) And all I could think (but not say) was that trying to think of ways to acquire class was itself kind of classless.

And that’s how I think about collaboration. Trying to make collaboration happen when it isn’t occurring naturally is not very collaborative. Adding steps to a process to “promote collaboration” doesn’t usually work; at best you get deconfliction, which is sadly what many organizations settle for.

Collaboration is a naturally-occurring phenomenon in healthy teams. An organization is likely to make more progress achieving collaboration by working on creating a positive and psychologically safe environment. You can design a process that requires Team A to coordinate with Team B on Issue Zed, but if the two teams don’t trust each other all you will get is box-checking.

Just some closing thoughts on a term I’ve grown tired of—LEADERSHIP—but not because it has an ambiguous or contradictory meaning. We all agree that individuals who are leaders are responsible for motivating the team, setting the vision, anticipating the future, solving cold fusion, and quantifying dark matter. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Business, much more I think than other disciplines, still worships enthusiastically at the altar of the Great Man, and it is still usually a man. There are currently 27 female CEOs among S&P 500 companies; indeed, there are more men named Jeffrey than women.

I’m convinced the cult of leadership still does more to hinder rather than advance excellence in organizations. Or rather let me put it a different way. Every organization needs more people who behave like leaders. Leaving it up to one or two exalted individuals is just asking too much from flawed human beings. Each of us has the potential for an important contribution. So go and make it! Be an active adult!

Trust is a Muscle!!

“How do I know when I can trust a Rebel at Work?”

 We often get asked this question. A manager or team leader hears Lois or I present, agrees with our message that the people who work for him often have solutions for the team’s problems or can identify new opportunities, but double clutches at the point of empowerment. Can I trust her?

In this instance, the manager is using the word trust to mean: Can I rely upon her to execute successfully? Can I be completely confident? Admittedly that is one of the dictionary meanings of the word. But there’s another sense of trust that is more relevant to the manager/rebel relationship. To quote from a short paper prepared about ten years ago for the Canadian Department of Defense by Dr. Barbara Adams:

A trust judgement…is characterized by a specific lack of information, and by the need to take a “leap of faith” from what is known to what is unknown.

(Here’s a link to her short monograph which is well worth your time. Isn’t the internet wonderful?)

Trust, according to Dr. Adams, is only operational in situations with risk. But when managers want to know when they can TRUST rebels at work, what they really want to know is how can they make sure that their empowerment of a rebel is risk-free.

Which is the wrong expectation!! Fundamentally, trust is a judgment call. The leader is making a decision even in the absence of some data—such as previous experience with an individual in a similar circumstance. But the leader can reason that the risk is justified by the potential gain. And that potential gain is not just measured by whether the idea works or not. When a leader trusts an employee with a new initiative, they not only send a signal to that individual but to the rest of the team that it’s not just experience that matters; new ideas have value too.

In fact, it’s kind of circular.

The only way to determine whether you can trust a Rebel at Work is by trusting one. Trust is a muscle. It benefits from being used. The first time you provide space for team members to work on their new ideas you can’t be sure how it will turn out. But by doing so you gain experience that will inform your next trust moment and the expectations of your team.

At some point, particularly if you rarely use your trust muscles, one of your decisions will misfire. (No pain, no gain!) And you will have learned something important about the individuals involved, including yourself. As Dr. Adams notes, “a trust decision typically involves the formation of an impression about another person rather than merely making an estimate with respect to a discrete and specific task.” Trust is an investment in your team and an engagement with them as individuals.

The only way to strengthen it is by using it!

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The Lazy Manager

When I was but a pup, still going to graduate school, a professor came to me and said:

"Carmen I can tell that you're going to be a manager some day." {This came as quite a shock to me!} "And I have only one piece of advice for you?"

"What's that, Dr. Stearman?" {His name was William Stearman and Wikipedia tells me he is still alive. I always considered him a pro's pro in the national security realm.}

"Be lazy!"

Well that wasn't what I was expecting to hear and it took me years, if not decades, to understand what he was getting at. But as my own work style developed, I found that I -- and more importantly others -- had more success when I delegated, perhaps you might even say abdicated, and just let others do what they did well. Not fake delegation when you ask someone to handle a task and then hover around pressing them to get it done at your pace, not theirs. That's not delegating; instead it's a type of manipulation that comes second nature to many. 

Nope, when a manager is effectively delegating and appropriately lazy, she begins to entertain doubts as to whether she's needed at all on a work team. That's the indicator that you're lazy enough.

I reflected back on Dr. Stearman's advice recently upon reading this article about how procrastination is an effective management technique. The author contends that managers who are over-eager to answer employee questions and help them solve problems are getting in the way of their development. The author urges managers to procrastinate more, delay in being helpful. Dr. Stearman would have gotten right to the point: Be Lazy!

This discussion also gives me an opportunity to share a clip from my favorite movie about teams and management, Galaxy Quest. Ah yes, you may only know this movie as a humorous send-up of the Star Trek/Wars genre. But I have long wanted to organize a leadership seminar around the lessons of Galaxy Quest. In the movie, a group of aliens intercepts the transmissions of the Planet Earth television show Galaxy Quest and are so inspired by the brave crew that they successfully replicate the TV show's technology. Mayhem ensues when the aliens, unable to deploy the technology effectively against their evil enemies, "kidnap" the crew--now unemployed actors doing the "trekkie" convention circuit--to come help them fight the war. 

The lessons in the movie for organizations are many. Tim Allen plays the egotistical Captain Kirk character, and his fellow actors hate him. They only begin to succeed when they start operating as a team by respecting each other's contributions. We also learn about the importance of emotional resonance and how "being corny" can be an effective quality for leaders.

The clip below illustrates the value of procrastination/laziness by a manager. Tech Sergeant Chen, played by Tony Shalhoub, has been asked by the aliens to troubleshoot a problem with their reactor. Of course, Chen don't know nothing about beryllium reactors, but, by asking open-ended questions, he prompts the crew to solve the problem themselves. (If you Galaxy Quest devotees aren't familiar with this scene, that's because it didn't make the final cut of the movie. But it should have!)


In Defense of Meetings

Many years ago a leadership team I was part of took a personality test that evaluated our styles against four attributes:

  • ·       Motivated by Big Ideas
  • ·       Motivated by Human Relations
  • ·       Motivated by Completing Tasks
  • ·       Motivated by Analytics and Method

In the day-long feedback session, we sat with our fellow style peers—the Big Idea people all sat together, those who loved to get things done were all at one table, and so forth. I was sitting with the human relaters—we really liked people. After a few minutes of conversation, each group reported out what they most liked to do in the office and what they hated.

My people-lover group was stunned when the “Get Er Done” folks reported that the aspect of organization life they hated most was meetings. Us touchy-feely types had all agreed that we actually enjoyed meetings.

I remember that day every time someone disparages having to attend meetings. I most recently heard a young friend of mine do so. His work is technical and scientific and he briefed it recently to a group of colleagues in nonscientific support roles. He described the meeting as a waste of time so I asked him what he believed to be the purpose of providing the briefing to support staff. He thought about it for a second and said

“Well, they’re not going to provide me with any substantive suggestions.”

“Correct.” I said “so the purpose of the meeting is to…”

“Let them know what I do so they understand better the support they can give me.” He finished. With that context, he realized he described the meeting as a waste of time because he misunderstood its real purpose – the meeting was not about him as much as it was about them.

So meetings often get a bad rap because participants are confused about their purpose and/or because several of those attending had different agendas. My friend the scientist was used to sharing with his peers to gather their substantive feedback. But with the support group, it wasn’t about substance; it was more about camaraderie and creating bonds of trust and respect. Once he understood that goal, he realized he could be more lighthearted in his approach, sharing fun stories and even bloopers. (Although us people-people think story-telling is always a good communications strategy.)

Some common sense lessons I’ve learned about having better meetings – perhaps some readers may even grow to like meetings – or at least tolerate them better.


Be clear about the purpose of the meeting—not the written agenda but what’s really going on. In general, you should have face-to-face meetings when there’s an important human dimension to the issue at hand. And us human-relater types think there almost always are important human dimensions – so that’s a real blind spot we have. But most other personalities in the workforce tend to think things like “the facts speak for themselves” or, much worse, “I already have the answers” and so they devalue the utility of meetings. (And by the way they also overestimate their own brilliance!) And when they do agree to a meeting, they conduct it like a standardized test or a fire drill. (a little more on that later!)

Don’t hold lengthy meetings just to update people or gather specific comments. Of course, updates are necessary but I’m sure you’ve been in work situations where the weekly update meeting is held even when there is nothing to update. It’s better to provide updates, according to business consultant Paul Axtell, as a sidebar to a meeting where some substantive issues are being discussed. And one of the worse types of meetings, I think, are what we called in the Intelligence Community “coordination meetings.” Ten people need to sign off on some type of content so they’re force-marched into a room where they wait their turn for their five minutes of air time. AAARGH! Often the person who came to the meeting with not much to say ends up droning on in some type of perverse payback for being forced to listen to everyone else. There are of course many occasions when a group discussion of a topic is useful—the topic is particularly controversial, for example, so everyone on the team needs to hear all perspectives. But determine that beforehand—ask your collaborators if they think it’s necessary to coordinate as a team before you put it on the schedule.

Recognize the socializing importance of meetings. I know this is the aspect of meetings that drove my more “efficient” colleagues crazy, but the small talk, the banter that occurs at the start or end of meetings is not trivial. It’s when colleagues catch up with each other as humans, when we share some funny story, when we perhaps reveal what’s really on our minds. Humans don’t establish trust by following orders or reporting out the latest numbers – they learn to trust by getting to know each other. That’s what happens during banter and small talk in the work place. One more point – the conversations that occur as meetings end can be quite revealing. We advise Rebels at Work to pay attention to those conversations—that’s when some people may finally mutter what they really think and when introverts who haven’t spoken up during the meeting might be more willing to share their thoughts.

Many of the meeting haters and efficiency experts have over the years recommended the ten-minute and/or standup meeting as a way to stop wasting time. I’ll concede there are scenarios where such fire-drill approaches are called for—in a hectic environment where every minute really is precious. But my suspicion is that they’re used more by managers who haven’t thought through the message they’re sending. When you tell your staff that you only have ten minutes to meet with them, you’re also telling them that you don’t have time for their ideas. It better be a life or death matter for a team member to bring up an issue, and it better be something that can be resolved in a minute or two. What complex, important issue can be resolved in 120 seconds? Not many I know of. We put standup meetings in the same category as “open-door policies” and “no problems without solutions”—management best practices that aren’t!


Smooth and Easy DOESN'T Cut It!

The LinkedIn Conversation on our post Stupid Things Bosses Say! led to a robust series of comments worth summarizing here. The bottom line is reflected in the title: the tendency of organizations to reward the "smooth leadership style" is detrimental to diversity of thought, discourages everyone from offering potentially helpful suggestions and/or dissents, and leads to lowest common denominator outcomes.

One reader asked whether there is a magic potion leaders can take to become more welcoming to different opinions. Our answer: there is no magic potion and the very idea that there could be a magic potion is part of the problem. But there is an insidious dynamic in most workplaces that--if removed--would make it easier for managers to welcome healthy debate on their teams.

Organizations need to stop grading leaders on how "smoothly" their operations run. You usually don't get diversity of opinions when teams run "smoothly". And yet most organizations I'm familiar with reward managers who run "tight ships." "You never hear about any problems from her team." goes the familiar refrain. "She must be a good manager!"

Maybe not. When decisions are made quickly, it may very well mean that dissent is not tolerated or even suppressed. Feisty teams aren't ever going to be quiet teams.

And that leads to another situation.. Once different opinions are allowed to surface, meetings become crunchier and, even when everyone has the best of intentions, some ruffling of feathers will occur. Most managers don't know how to deal with "diversity tension". And no one really bothers to teach them. In fact leadership and management training focuses instead on alpha capabilities such as vision and decision-making. Instead we need to learn how to empower employees who disagree with us and how to tell when you the manager is dead wrong. 

Sounds pretty radical, right?

But at Rebels at Work, we like radical. We like texture and crunchiness.

And we don't mind it when it's rough and hard!




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United We Fail?

By now I'm sure you've read and been appalled by the story currently destroying United Airline's reputation. An overbooked flight, not enough passengers accept a $400 voucher--eventually raised to $1000, and the next thing you know a passenger already seated is forcibly removed from the plane. And of course in this day and age, several passengers take pictures and post the dreadful details. I just read an article by an airline pilot explaining what he thinks happened. (He also reports an overlooked fact--the flight in question was being operated by United Express--a contractor--and not United Airlines itself.) He makes this particularly astute observation.

What I sense is that the airline’s staff reached a point, after perhaps offering whatever dollar amounts their procedures called for, where they simply didn’t know what to do, and nobody was brave enough, or resourceful enough, to come up with something. Summoning the police simply became the easiest way to pass the buck.

Aha! There's more than one "EN" infecting employees in large organizations right now. We hear all the time about ENGAGEMENT, which hasn't improved at all in recent years. But EMPOWERMENT is engagement's kissing cousin. The pilot goes on to say:

...Airline culture is often such that thinking creatively, and devising a proverbial outside-the-box solution, is almost actively discouraged. Everything is very rote and procedural, and employees are often so afraid of being reprimanded for making a bad decision (not to mention pressed for time) that they don’t make a decision at all, or will gladly hand the matter to somebody else who can take responsibility. By and large, workers are deterred from thinking creatively exactly when they need to.

Doing things by rote is not without its benefits for high risk, high performance organizations. Such organizations--airlines, hospitals, the military come to mind--engage in important tasks that must be done with Six Sigma levels of reliability. Substandard performance doesn't just affect the bottom line; it entails significant risk for the organization and, more importantly, for others! As someone who flies 100k miles per year, I applaud the safety standards of the airline industry. But the downside of the "checklist" approach to organizational excellence is that it blinds everyone to the exceptional situation that must be handled in a better and non-rote way.

Of course, this is when those pesky Rebels in the workplace can come in handy. Perhaps there was an employee at the gate who had a better idea. But my guess is he didn't know how to speak up. Perhaps she was low in the pecking order, a new employee? Maybe past suggestions had been ignored? Or just maybe the go-along-to-get-along culture was so strong that no second thoughts entered anyone's mind. In some ways that's even worse. The employees were so unengaged and so unempowered that they had stopped thinking.

And isn't that the worst risk ANY ORGANIZATION can run? When EVERYONE is on the SAME PAGE, no one is available to turn it. The most important checklist any high risk, high performance organization can develop is the one that helps employees know when they must abandon Standard Operating Procedures. You can't leave this up to the personal courage of the employee; it's something that teams need to talk about and leaders need to facilitate. Together...or united they will fail.

Advice for having difficult conversations

Everywhere Carmen and I speak people tell us that one of their top challenges is having difficult conversations.

One of the best sources for learning to have difficult conversations is the Harvard Negotiation Project and the book from faculty members Doug Stone, Sheila Heen and Bruce Patton, aptly titled "Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most."

My biggest takeaway from the book is that we can't change someone's mind in a conversation. No matter how skilled you think you may be. Not going to happen.

The purpose of a conversation is to create mutual understanding of an issue so that you can both figure out the best way forward.  In other words, the  goal is to genuinely figure out what's important to the other person and express what's important to us. That's how shifts and change begin to happen.

I encourage you to read --no, devour and highlight -- this book. It will not only make you more effective at work, your personal relationships are likely improve, too.

Until then, here are my book highlights to get you thinking in some new ways.


Biggest mistakes

  • Blaming: it inhibits our ability to learn what’s really causing the problem and to do anything meaningful to correct it.
  • Believing it’s their fault: when things go wrong in relationships, everyone has contributed in some important way.
  • Assuming we know the intentions and feelings of others.
  • Avoiding the problem is one of the biggest contributors to a problem.
  • Not preparing, rushing, catching someone off guard.
  • Not acknowledging feelings.

Important realities

  • Difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations and values.
  • They are not about what is true; they are about what is important.
  • What happened is the result of what BOTH people did – or failed to do.
  • Difficult conversations don’t just involve feelings; they are at their core about
  • The two most difficult and important things are expressing feelings and listening. (And our ability to listen increases once we’ve expressed our feelings.)
  • When a conversation feels difficult it’s because something beyond the substance of the conversation is at stake for YOU.
  • People almost never change without first feeling understood.
  • Don’t share your conclusions as “the” truth; explain what’s behind your thinking.
  • When conversation goes off track reframe it to focus on mutual goals and issue at hand.



  • What do you hope to accomplish? What’s the best outcome?
  • Is a conversation the best way to address the issue? (Sometimes what’s difficult has a lot more to do with what’s going on inside of you than what’s going on between you and the other person. So a conversation won't actually help. You've got to do some inner work.)
  • Plan a time to talk. Don’t do it on the fly.

How to start

  • Reduce the other person’s anxiety! Don't put them on the defense.
  • Describe the issue in a way that rings true for both sides and is free of judgment, e.g., We seem to have different assumptions and preferences for how to accomplish work we both feel is important.  I wonder whether it’s possible for us to look at the best approaches in view of what we want to achieve.

Explore: their views and yours

  • Listen and explore their perspectives, asking questions, acknowledging feelings, paraphrasing so the person knows you’ve heard them.
  • Express your views and feelings: what you see, why you see it that way, how you feel and who you are. Begin with the heart of the matter for you, e.g., “What is important to me is…”

Problem solve and figure out best way forward

  • Figure out the best way forward that satisfies both of your needs.
  • Talk about how to keep communication open as you move forward


  • What did we each do -- or not do -- to get ourselves into this mess?
  • Can you say a little more about how you see things?
  • What’s most important to you about this situation?
  • What information might you have that I don’t?
  • How do you see it differently?
  • Were you reacting to something I did?
  • How are you feeling about all of this?
  • What would it mean to you if that happened?
  • How do you see the situation differently?
  • Help me understand how you would feel and how you might think about the situation if you were in my shoes. What would you do and why?

First Followers

"Wow, that would be amazing for us to do. It could really change how we work together,"  concurred a group of managers at one of the biggest technology companies in the world last week.

"But it's just not how our culture works," someone said.

Then the grumbling about the culture began until, as the strategy facilitator, I cut the naysaying short and asked, "Why couldn't this group start working differently and then open the way for others to follow?  Change has to start somewhere. Why not you? You view yourselves as creative and innovative."

Someone has to start, having the guts to stand alone.

And someone has to be the first to follow, also an act of leadership.

Both are acts of positive Rebels at Work.

That's how culture changes and movements start.

Dare to start or be the first follower.

Amplify Courage


Courage helps us challenge what no longer works, fight for better ways, achieve more than we thought possible and overcome all the stress and unexpected land mines that are thrown in our paths.

How do you become more courageous? These four strengths amplify our courage. The more you use and develop them, the stronger they become.

How have you used each one to overcome challenges?

How could you use them more in 2017?

(These same questions are useful to use in team planning, as well.)

1. Perseverance: finishing what you start; persevering in a course of actions despite obstacles.

2. Bravery: Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty; speaking up for what's right even if there is opposition; acting on convictions even if unpopular.

3. Vitality: approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing things halfway or halfheartedly; living life as an adventure; feeling alive and activated.

4. Integrity: speaking the truth but more broadly acting in a genuine and sincere way; being without pretense; taking responsibility for your feelings and actions.

The Sting of a Rebel Win

show-up One of the most popular questions Carmen Medina and I get asked during our Rebels at Work talks is: “What happens when your boss takes your idea and doesn’t give you credit for it?”

Our response: When someone takes your idea that’s a Rebel Win. It means your good idea is moving forward.

Yet we should probably spend more time acknowledging the disappointment and sting that can come when we don’t get credit for our ideas, and suggest some ways to bounce back and not become all angry and kind of pissy,

Like what started happening to me this morning when five friends forwarded an email from Harvard Business Review announcing “The Big Idea from HBR: Rebel Talent.”

Are you kidding me — how are you not in the center of this? This should be by YOU!!!!

What the what?? Seems like you should be leading this webinar

The email was from the editor of Harvard Business Review, with whom Carmen and I met exactly three years ago to pitch him on the idea of publishing our Rebels at Work book. He loved the idea, shared his personal experiences being a lifelong Rebel at Work, and forwarded our manuscript on to the acquisitions editor, who rejected it.

So here’s the Rebel Win: he’s moving the Rebels idea forward, with all the credibility that Harvard brings to stodgy leaders whose organizations can benefit so much from helping their rebel thinkers thrive.

And here’s the Rebel Sting: he’s never acknowledged any of our ideas or work.

What’s a Rebel to do?

I admit I did stew for an hour this morning, and then used these Rebel Practices to break out of my mental Crazytown. Maybe some of these practices will help you next time someone takes credit for your idea.

1. Name the emotion: when you’re angry, name the feeling out loud. This diminishes the power of the emotion over us and let’s us think more clearly and logically. This two-minute video from psychologist Paul Furey, “How To Ruin a Really Good Idea,” is especially helpful.

2. Dodge thinking traps: ask these quick questions from Karen Reivich, author of The Resiliency Factor, to avoid spiraling into negative thinking traps that are rarely accurate or helpful.

  • What is a more accurate way of seeing this?
  • What other outcome is possible?
  • What might be one other possible explanation?

When I asked myself these questions I saw the situation differently: the Harvard attention on Rebel Talent is a potentially huge boost for rebels, and the purpose of Rebels at Work is to help Rebels succeed, not get attention for our writing or ideas or book. Reframing provides clarity and creates positive energy.

I also considered that the editor had forgotten us and our meeting and sent him an email offering to write an HBR blog post with some of our new research.

3. Lean on your signature character strengths: the field of positive psychology has identified 24 universal character traits that all of us have, some much stronger than others. (You can take this free scientific assessment from the VIA Institute on Character to uncover your top strengths.)

When we use our top signature strengths we decrease stress and increase our wellbeing.

Three of my top strengths are honesty (speaking the truth and presenting oneself in a genuine way), creativity (thinking of novel and product ways to conceptualize and do things) and bravery (No shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty or pain; speaking up for what’s right even if there’s opposition.)

Today I’m thinking about how to better serve Rebels at Work (honesty, creativity, bravery), writing this post (honesty), and developing a new master class on resiliency (creativity). I’m in the flow, feeling good about my work despite a not-so-positive start to the day.

4. Avoid flirting with the Dark Side: This is one of Carmen’s favorite pieces of advice. Things get dark for rebels, she advises, when their only goal is to advance their own agenda. Your ideas are important, but more important than any single idea is the creation of an organizational ecosystem that is hospitable to honest reflection and change.

Permission to be human


One last bit of wisdom comes from Tal Ben-Shahar, one of the foremost experts in the field of positive psychology and author of Happier:

Give yourself permission to be human, accepting your positive and negative emotions. Repressing intense emotions actually intensifies them.

So if your boss takes your idea and you get no credit, let yourself be pissy and angry for a while. Go for a walk. Listen to music you love. Watch a good movie. Turn off the monkey mind.

Then consider your purpose and narrative as a Rebel.

Many of us are firestarters and idea igniters.

By the time the world is ablaze and buzzing about our idea seedlings, we are onto exploring what’s next.

Adelante, dear Rebels. The world needs us more now than ever before.

Rebel for the soul of government

Door opening

“Please don’t tell rebels like me to abandon organizations that clearly need them, and thereby abandon the public those organizations serve.”

A city government manager sent an email last week challenging the point in the Managing Conflict chapter of our “Rebels At Work” book that “if your values are far removed from those of your boss or organization, you have a stark choice – suffer at work or leave.”

Here are his views, which are inspiring and informative.

Real rebels embrace conflict

“When you’re ready to be a real rebel, embrace these conflicts.

“I agree values-based conflicts are the hardest types of conflicts to address and they will produce some suffering for the rebel and all around…But should we just assume that a government agency should be left to its own devices when its values decay or become misaligned with their public mandate or do we have a duty, especially as rebels, to do something about it?

“I've facilitated, nurtured, and instigated positive organizational culture change centered around perceived values-based conflicts. Values-based conflicts can be remarkably constructive. They're a shortcut to camaraderie that fails to materialize through decades of strategic, wise, fearful, or polite avoidance of these issues.

“They produce highly efficient relational synapses of trust in critical relationships. What's more, people's values (distinguishable from priorities) are often less at conflict than we or they believe.

“The only way to discover that in any specific time and place is to talk about it; i.e. experiential learning. This is the conversation bad bosses fear most, as they should. The worst bosses have values that are deeply immoral by any standard.

"Commitment to avoiding these matters through rebel "self-deportation" ensures a lost organization will never rediscover its collective soul from within. “

Resiliency as antidote to suffering

I’m thrilled that this person has the moral motivation, relationship skills, and resiliency  to work through values-based conflict.

While much is taught and written about organizational values and conflict management I’d like to see more people develop a capacity for resiliency. Resiliency practices help you keep going, find meaning in the often long and political process of creating change, and see the good in government agencies – even on days that can feel like you’re lost in a bureaucratic hairball.

Without the capacity to stay resilient, rebels often suffer, becoming bitter, angry and not the best versions of themselves. And then they serve no one well – not their organizations, not their family and friends, not themselves.

That’s when they need to leave.

The quest for one more day

A senior policy innovation adviser at the U.S. Department of Defense recently told Carmen that one of his goals is “one more day.”

“If I can get talented people to stay one more day working for the government, I’m succeeding,” he said.

So much attention is focused on national political campaigns.

The people who are making a real difference are these rebels in government, working to make sure agencies deliver on their mission and values.

Oh rebels, please, please, please stay just a little big longer.

The Stupidity Paradox

“There's a worldwide conspiracy for the preservation of mediocrity—and we're all co-conspirators.” That's one of my key take-aways from about 40 years in the workforce. Whenever I say it, people tend to assume that it's based on my 30+ years in government, although actually this particular realization didn't strike me until post-retirement as I gained more experience with the private sector. (I came to realize that so many of the problems that I thought were unique to government were really symptoms of what I now call Large Organization Disease.)

But it wasn't until I read the new book The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work that I came to understand how the conspiracy maintains itself, both in the private and public sectors. The authors, Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer, are business professors based in Sweden and the UK respectively. They were inspired to collaborate on the book when they realized, as they write in their introduction, that “many of our most well-known chief organizations have become engines of stupidity.” As soon as I read those words I knew I was in for an honest discussion of why it was that “organizations which employed so many smart people could foster so much stupidity.”

I expected to gain many valuable lessons and insights for you valiant Rebels at Work. And I was not disappointed.

The Stupidity Paradox carefully explains why “functional stupidity” is actually an important survival strategy for many organizations. “Functional stupidity is an organized attempt to stop people from thinking seriously about what they do at work.” Why do companies do this, you may ask? Alvesson and Spicer offer this explanation:

By ignoring the many uncertainties, contradictions and downright illogical claims that are rife at work, people are able to ensure that things run relatively smoothly. We often value convenience over confronting the inconvenient truth.” (Emphasis mine.)

This is an important consideration for Rebels at Work. We often despair when ideas we KNOW to be CORRECT are ignored by leadership. And so we accuse leaders of being stupid, cowards, or perhaps even evil. But what The Stupidity Paradox tells us is that many organizations value consistency over excellence and existing practices over innovation. As the authors write: “Most decisions made in organizations are about coming up with satisfactory outcomes, not optimal ones.”

stupidityOuch! The entire book is full of such blunt assertions. It was fun reading a no-holds barred critique of the cultures of large organizations. Lois and I are always counseling Rebels at Work to restrain themselves and employ Ninja moves, so it was refreshing to read someone say what so many of us actually think.

But don't imagine that the worker bees get off scot-free!!! I actually looked up the origins of that phrase to make sure it wasn't an inappropriate ethnic characterization. Indeed it is not—scot comes from an old Scandinavian and Middle English word for taxes.

But I digress! The authors of The Stupidity Paradox have plenty of blame to spread around. Strategic ignorance is a common condition among today's knowledge workers. “Knowing what to know—but also what not to know—is a crucial skill that people working in any organization pick up rather quickly.” And the authors observe, in one of my favorite lines, that “living a happy life in an organization often requires a capacity to avoid trying to learn too much.”

Sound familiar? Again I think it's important for Rebels at Work to realize that, for many of their colleagues, laying low is a survival strategy. Overcoming such inertia requires constant communication and careful consideration of what might motivate their colleagues on an emotional and/or personal level.

There's much more of interest for Rebels at Work in The Stupidity Paradox. It's a fast read that will help you understand better how organizational culture usually impedes efforts for improvement, whether they come from management or the grass roots. Alvesson and Spicer skewer just about every modern business strategy, from total quality management to branding. But they seem to take particular delight in puncturing the cult of leadership. As they note casually, “We have spoken with many individuals who have devoted their careers to delusional ideas about leadership.” They continue:

Leaders often encourage followers to avoid thinking too much. They ask them to buy into narrow assumptions, not ask too many questions and avoid reflecting on the broader meaning of their actions. By corralling followers' cognitive capacities, leaders try to limit how followers define, think and act.

And that's precisely why the world needs more Rebels at Work!

The Rebel Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali's conscientious objection to the War in Vietnam is the first social/political issue I can remember capturing my attention. When Ali refused induction into the military in 1967 I was 12 years old. My family had just returned the previous year from Germany where my dad the Army sergeant had been assigned. We had had no television to speak of in the small Bavarian town of Bad Kissingen, so the ferment of the civil rights movement, for example, didn't penetrate my consciousness. (I remember when we landed in the United States from Germany being transfixed by an American television show--a black and white episode of Lost in Space featuring Billy Mumy--broadcast somewhere in the airport.) Everything about the Muhammad Ali case confused me. 384px-Muhammad_Ali_NYWTSOf course most people then were still calling him Cassius Clay, including my parents. My father had no sympathy for Ali's refusal to go to Vietnam and yet he had admired the brash irreverence of Cassius Clay the boxer. I remember wondering why such an attractive person would risk all that success by making an unpopular argument. I couldn't imagine anything ever being so important. And yet I also remember disagreeing with Ali's critics who questioned his patriotism and manhood. The one thing he didn't seem to lack was courage.

Fifty years later, Carmen the adult-approaching-senior-citizen has achieved more clarity about the example of Muhammad Ali. In a wonderful retrospective I recommend to all Rebels at Work, Ali is quoted as saying during the height of the controversy:

I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs.

Actually, he had just about everything to lose materially. Because of his decision, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title--the most prestigious athletic honor of that era--and was unable to fight during what should have been his most productive years. He lost a lot. But, as the article makes clear, Ali's principled stand buttressed others to do what they thought was right, including female tennis star Billie Jean King and Nelson Mandela, who, it should be remembered, was a heavyweight boxer himself in 1950s South Africa.

I think Muhammad Ali intuited the impact that a single individual can have when he stands for something beyond just himself. He took on the most extreme of positions at the most inopportune of times and was ready to suffer the consequences if proven wrong. He understood what a 12-year old couldn't and what many adults still don't:

Life's ultimate success is being true to yourself.



Build these three change muscles

Superhero character strengths slidejpeg

Five years ago when people asked me how change happens in big organizations I couldn’t wait to share ideas on positioning, navigating organizational politics and conflict.

Now my advice is different.

Based on personal experiences and learning from successful Rebels at Work, Change Agents, social scientists and psychologists, I see the importance of appreciation, character strengths and safety. These have to come before the tactical strategies and skills.

When we practice these three things we build up our ability to adapt to change and increase the self-esteem needed to initiate change. Plus they’re contagious, infecting work mates in the best possible ways.

When I was first introduced to these practices I was skeptical, believing them “soft.” But almost a year into incorporating them into my life and work I’m singing that 1960s Monkees song, “I’m a Believer.” As are many of my clients who are using them to change how they work.

Not changing work like using Yammer, but changing work in how we work with people, appreciating strengths and making it safe to try new things, question the status quo, and wonder out loud about possibilities without being criticized for not thinking things through. (I was criticized about the latter during many a performance review early in my career.)

Appreciation: the greatest motivator

 A sense of appreciation is single most sustainable motivator at work, according to Dr. Adam Grant, author of Give and Take and the Originals.

BUT we are less likely to express gratitude at work than any other place in their lives, according to research by the John Templeton Foundation

That’s right. After thanking the Starbucks barista for such an amazing latte, we walk into work grumpy and never think to thank a co-worker for some small thing that they’ve done especially well.

But here’s the deal: when we feel appreciated we become more trusting of others, our self-confidence increases and we’re more likely to help others. Plus we're more open to new ideas.

So stop reading right here.

Think of someone at work who you especially value. What are three things they do that make a difference to your group? Write them down quick. OK, now share those things with that person. Wait until you see how much that person lights up. You’ll both feel good.

(Another research finding: 88% feel better after giving kudos to co-workers.)

Character science: what motivates YOU? Your team?

We all have 24 universal character strengths in various degrees, according to extensive research by psychology professors Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman. These are intrinsic strengths that give us energy. When we’re in “the flow” we’re probably using our top strengths.

It’s helpful to know what your top strengths are and value and use them because they build your self-esteem, creativity and confidence, all necessary to adapt to change at work. (You can take a free assessment at the VIA Character Institute.)

As helpful is to understand the character strengths of your co-workers. When we understand what different people bring to the organization and how they work they way do within a context of character science, we’re able to appreciate them in new ways. (There’s the connection back to appreciation.)

My top character strengths are honesty and bravery. So rather than seeing my frankness as a “fault” – or as a royal pain in the ass– colleagues can see how it brings value to our work together.

Guiding teams through this process is some of the most exciting work I’ve done in my career. It opens people up to people  -- and themselves -- in new ways, creating a more positive, open-minded, can-do environment.   And who doesn’t want more of that at work?

And the research to back up the benefits? According the VIA Institute on Character:

71% of employees who believe their managers can name their strengths feel engaged and energized by their work.

For organizations that are focused on strengths, 77% of their employees report they are flourishing, engaged and able to make things happen at work.

(Note: this is what employee engagement is really about. Not surveys or p.r. campaigns, but being recognized for who we ware and appreciated for how we contribute based on our unique -- aka genuine -- strengths.)

Psychological safety: the secret to high-performing teams

If the environment doesn’t feel safe at work, you’re kind of, well, screwed because no one wants to make a wrong move, suggest an idea for which they’ll be laughed at, or call out a problem. If you start practicing appreciation and focus on strengths it will become safer, but creating a safe organizational environment requires much, much more.

Psychological safety is as important as physical safety at work, but it is largely overlooked and few managers are rewarded for creating this safety.

Check out the excellent New York Times Magazine article, “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” by the journalist Charles Duhigg. The most important characteristic of high-performing teams? Safety.

You get what you give

One of my favorite songs is “You Get What You Give” by the New Radicals. It’s an upbeat song with a dark undercurrent about the challenges of our fast changing, crazy world.

This whole damn world can fall apart You'll be OK, follow your heart You're in harm's way, I'm right behind.

Life and work is life -- evolving, spinning, changing. We can’t separate the two. We can’t ever, despite the politicians’ promises, go back to what was.

What we can do is strengthen our resiliency and ability to adapt. Helping one another follow our hearts, using the strengths that make us each uniquely us, and appreciating what we are accomplishing.

Imagine if more of us felt that if we were in harm’s way  someone would be right behind us?

You get what you give.

Stay Found

Stay FoundHave you ever had an epiphany, filed it away, and then been smacked with it again during a random encounter? This is a story about a personal growth epiphany: trying to hide and trying to stay found.

Last month Carmen Medina and I spent a week at O’Reilly Media in Sebastapol, Calif., taping a learning program called, “Be A Brave, Big-Hearted Rebel at Work: Get Unstuck, Find Fresh Perspectives.”   It is based on our book “Rebels at Work” and explores skills and capabilities in much more depth than the book.

For four long and exhilarating days, from Monday to Thursday, we interviewed brilliant and fascinating people like Brice Challamel, Jeffrey Davis, Maria DeCarvalho, Paul Furey, Adam Grant, Paula Prober, Maria Sirois, Linda Stroh, Peter Vander Auwera, and Tenneson Woolf.

Each of us also taped our own short segments, sharing practical advice, exercises and personal experiences on topics like introducing new ideas, enlisting support, recovering from failure, etc.

I was ecstatic – and I rarely use that word – with learning from such wise, generous people, and from giving away what has helped me and helped me help my Fortune 500 clients.

Oh, no.

That Thursday night I went back to my lovely Airbnb room overlooking a vineyard, watched the tapes, and thought, “Oh no.”

I talked too fast, flailed my hands too much, came across at times as hyper, and tripped over words in my excitement to ask guests questions. Oy, oy, oy.

On Friday morning I went into the studio for the final day of shooting. We had to tape an important program introduction and do several segment introductions and wrap-ups.

After what I had seen of myself on tape, I switched gears, speaking slowly, calmly and deliberately. Hands and arms relaxed.

The producer/director, Kirk Walter, called, “Stop the cameras,” and walked over to me. “Lois, what’s wrong? You seem off.”

I told him I was tired, confessed how disappointed I had been watching the tapes, and explained I was trying to be much more professional this morning.

“Lois, you were you. We need the real you here this morning with all that energy you bring.”

Kirk’s words might be the kindest and most truthful thing anyone has said to me in a long time.  Just be yourself.

Just be yourself.

Over the past month I’ve done several things to stay true to myself. For example, I took down a long-running blog called “The Other Lois Kelly” because all my ideas are from the real me vs. from different “branded” personalities.

Sadly, I also caught myself trying to back pedal into the land of the safe, polished and controlled.

My new Book, “Naked Hearted: How Bullshit, Parkinson’s and John Lennon Changed My Life” is out on Amazon, but I haven’t started to get the word out. (Well, I guess I have now.) Why? I worry that I’ve revealed too much of the real me. It feels uncomfortable.

To which my 20 year-old son said, “It’s good to be uncomfortable, mom. It means you’re entering a growth cycle.” ( Maybe I don’t want to grow that much.)

Staying Found

Here’s the smacked on the side of the head part of the story.

This weekend at the Squam Lakes Science Center in N.H. I saw a poster for a program called: "Staying Found: Finding Your Way Without a Map or a Compass."

Smack! How can I stay found? No hiding, going back to “safe” work or over-editing myself?

When interviewing Dr. Maria Sirois, a psychologist with extensive research into positivity psychology, she emphasized that optimistic, resilient people who bring their whole selves to work are contagious in a good way.

“People say, ‘Wow, she’s brave enough to do that, maybe I can, too.’”

So I’m going to Stay Found. And accept my hyper-curious, exuberant, fast-talking style. Even the Boston accent that wants a seat at the table.

Please, please join me in showing up as yourself.

The air is fresh, the breezes are gentle, and boy oh boy the views are spectacular when you see things for what they are.

Ask More Questions and Tell Fewer Lies

Lois and I made a conscious decision to write Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within for fellow rebels lacking leadership positions in large organizations. There were at least two other audiences we could have written for: The Rebel Manager. Someone actually in a leadership position trying to take an organization in a different direction. That's whom I usually think of when I hear the term Change Agent.

The Manager of Rebels. Here we're referring to “bosses” who want to be helpful to their “rebels.” Often they recognize the need for innovation, but don't have the ideas themselves. Or don't want to be the front person for a change initiative but wouldn't mind supporting people willing to take the lead. I think sometimes Rebels at Work can be overly critical of managers who recognize a problem but don't want to push the solution directly. Sure, some of them are playing it overly safe, but others may have good reasons to demur. They may have fought many battles earlier in their careers, and just don't have enough juice left for another push. Or they realize they may not have enough influence in their hierarchy to pursue a direct approach.

rebels-at-work-bookThese well-intended managers of rebels keep asking us some great questions at talks we've given recently. And a lot of them revolve around how to manage a team of individuals holding strong opinions. You would think managers would want teams of strong thinkers. HA! We all know managers are still trained and many are in any case inclined to achieve homogeneity and harmony in the work place What is otherwise lovingly referred to as CONSENSUS. As Luke Visconti of Diversity Inc. recently wrote in his Ask the White Guy column:

The dominant culture, regardless of who it is or where it is, is driven to value conformity.

If more businesses and organizations truly valued Diversity of Thought, the need for Rebels at Work would decline significantly. So I spent some time this weekend checking out the latest research on the topic.

The good news is that there is some recent research. The most noteworthy is an MIT study published this fall that examines whether diversity of teams in terms of gender and tenure was associated with 1. team harmony and 2. team productivity (as measured by revenue.) The study doesn't measure diversity of thought per se, but gender differences and varying levels of work experience often are associated with the clash of ideas in the workplace.

The study has some interesting and sometimes counterintuitive findings. Teams composed of members who were hired at different times did not show lower levels of cooperation, but, according to the researchers, did show significantly lower levels of performance. Teams with higher levels of gender diversity, however, were associated with reduced team harmony, but in this case these teams were also associated with significantly higher levels of performance. (Interestingly, mixed gender teams easily outperformed both all-male and all-female teams.)

The press has popularized the study by reporting that diverse teams are more productive but less happy. But I think the study points to a more nuanced conclusion--the need for managers to develop better techniques for dealing with differences in the workplace, whatever their causes. The tension that comes with the clash of ideas is a frequent challenge for Rebels at Work. Often, the Rebel is so caught up in the excitement of advancing her ideas that she fails to notice and/or discounts the unhappiness and discomfort building among her teammates. The manager, whose training emphasized the need to build consensus but not how to navigate turbulent whitewater, is often just a bystander as his team blows up. Clearly, there's a lot of work to be done here.

Some preliminary ideas for managers of rebels.

  • “Rethink your default settings”. The phrase comes from a report by a UK consultancy on how to increase diversity on boards. I'm using it here to refer to the habits and practices that managers of team rarely question. How do you run your meetings? Whom do you talk to first about an issue? What priorities does your calendar reflect? Examine everything and consider upending most of it. For example, if you have a new influx of team members, let them set the agenda for an upcoming meeting. Give them a chance to share their observations without interruption.
  • Acknowledge different categories of “expertise” for your team. I've seen many teams where only one type of expertise is recognized and valued. Either you are on expert on how things have always been done—standard operating procedures, or you're here to learn. Sound familiar? But how about having a team discussion on the different types of expertise that could be useful to meeting team goals. Who is most familiar with the new research? Who here understands the growing Hispanic market? Who is on top of new technology? Just having an explicit conversation about the many categories of useful knowledge can be an eye opening experience for team members.
  • Talk explicitly about individual thinking and work styles. There's any number of free tests on the internet about thinking styles and they are all useful. But recently I've found it to be just as effective to have team members describe “how they think” or “how they solve problems” to each other. Most people know if they are good with detail or if they prefer to play with bigger concepts. I've come to believe that most job performance issues are caused by asking people to do tasks for which they are not well-suited. Forget the job descriptions. Let individuals gravitate to the tasks they do well.
  • Ask more open-ended questions and tell fewer lies. OK, well maybe managers don't tell lies on purpose. But in their effort to project certainty, they often make pronouncements suffused with an unjustified air of certainty. Monitor the number of declarative sentences you make as a manager and resolve to replace at least a third of them with questions. Here's an example. A team member asks you how the team plans to meet a difficult deadline. Instead of providing your not-so-definitive answer, why not just reflect the question back to the team. “That's a great question. What ideas do you all have.” You've now encouraged everyone on your team to speak, including the different thinkers and rebels.

I'm sure there's many more ideas out there. Please do share in the comments.

Like a rebel boss

Like a teenage rebel boss jpegMy son is about to turn 20 and I’m so proud of him. Prouder still of me. I didn’t throw sharp objects, nag incessantly, take away privileges, drone on about accountability and responsibility, or yell and scream like a raving maniac during those teen years. (Well, except for that one freak out. More on that in a minute.)

Reflecting on those years I realize that becoming a good boss of rebels at work can help you become a better parent. Especially during the teenage years.

There are many good reasons to be a good boss of those rebels and mavericks who, like teenagers, think current policies and approaches are stupid and want to change everything. If you help rebels, they’ll go to the mat for your organization and you’ll likely get a promotion, score a big bonus, look good with the suits on the executive floor, and be the person everyone in the company wants to work for.

But the real reason to coach rebels like a rock star is to train yourself for those teenage years.   If you have teenagers or have made it through, you likely know what I’m talking about. If you don’t yet have teenage children, take this advice and thank me later.

Like the rebels who work for us, we love our teenagers’ fresh thinking, their creativity, their intolerance for school and societal rules that just don’t make sense, and their willingness to go to the mat to do something about those stupid rules. They are so bold and vibrant and confident that it can take our breath away. We want to be them.

And yet they make us crazy when they skirt the rules, do dumb things without understanding the bigger context, let their emotions run wild, and screw up so badly that we have to have one of those dreaded meetings with the principle or the CEO where no one really knows what to say except, “Talk to her. Try to keep him in line. I know she’s basically a good student/employee. One last thing -- let’s not let this happen again.” You walk away feeling like a reprimanded teenager.

Better for rebels, better for teenagers

So what helps us help rebels at work – and, in turn, helps us help our teenagers at home?

When we coach rebels and help them learn how to navigate within existing structures however screwed up they may be, they develop capacities for being effective, meaningful citizens of the world. If we simply insist they follow the rules, they just get angrier and more frustrated.  Saying, “the rules are the rules” to idea people at work and creative kids at home is like talking in a different language. Like a language with all guttural, ugly sounds. They just hear the hard edges and look at the spit coming out of our mouths and think, “How pathetic.”

I tried, not always successfully, to remark more on what my teenage son was doing well than on what he should be doing differently or better. I’d ask him what was working in school or share my work challenges and ask him what he thought might be the best approach. I valued his opinions because I knew they would be honest, frank and fresh. Not the usual blah-blah responses.

Rebels at work also provide this freshness. Don’t miss out on these perspectives. They’re foreign, like a teenager’s, but with more wisdom.

Conversations with rebels, like teens, can’t be superficial or disingenuous. They’ll tune you out, and you’ll miss out.

What worries you? What else do you think is possible? What are we kidding ourselves about? What might happen if we…

Questions teach, both them and us.

Rebels and teens know a lot. They think a lot. And they’ll help you gain new perspectives. Their ideas might make you feel uncomfortable. OK, they will make you feel uncomfortable. But that’s how we learn, right?

By hearing and considering their views, we build trust, love, mutuality, togetherness, bonding. Most importantly, we build their capacity to consider other views and learn how to disagree without being a jerk. To be able to talk about ideas where no one is right or wrong. To feel safe enough to disagree and still feel safe and valued as part of the family or as part of the organization.

Freak Out!

As long as they don’t steal your credit card to buy World of Warcraft add-ons.

This is where the freak out happened.

My son and I had had several conversations about getting the gaming thing under control. So when I opened my card statement and saw several different $25 charges from Blizzard Entertainment, I went nuts.

He came home from school all cheerful and I started screaming, channeling an Irish banshee, waving my credit card bill. I was maniacal, and one scary woman. To finish off my tantrum I slammed the front door, got in the car, and drove off leaving my son at home alone for several hours.

I am a calm person. He knew that a line had been crossed.

When I finally came home, he had written a letter to me, not only apologizing but also explaining how he would pay me back and, much more importantly, how he was going to cure the burgeoning World of Warcraft addiction. “That I’ve disappointed you is the worse thing of all,” he wrote.

He had a plan that was far better than anything that I could have constructed. He beat himself up harder than I ever would or could.

From having been the boss of rebels, I guess I knew that he would figure out a way forward that was more insightful and effective than anything I could imagine.

Because we had a relationship built on honesty and mutual caring, I knew we would recover. No one had to win or lose.

I love that boy, who I now have to call a man. He’s creative, passionate, dedicated, often unrealistic in setting goals, curious, and sometimes self-absorbed when he’s in the flow of a project.

Like a rebel. Like the best people who ever worked in my organizations.

So if you have a rebel working for you, rejoice! Coach, ask questions, let go of control while setting some boundaries, and make it safe to talk about the tough stuff.

You’re going to love the teenage years.


The Stability Trap

Given my long career at the CIA, I still read widely on international relations and politics. One of the most interesting articles I've read in some time just appeared in Foreign Affairs--The Calm Before the Storm--Why Volatility Signals Stability, and Vice Versa.   Trying to figure out when and how a society becomes unstable is the bread and butter work of a political analyst in the Intelligence Community.  Nassim Taleb's and Greg Treverton's article is wonderfully contrarian, arguing that in fact the most stable societies have a history of healthy volatility in their recent past.

The best indicator of a country's future stability is not past stability but moderate volatility in the relatively recent past.

Reflecting on my own career, I can remember many countries that I knew were going to implode at any moment, and yet somehow never did. And when there was a surprise--or, in other words, an intelligence failure--it was often because a pillar of the international community had suddenly--or so we thought--gone all wobbly on us.

And then I wondered whether this nifty piece of analysis could have broader implications.

Wait a Minute! Could this apply to companies as well? Could it in fact be the case that:

The best indicator of an organization's future stability is not past stability but moderate volatility in the relatively recent past?

Rebels at Work know that one of the main reasons why their ideas don't get a fair hearing is because most management teams prefer, indeed they crave, stability. My experience in government and the private sector is that one of the real reasons people avoid change is because they dislike disruption. Changing an organization is like staying in your house when you're remodeling your kitchen. It's messy and uncomfortable. As a result, people in an organization often will agree that the future end state is much preferable to the Status Quo, but nevertheless get grumpy at the thought of any disruption of their daily routines.

Organizations and managers need to rethink this aversion to messiness, to moderate volatility. And one of the best ways for a company to inject a healthy dose of ideational volatility into its operations is to be more tolerant, perhaps even welcoming, of its rebels, mavericks, and heretics. I can promise you that we rebels are very good at stirring things up if you just let us. Injecting new ideas into the tired debate about next year's strategic direction would make all organizations stronger. Encouraging dissent from the prevailing wisdom in organizations is analogous to the "political variability" that characterizes countries that enjoy genuine political stability. As Taleb and Treverton point out, decentralization and political changeability makes countries stronger; authoritarian rule tends to only make them brittle.

Many companies and organizations today are brittle. They look strong but that strength is untested. The absence of diversity in their strategy and tactics leaves them vulnerable to any changes in the environment they fail to anticipate. Rebels at Work can serve as the anticipation engine of your organization.

But only if you let them!