Creating a Safer Workplace

Workplace-related suicides have increased in recent years, and organizations and businesses need to ensure they are doing right by their staff by sustaining healthy work conditions and providing appropriate resources for colleagues facing difficult times. The RANE network just published an advisory for its clients about mental health in the workplace and interviewed me (Carmen) for the piece. Rebels at Work, of course, encounter stress in the workplace; the chapter in the book Rebels at Work on rebel self-care is among the most popular. Here are some excerpts from the article and at the end a link that will download the PDF file of the complete text.

My comments emphasized that the default way organizations function creates tensions in the workplace. One example is the stigma against rocking the boat. Even when organizations do not specifically state it, employees often perceive that “companies do not like it if they challenge the organization in any way, including by offering a new idea or by stating that they have too much work.” A related dynamic is the value that so many organizations place on “smoothness.” Managers that let employees know they value stability and smoothness are also making it harder for individuals to tell you they perceive a problem or need some time off to deal with personal issues.

Organizations also promote stress by creating a work plan and objectives that require 100% of workforce time to achieve. There is no flex in the schedule to deal with personal emergencies, unexpected work load, or hiccups in the supply chain. Businesses that consistently run at the red line are guaranteed to burn up their employees.

I suggested that companies instead design their annual goals in such a way that the organization retains some excess capacity that can be used to deal with contingencies or to allow staff to pursue new projects. Companies interested in creating a psychologically-safe work environment should conduct cultural audits to reveal all the subtle ways they impose unnecessary stress on employees—from how they talk about performance appraisals to the way they run meetings and the expectation to answer emails during non-work hours. The introduction of artificial intelligence to knowledge work will be a new stress point for staff, some of whom may find that what they are good at is now done better by a machine.

There’s much more good content in the article including some specific information about preventing suicide in the workplace from Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas. Download the complete text here.

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!

Rebels, You are Needed!

We can gain some insight about the domains that desperately need some rebel energy by checking out the demographics of our Twitter followers at A strong plurality if not a majority work in the health industry. Check out this word cloud generated by followerwonk derived from our followers’ twitter bios.

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Another large group of followers are government workers from all levels— state, local, regional and federal. Of course in many countries health workers are also government employees, most notably in the United Kingdom where the National Health Service has recently become interested in promoting positive change agents. By the way, here is a map showing the global reach of @rebelsatwork.

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An interesting subset of our government followers are individuals who work for the US Intelligence Community. That’s where one half of @rebelsatwork learned their lessons, mainly me! Although I no longer hold any security clearances, I still attend the occasional intelligence-related conference and that’s where I was earlier this week, attending the 2019 GEOINT symposium, devoted to all forms of geospatial information and analysis. One of the more interesting panels, for example, dealt with using geospatial intelligence to help fight California forest fires.

But I digress. A highlight of the annual symposium is the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to a geospatial pioneer. This year’s awardee is Dr. Annette Krygiel, a woman who helped create modern geospatial analysis. She shared her most important best practice with the audience:

Humans solve problems or accomplish complex tasks by collaborating—by working together in teams.
My lesson learned is it can be beneficial, even NECESSARY, to employ teams that are composed using
diversity as an organizing criteria…think REBELS AND WILD CARDS.

(You can catch her comments here.)

After her talk, Dr. Krygiel told me she was going to order the book Rebels at Work, although it sounds to me that she could have written it. Just goes to show that society has always had and needed rebels. It seems to be a lesson that is in constant need of relearning.

Innovation is the Opposite of Policy

Lois Kelly and I are regularly amazed and humbled by the resonance that Rebels at Work continues to have. And just when we think there aren’t any new wrinkles out there for us to share, we come across a new voice.

Daniel Hulter is in the US Air Force. He is writing about innovation on LinkedIn. And he shared a piece recently that made a wonderful and necessary distinction between innovation as the glamorous endeavors of Mavericks and the almost routine actions of individuals who figure out the right thing to do in any given situation. Like the individual in a bureaucracy who has the wisdom to see that a policy, written forty years ago by individuals perhaps no longer on this mortal coil, cannot be followed in a particular human situation.

Hulter has the hunch—and we agree—that if organizations worried more about encouraging the latter and less about their flagship innovation projects, they would improve just as quickly with less sturm und drang. A simple and meaningful definition of Innovation is the Opposite of Policy. Policy incorporates what the past has told us about the best way to do something—and let me just say that the “best way” incorporates a whole set of assumptions that merit examination. For example, organizations often think that smooth operations are the BEST operations; the desire for smoothness, however, can trample over other good things such as diversity of thought and trying out new ideas.

Innovation Policy.png

But let me add a qualifier. Not all policies are bad and not all innovation is good. Amy from Minneapolis (not his real name) wrote me to complain that it’s not a good thing when employees in a large organization ignore security policies and thus open themselves to malicious hacking. Some policies are worth having and some innovations are just stupid. It is an annoying fact of life that to navigate it successfully you must learn to maneuver through the grey. Shades of grey are difficult to distinguish from black or white. What I thought was a simple matter turns out more nuanced. That’s why you need allies, disagreeable givers, a wild pack, and, yes, even opponents to help you see.

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.

May the Force be With You!

For those of you who subscribe to our newsletter--not quite monthly but we think always interesting, you have probably already read my reflections on the death of Carrie Fisher. But if you haven't, I'm repeating them below along with some additional thoughts.  

When I was at CIA, the band of plucky intelligence officers who thought the Agency needed to change took to calling ourselves The Rebel Alliance. We would amuse ourselves by imagining which of us represented the different characters in Star Wars. (And also who in the CIA really was Darth Vader!) Just for the record I never thought of myself as a Princess Leia. More of the Yoda type actually.
When Carrie Fisher died just before Christmas, I was struck yet again by the significance of the Star Wars iconography and the importance of the Princess Leia character to my own Rebel at Work experience. Being a Rebel required patience, smarts, and a bias for action.

But many years later I began to appreciate how fact was more interesting than fiction, and that the actual person Carrie Fisher was even more of a Rebel role model. Tough as nails, always honest with others and with herself, Carrie Fisher was also someone who got things done. She advocated for mental health, wrote several books, and was brought in by Hollywood studios to fix the scripts of troubled movies. She reportedly performed wonders for many successful films and yet was never publicly credited for her work.

That kind of sounds familiar, doesn't it. So often the good we do as rebels is not acknowledged; our ideas are appropriated by others. And yet we rebel on. It's the results that matter.

Another aspect of Carrie's life that should resonate with all Rebels at Work is that it didn't appear to be easy. Among her long list of quotable aphorisms is this one:

Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

Now there speaks someone who has learned from less-than-optimum experiences. If something horrible happens to you, don't waste it by not learning from the experience. Advancing new ideas in old workplaces will test you emotionally and physically. We know this not only because we have lived it but because we're reminded of it every time we meet with Rebels in the public and private sector. And many of you have told us that you want to hear more about how Rebels can take better care of themselves and become more resilient. Too often business and self-help books promise you that things will be easy if you just follow their rules. Lois and I know being a Rebel at Work is always challenging but it can also be survivable. Or to use the word Carrie Fisher coined: We can all still sur-thrive!
And finally our favorite piece of advice from Carrie Fisher:

Stay afraid but do it anyway. What's important is the action. You don't have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.

Rebel Learnings

This summer I had an opportunity to talk to many rebel audiences--I know Lois did as well. And as usual we learned a ton from people we spoke with. So much is worth passing on. So let's get right to it. The EGO. One of the groups I spoke to was the NextGen Leadership Summit in Washington D.C. It's a conference put on by GovLoop for civil servants at every level--federal, state, local. Lois and/or I have spoken to the group several times now and I wish I could say that the situation for rebels in government has improved. From the questions I got, not much. I was sharing our learning that for a rebel one of the best things that can happen is for someone else to take credit for their idea. In fact, we believe that a priority for all rebel change agents is to make your idea their idea. Many participants didn't like my advice. At all! Getting any kind of personal recognition in their bureaucracy is so difficult, the idea of voluntarily eschewing it struck them as NUTS. After I spoke, a sympathetic person came up to me and said:

Carmen, to avoid this reaction, next time why don't you just say that rebels need to remember that it needs to be less about them and more about their idea. And leave it at that!

Admitting you're not perfect. Similarly, the NextGen audience balked at my suggestion that rebels avoid false confidence when presenting their ideas. You should admit that your idea is imperfect and invite others to make it better. Again, many in the audience noted that the culture in their organization demanded confidence at all times. Acknowledging uncertainty is a cultural mistake and could even cost your group in that nutty competition for resources that occurs in so many bureaucracies. So you do have to calibrate how receptive your organization is to honest talk and how high its penchant for delusion. Maybe your candor can only occur in one-on-one or small group situations.

These next two ideas come from a conversation I had last month with Brice Challamel, a fellow rebel whom you can see in our learning video, Be a Brave, Big-Hearted Rebel at Work. He believes that an occupational hazard for Rebels at Work is the loss of perspective on their ideas. Rebels can do a better job at self-editing themselves with two simple tricks:

Develop some criteria to evaluate your ideas. For example, maybe you will only go forward with ideas that would benefit your immediate boss and improve conditions for other units in your organization, not just your own section. So as you sift the wacky ideas in your head, you have a basis for putting aside some and proceeding with others. And along those lines...

Limit the number of ideas. A real hazard for rebels is that they become known as flighty, jumping from one idea to another without ever seeing one through. Tell yourself that you can only advance two or three suggestions at a time. This then becomes another criteria by which to evaluate your thinking. It also will make you more effective by concentrating your energies and that of your supporters.

I hope some of these ideas will help you.

Happy Rebelling!

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 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.



The power of being heard

Why do I care so much about helping people speak up and be heard? Why has my labor of love become helping rebels at work?

It didn’t start on this day, but all these years later this incident feeds my determination to help people speak truth to power.

FAirmont ballroomJPEG

The New York City hotel conference room was plush, with fifty rows of gold ballroom chairs with red velvet seats lined up carefully in two sections. At the head of the room stood a formidable business executive who had just published a book called “Power and Influence.” He didn’t need a microphone. He exuded confidence in the way he held himself, projected his voice and opinions, and “commanded” the room.

Men in dark business suits filled most of the seats. And then there was me, 23-years-old in my dorky blue suit with one of those ridiculous “female bow ties” that were so popular in the 1980s. I was eager to “be corporate” so that I could do the work that I loved, which was working for a Madison Avenue public affairs and crisis communications firm.

I convinced my boss to let me go to this event. So much – too much -- in the field was about tactics, and here was someone talking about how to affect the outcomes – influencing opinion and changing perceptions. It was an easy sell because my boss admired Mr. Power and Influence, who was the CEO of one of the largest public relations agencies in the world.

That's your question, miss?

When it came time for questions my arm shot up. There was so much that I was hungry to know. Mr. Power and Influence kept calling on the middle-aged white men. I kept my arm up. Finally he called on me, “Yes, Miss.”

I don’t remember what I asked. I just remember his response. Not the words, but the body language. First a sigh, then a smirk, then the condescending tone. As if my question and I were not worthy and he couldn’t believe that someone had been so ridiculous to ask him such a question. A few people coughed as he lectured me. Were they embarrassed for him or me?

Maya Angelou once said, ““I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I still remember how he made me feel, and it still makes me angry. When people are seeking to understand or contribute or help, they are worthy. Even if their question is unpolished. Earnestness deserves respect.

I’m just an admin

Flash forward 30 years and I am running a writing workshop for a Fortune 100 company, and people are in small breakout groups, individually writing in response to a prompt about healthcare.

“OK, would everyone now please read aloud what you wrote to the people in your break out groups,” I ask.

In one group a young woman says, “Oh, skip over me. I’m just and admin not a writer like you all.”  In her, I see my 23-year-old self.

”Taneesha, of course you don’t have to share.  But there are no right or wrong responses here and you bring a different and valuable perspective because you are an admin.”

Taneesha reads her story and people are stunned. While the professional communicators wrote from their heads about healthcare policy, Taneesha wrote from her gut about her healthcare experiences as a single mother. Her writing was breathtaking.

“Geez, Taneesha,” her colleagues say, “What are you doing as an admin? YOU should be a writer.”

The next day Taneesha came to the workshop wearing bolder lipstick, with her hair done up in a handsome bun. I may have been imagining it, but I think she stood taller, too.

She had been heard. And seen.

Oh, the power that gives us.

Hey, Hey: When nothing goes as planned

crop Gothenberg museum imp copy Nothing is going as planned during this two-day tourist jaunt in Sweden. So many weeks of planning and expectations gone kaput.

Taking the ferry to the archipelago didn’t happen yesterday because of heavy rain and wind so I decided I would go see the opera Madame Butterfly at the Opera House. Sold out. OK, then, I’ll go to the one-star Michelin restaurant. No reservations. Plan C is the Konserthuset. Nope. The concert tonight is for a private audience.

Instead I board Tram 6 as instructed by the club’s web site to get to an edgy part of town to see two progressive rock bands, both fronted by young Swedish women.

As the tram moves out of the inner city I carefully watch the digital screen in the tram for my stop. After people get on at each stop they shake rain off their jackets, close their umbrellas, and open the protective plastic on their baby carriages, smiling at their children.

The tram is no longer in the city. The skin shades of my fellow tram travelers range from milky white to deep ebony. People are wearing headscarves, nose rings, headphones, floral wreaths, Afros, beards and orange lipstick.

OK, Milady?

A young woman whose hair is matted to her head from the rain gets on with a baby carriage and a beagle and parks them by my side. “OK, Milady?” she asks me.

Tram 6 stops again but not at my stop. A young Somalian man tells me that this is the end of the line. It’s dark and there are no lights at the tram stop. “Where is this stop,” I ask him opening my tourist map and pointing to where I’m trying to get to. He can’t help because he doesn’t speak English. I have to get off. I am lost.

The young mother with the baby carriage and sad-eyed beagle comes to Milady’s rescue, telling me which tram to take and advising me that it will be a 30-minute ride. If I’m on Tram 11 longer than that, I will have missed my stop.

Thirty minutes later I get off at the right stop and walk into a magical concert space.

The woman at the door greets me by saying “Hey, Hey” in that lilting, welcoming Swedish way. It’s like having a laid-back cheerleader giving you a personal rah when you walk into a Swedish restaurant of shop. I wanted to say back, “Hey, Hey,” I made it. But the young woman is already puzzled to see a woman my age at the club’s door. No need to make her think I’m totally nuts.

The venue has worn hardwood floors, sophisticated lighting and sound systems, local beers at the two makeshift bars in the back of the room, and people arm in arm, talking, laughing, kissing as they wait for the show to start.

Shaken awake.

My boots are still wet from waiting for Tram 11 and I am out of my familiar environments. I am shaken awake. Observant. Enjoying the right now. So happy my traditional tourist choices didn’t pan out.

It’s still raining the next day so I do another Plan D and go to the Gothenburg Art Museum. As I walk into the first gallery the painting I see is the original of a postcard I’ve carried around for years. It reminds me of falling in love with my husband. Here it is, a huge canvas, more beautiful than I imagined.

Gothenberg man and women painting

A statue of a green Norwegian imp with flowers growing out of her head is sitting on a table in the same room. I don't see the connection between the statue and the other art in the room. The security guard explains there is no connection. Someone at the museum just thought the table would look better with something on it.

Nothing has gone as planned and everything is better than planned this weekend.

The painting reminds me of love and how little time I may have left with my husband.

The music club reminds me of how art happens – welcoming, gritty and unfinished.

And the tram ride with Milady’s rescuer and the refugees Sweden has welcomed into its country is like an injection of kindness and compassion.

These reminders of art, love and kindness are my Swedish souvenirs. Unexpected and treasured.

Here’s to staying open when our carefully developed plans go awry.

Hey, Hey.

Become a Meaningful Rebel at Work

Rebels at Work can obsess about winning the war of ideas in their organization. The company is headed in the wrong direction and new ideas need to be introduced; the rebel at work not only seeks to persuade; she needs to win. But what if playing to win is not the right objective for rebels at work? In fact, isn’t the whole winning and losing framework just buying into the way traditional organizations think about making decisions? Once the leaders make their strategic choices, all other options fade to black.

Let’s think of another way. Instead of seeking victory, how can the rebel make his ideas more meaningful for his group and organization? Isn’t this a much better question, one that creates more space for others to contribute and that is more respectful of what is already positive about the organization? As Radmilla Prislin, Cory Davenport, and John Michalak note in their essay, Groups in Transition: Differences in the Context of Social Change:

Social change occurs when a group changes its position on what is normative.

Those were the ideas that ran through my mind this summer as I read the book Rebels in Groups, edited by Jolanda Jettsen and Matthew J. Hornsey. In an earlier blog post this month, I wrote about what this excellent book has to say RAW coverabout the contributions that dissent and rebels make to organizational health, including the awesome finding that rebels at work improve the decisions of their organizations even if their ideas don’t carry the day. See, it really isn’t about winning. It’s about making things better.

Rebels in Groups digests much of the recent academic research on how groups react to dissent and rebels in their midst. It’s consistent with the advice we provide in our book Rebels at Work—if you’re trying to affect change, you need allies, strategy, and a high degree of emotional and social intelligence. But the academic research contains some additional insights that can help rebels and dissidents be more effective.

Rebels need to understand the core norms of their group. The research clearly shows that it’s much harder for new ideas to gain support if they violate essential beliefs of the group. In our book we suggest that rebels at work frame their ideas within the context of what the organization already values. The psychology of the group also matters. Groups that are more cohesive handle dissent better. Groups that have a history of incorporating new members will be more open to new ideas

When presenting new ideas, rebels at work need to do so first within their group. Teams don’t take too kindly to being criticized in front of outsiders. This goes without saying, but it’s useful to know that the research supports good manners.

Instead of criticizing the views of others, rebels should frame conversations around the availability of information. What information shapes the rebels’ views; what information is viewed as important by others? Research shows that access to different information can account for variance in views; level-setting around what is known versus what is opinion can make conversations more constructive.

Rebels can overcome a group’s natural tendency to favor continuity by pointing to the external factors that support the need for change. This is a well-understood tactic in organizational change literature, but it’s nevertheless striking how groups make different decisions when forced to consider outside perspectives.

Rebels are received better by organizations when they behave consistently. We’ve all known individuals who every month have a different new idea for what the organization could do better. You’re better off as a rebel if you identify the one or two changes that would make the most impact and then work doggedly to advance them.

There’s much more to share from Rebels in Groups. The next post will distill the lessons it offers for managers of organizations who want to encourage constructive dissent and create a healthy space for alternative views.

Change is Collective Deviance

This summer I’ve been making my way through an essential book for Rebels at Work called Rebels in Groups.  Edited by Jolanda Jettsen and Matthew J. Hornsey, Rebels in Groups collects much of the most recent and compelling research on deviance, differences, and rebellion in groups. But unlike much of the previous social psychology research that emphasizes the tendency of individuals in group to conform, this book, to quote one reviewer: represents a paradigm shift in how we think about the individual and the group. It is a welcome re-balance of our collective belief that conformity reigns in groups, and instead invites 'rebels' back into social psychology. For anyone seriously interested in group processes, this is a must-read.

rebels in groupsI agree. The book collects almost 20 essays representing the work of researchers from several countries who examined how groups respond to rebels, the conditions under which deviant views can become majority views, and the impact that individuals in leadership positions have on the process.

I think Rebels in Groups was intended as a textbook. It’s priced accordingly and is not an easy, casual read. But it’s a rewarding one and I’ll be sharing the insights I gained in this and subsequent blog posts. I wish I had known this book existed before we published Rebels at Work but I can report that its findings support all the major learnings Lois Kelly and I convey. The one area of focus in Rebels in Groups that I realize now we could have emphasized more in our book is the value that rebels gain through better understanding of their colleagues—their fellow group members. We write in our book about the importance of forming a Rebel Alliance, your Rebel Wild Pack, and of understanding the organizational landscape. But I learned from Rebels in Groups that it’s critical for the rebel to figure out the common identity of your community/team (more on that in a subsequent post).

Why Deviance is Important

For this post, I’d like to concentrate on some of the pro-Rebel arguments in the book. Various contributors to Rebels in Groups point out that without defiance and deviance, human society would hardly progress and improve.  Social change is essentially the product of collective deviance.  As Dominic J. Packer notes in his essay: The Dissenter’s Dilemma, and a Social Identity Solution:

A growing literature is documenting contexts in and processes by which the expression of divergent viewpoints enhances group decision making, reduces polarization, and allows for more creative, productive, and ethical outcomes…From the opposite perspective, adverse group outcomes are often attributed to an absence of dissent – the failure to elicit, respect, and heed competing ideas. Dissent is, by this formulation, important to the healthy functioning of social groups…and a failure to allow for dissent may result in difficulty adapting to changing circumstances.

While reading this essay—one of my favorites, I was reminded of the pressure so many organizations place on their leaders to be commanding and authoritative. I know I sometimes heard the critique that I wasn’t “hard enough” on my reports—whatever that meant. But there are in fact studies suggesting that the most successful management teams encourage dissent. Charlan J. Nemeth and Jack A. Goncalo remind us in their essay Rogues and Heroes: Finding Value in Dissent of a landmark study from 1998 on groupthink in seven Fortune 500 companies. The study found that “the most successful management teams encourage dissent in private meetings.”

I didn’t take much convincing on that point, but one aspect of Rebels at Work I had never considered is the value they provide to organization even when they don’t succeed and they’re not correct. Yup! You read that right. Rebels at Work can make organizations better even when their ideas are wrong. As Nemeth and Goncalo observe “minorities…stimulate thinking that is divergent; people consider multiple perspectives.” “Those exposed to minority views come up with more creative solutions to problems.” This dynamic is particularly important in juries where researchers have found that minority views need to be protected not because “they may be right but because even when they are wrong they stimulate thinking that on balance leads to better decisions…There is evidence that people search for more information on all sides of the issues; they utilize more ways of looking at facts.” (Emphasis original.)

Finally, I’m copying below a table that appears in the book that reminded me of the “Good Rebel/Bad Rebel” chart that we’re famous for and with which Lois and I have a love/hate relationship. People everywhere glom on to the chart, except for those who hate its over-simplification of a complex topic. Lois and I find ourselves agreeing with both the fans and the haters. So I’m quite happy to introduce a new categorization scheme that I think provides additional clarity.


A (non-exhaustive) Sampler of Deviances*

Tail of the distribution Random variation placing one just beyond the threshold of what is acceptable (e.g., a co-worker is ‘weird’ for liking a popular TV show just a little too much)
Norm shifting Not realizing that norms have changed, making one a deviant for abiding to obsolete norms, or joining a new group where one’s old norm-abiding behavior no longer has currency
Ignorance Not perceiving or understanding the norm
Inability Not having the resources or ability to follow the norm (e.g., mental illness, low financial resources)
Duress Being forced by external circumstances to break the norm (e.g., losing one’s job)
Compulsion Not being able to help oneself, feeling compelled to break the norm
Principled disagreement Refusing to follow a norm that one deems wrong
Disdain Feeling that one is above the norm, not beholden to it.
Spite Wanting to upset the mainstream, or a powerful minority
Desire for originality Wanting to be at odds with a norm, non-conformist
Self-interest Breaking the norm is rewarded so it is considered worth it despite potential social costs (e.g., crime)
 *Source: Monin, Benoît and O’Connor, Kieran. “Reactions to Defiant Deviants: Deliverance or Defensiveness?” Rebels in Groups Ed Jolanda Jetten and Matthew J. Hornsey   Wiley-Blackwell 2011


As you can see in the chart, the authors sort rebels/deviants into intentional/unintentional. The intentional category touches upon many of the same qualities we’re trying to describe in our Good Rebel/Bad Rebel chart. Throughout Rebels in Groups, different researchers note that deviants and rebels who disagree with the majority because of principle are more influential than other types of rebels. But the keys to success for even principled rebels are many, and I’ll write more about what Rebels in Groups tells us about that issue in my next post.

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!!

Whose responsibility is Debbie's mother?

Debbie's motherDebbie’s mother has called me 32 times over the past three days. She started calling on Monday night when the storm kicked in. The storm wound down last night, not as bad as predicted. But Debbie’s mother keeps calling. Six times this morning.

Debbie’s mother has the wrong number. I am not Debbie.

I explained this fact to her during several calls. But still she called. So I looked up the incoming phone number and found that it was from Cedar Crest Nursing Home.

I called the nursing home to tell them that one of their patients (residents?) was upset and desperate to talk to Debbie. Could they please help her find the right telephone number for Debbie?

“I'm sorry. We have three floors of patients here. There’s no way I can find the woman you’re talking about,” the Memory Loss floor supervisor told me. “Patients on my floor don’t have access to phones so it’s not one of mine. It must be someone on another floor. Sorry, I’m just too busy here.”

“Could you make a call to your colleagues on the other floors?” I ask.

“I’ll try,” said the Memory Loss supervisor and then hung up.

Debbie’s mother is trying to find Debbie. But Debbie’s mother is lost inside the nursing home. There is no one to hear her, except for me, the wrong number.

How many are lost at work, calling and getting no response?

In my work with big companies I often feel that people are lost, calling those in positions of responsibility with ideas, cautions, and worries, and getting no response. They feel like Debbie’s mother.

“I thought if I raised this issue, someone would be there to listen and do something about it,” people think. “I thought this was the year we could finally start to make a dent in doing work that would make a difference. But I guess not.”

After a while people stop calling, realizing that no one is going to pick up. They become complacent, doing as the floor supervisors request, yet worrying nonetheless.

We need people at work with the tenacity and hopefulness of Debbie’s mother. Maybe this time the call will go through.

What we need more are floor supervisors who care as much about helping people in their company who are lost and searching as they do about maintaining order in their small organizational silos. What might happen if more managers truly cared about EVERYONE and not just “their employees” or their patients?

A rebel calling: taking responsibility

I have a lot to do today. But perhaps the most valuable thing I can do is to drive to the nursing home and find help for Debbie’s mother.

In work and in life we rebels are often called to do things that we think someone else should be handling.

Responsibility is never neat and orderly.

My phone is ringing again. It’s Debbie’s mother.


Shame on you

Shame boyShame is one of those big, ugly words. It implies that detestable, dishonorable and hugely embarrassing acts have been committed. Unlike embarrassment, shame is much more painful. Making a mistake can be embarrassing. Doing something immoral or disgraceful is shameful.

Carmen and I have written a lot about how uncomfortable it is to be a rebel at work, asking frank questions and suggesting new approaches that upset “business as usual.”

But we were truly taken aback during a recent workshop when we asked people about their biggest fears and so many started talking about SHAME. One, and then two and then several people said that their bosses had made them feel shameful for speaking up about issues in their workplaces.

Social scientists have done extensive research around the issue of why employees fear speaking up, coining terms like Organizational Silence, the Mum Effect, and the Spiral of Silence. (See the book “Voice and Silence in Organizations.”)

Despite the awareness of the problem and its causes, this fear of speaking up at work remains pervasive. Not because people are afraid of looking dumb or making people (and themselves) feel uncomfortable.

But because they are made to feel shameful by their bosses.

The Shame Game jpeg

The sad fact is that most people who speak up at work CARE about their organization more than most. They want to make things better. To consciously or unconsciously make them feel that speaking up is a disgraceful, improper act feeds a culture of fear and silence.

And no amount of money spent on employee engagement is going to fix that.

Perhaps managers’ 360 feedback surveys should ask questions like:

  • What do I do to make people feel comfortable raising uncomfortable issues about our organization?
  • How fearful are you about raising uncomfortable issues with me? (1 to 10 scale)
  • How often, if ever, have I made you feel guilty about speaking up and raising unpopular views?

And perhaps it’s time to write down questions  and comments that fly around the workplace that imply shame. Keep a list, and then share it with your boss or the corporate ombudsman or HR to have an honest conversation.

  • Why can’t you be a team player like everyone else around here? What’s your problem?
  • Do you really have to bring this up again? Why can’t you just let it go? All you’re doing is causing trouble and diverting us from our real work.
  • You should know better. Really, at your age and at this point in your career it’s kind of shocking that you can’t understand how the business really works.
  • You’re kidding me, right? You actually think that…

If we really care about our organizations, we’ll continue to suggest ways to improve – however uncomfortable they may be.

We rebels may also have to be the ones to raise the need for developing an important organizational behavior: learning how to consider new ideas, without being defensive or resorting to destructive behaviors like shaming people.

And if people refuse to learn this skill and continue to make us feel shameful? Well, that’s a signal that it’s time to find a new job.





Train Wrecks

Train wreckAfter hearing about the release of "Rebels at Work" next month a friend told me that we should write a prequel called "Train Wrecks." "There are so many stories about messes at work that could have been avoided if managers had listened to employees.  It never fails to amaze me at how long managers can deny a problem."

You don't have to look far to find train wrecks at work -- where good rebels warned that the train was going to go off the rails.

  • Financial train wrecks: How have big banks been able to get away with outrageous behavior, creating rippling financial shitstorms? The New York Fed, the chief U.S. bank regulator, created a culture where raising problems and asking questions was shunned. When Carmen Segarra, one of its regulators assigned to Goldman Sachs, actually went about doing her job -- thinking that her and her employer's  job was to fix the financial system -- she got fired.  This September 26, 2014 ProPublica article is a great read about how culture, consensus, and discrediting good rebels have allowed our financial system to become a train wreck: Inside the New York Fed: Secret Recordings and a Culture Clash.
  • Automotive train wrecks: Yesterday General Motors issued its 76th recall of 2014, calling back 7,600 police vehicles because they could roll away when drivers thought they were in park.  Following an internal GM investigation earlier this year,  CEO Mary Barra said, "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.”  GM knew about the ignition switch safety issue for 10 years before they issued a recall. My guess is that good rebels in GM raised the problems -- and their bosses failed to act on that information.
  • Health care train wrecks: As reported by Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, there were many instances where nurses at Rhode Island Hospital warned surgeons about patient issues and procedures only to be told to shut up.  "If I want your damn  opinion I'll ask for it. Don't ever question my authority again," a doctor said to a nurse who questioned the appropriateness of a surgical procedure. "If you can't do your job, get the hell out of my OR."  Only after several reported incidences of surgical errors, like operating on the wrong side of a patient's head, did the hospital address its corrosive culture, a culture where good rebel nurses were habitually dismissed by surgeons. Talk about a modern day caste system.

Being an optimistic type who likes to create solutions rather than muck around in problems, I'll probably never write a book about train wrecks.  One reason is that it would a really long book to write.

The real reason, though, is that I think my time is better spent helping positive people inside organizations band together and get their ideas heard before the emerging problems cause real damage. Plenty of researchers, academics, books, and consultants help executives. Not many help employees on the front lines.

Here at Rebels at Work, we're all about supporting the people who care enough to say,  "Houston, we have a problem."






Millennials at Work

Triumph-gabriele25    “I’ll never have as many new ideas as I do now, and yet no one wants to listen to me.” “What really bothers me is the lack of honesty. When they interviewed me they said they  were interested in my creativity and new   ideas, and yet now that I’m on the job, I realize  that if I challenge the way things are done, I’ll just get slapped.”

“I really want to help the government do better, but I’m afraid of getting trapped in a  bureaucracy.”

“He told me to be quiet and wait my turn. And in 20 years I’d be in a position to change  things. And so I left.”

This is how many Millennials describe to us their experiences and fears about today’s workplace. They care about making a difference, but just aren’t prepared to sacrifice their souls in the process. They’ve heard all the talk about how they have unrealistic expectations and should just wait their turn and pay their dues.  But what should they do, they ask us, if they think they have good ideas right now? Why doesn’t the organization want to take advantage of new ideas and fresh thinking during such times of disruptive innovation?

Why indeed! Although Lois and I are decades past our entry points into the workforce, we both recall acutely how it felt when we first realized that the organizations we worked for weren’t necessarily interested in our best ideas. Some of our best ideas were horrible or naïve or both, but a few of them weren’t so bad really.

The cost for organizations of ignoring the ideas of your new hires seems much higher today. When I started work in 1978, the technology in my office hadn’t changed in 20 years, maybe not even since World War II. I wrote on an old typewriter that had been around for years. I used a land line. And a ball point, although if you were really cool you insisted on a fountain pen. Today, however, Millennials bring into most work places a native familiarity with new ways of thinking and doing that organizations say they really want and need. It really doesn’t even make sense to ask them to wait five years for their voices to matter, let alone 20.

You can even make the case that if organizations really want to boost their creativity and innovation, they should go out of their way to harvest the ideas of their younger, newer employees. After all, young men and women in their 20s have given birth to some of the most convention-shattering ideas in human history.

  • Einstein was 26 when he published his paper on the theory of relativity.
  • Isaac Newton postulated the theory of gravity when he was 23.
  • The founding generation of the United States was famously young. On 4 July 1776, Betsy Ross was 24, Nathan Hale 21, James Madison 25, and Tom Jefferson was 33. (Ben Franklin of course was 70!)
  • A 27-year old Coco Chanel opened her first boutique in France.
  • JK Rowling got the idea for Harry Potter at the age of 25.
  • By the time he was 25, Mark Zuckerburg had been running Facebook for five years.
  • And it was a 29 year-old Elon Musk who founded the company that would eventually become Paypal.

These individuals either worked outside organizations or founded them. I suspect, in fact, that a correlation exists between the growth and importance of organizations in the last 100 years and the popularity of concepts such as paying your dues and biding your time.

So while we have a tendency to write about individuals who have been struggling for many years to make organizational change happen, it’s time to acknowledge that you can find yourself a Rebel at Work within the first few weeks of your first job. Those “wiser and older” will tell Millennials to just cool it. But the better option for the smart organization may be to ask Millennials to “bring it on.”