Jill Abramson: Rebel at Work?

Most of our focus at rebelsatwork.com is on employees trying to make change from below. They have it rough and don't have many resources to help them. But we recognize that not infrequently the Rebel at Work can also be a manager, even a leader of an organization. Steve Jobs, of course, comes immediately to mind. Often leaders try to prod their organization to a better future by painting a vision of a new business model only to struggle to push everyone there. When I was in the Intelligence Community trying to do something similar, I would often refer to the Keystone Kops to illustrate our challenge. In the silent Keystone Kops one-reelers, there's often a scene where a truck of Kops in pursuit of dastardly criminals turns a sharp corner and several of the Kops fly off. My goal, I would tell people, was to turn our sharp corner but keep everyone on the truck. We're all getting there together.hungarian20cops1 Easier said than done. Last week the New York Times fired their editor, Jill Abramson, and charges have been flying around ever since as to the reasons why. I don't know why, of course, but I was struck by the analysis provided by another prominent female editor, Susan Glasser, editor of Politico Magazine. In her article, Glasser posits that Abramson, and the editor of Le Monde, who was also forced out last week, were caught up in the strong backlash that can often beat down a leader trying to take their obstinate organization to a place it doesn't think it needs to go. Glasser can't prove her conjecture, but she writes convincingly of her own predicament when she tried to lead the Washington Post to a digital future. Glasser's description of what confronted her is painful to read.

"In the course of my short and controversial tenure in the job, I learned several things, among them: 1) print newspapers REALLY, REALLY didn’t want to change to adapt to the new digital realities; 2) I did not have the full backing of the paper’s leadership to carefully shepherd a balky, unhappy staff of 100 or so print reporters and editors across that unbuilt bridge to the 21st century;"

She goes on to write:

"I have no wish to relitigate a painful past episode by writing this, except to say what I learned about myself: It was not the right fight for me, and I didn’t really have the stomach for waging the bureaucratic war of attrition that is the fate of the institutionalist in a time of unsettling change. I had always chafed at the constraints and processes and internal politics of a venerable and proud place. Was I the right person for that job at that time? Clearly not, and I was happy once the ordeal was over, and grateful for the support I received from so many people. I learned that I liked to invent more than reinvent, that it is a better fit for me to create something new than to try to save something old."

That last sentence brought tears to my eyes. I would rather create something new than try to save something old. This realization occurs to so many rebels just at the moment they decide to give up. But I suspect most rebels, perhaps even Glasser, are not being completely honest with themselves. My guess is that they really would rather save, revive something old, but that the personal cost of it just becomes unbearable. Or they are removed because when it comes right down to it, too many people expect change to be easy and not controversial. Even when rebels get "top cover", it is flimsy and easily blown away by the complaints from those who will not be moved.

Much of the criticism of Abramson reminds me of our now almost infamous Good Rebel, Bad Rebel chart. Lois and I have mixed feelings about the chart because it oversimplifies a complex subject. Many rebels have qualities on both sides of the spectrum. And sometimes rebels do have to employ the black arts. Lacking the ability to change minds, they focus instead on trying to create immutable facts on the ground. Rebels who are not also leaders almost never succeed this way. And what we've learned once again is that being a rebel leader doesn't guarantee success.

gd. vs. bad rebels July 2012


The Rebel Penalty Box

The other day I was having lunch with a friend, a rebel at work and she was telling me that she was finally out of the Rebel Penalty Box at the office. Immediately I knew what she meant. "How did you get in the Rebel Penalty Box?"Alexander_Sazonov_2011-09-26_Amur—Heftekhimik_KHL-game

"Well, actually the year it happened I thought I was doing the best work in my career. I thought I was really getting things done that would make a difference, implementing change. But I guess my boss didn't see it that way. And I received a lesser ranking in my performance review that year."

"Whoa!! What did you do then?" I asked.

"I decided to just go low profile. Just do exactly what was expected of me. And wouldn't you know it, that worked I guess. This year, my performance rating was raised to its previous level. So I guess that means I'm out of the penalty box."

That story was so familiar to me and I bet to most of the rebels reading this post. At some point in your work life you will get a minor penalty or a 5 minute major, and you will need to find a way to get through it without losing your sanity or your rebel core--they're kind of one and the same thing, right? In my friend's case, it came as a complete surprise--she thought she was excelling at doing the right thing and was jazzed up about her performance. Only to find that, in her case, a change in upper management meant a new definition of success. My time in the penalty box was longer, I think. Most of a decade. A five-minute major. And I kind of knew it was coming. I wasn't doing the best work of my career. I had let myself become cynical and negative and eventually people just became quite tired of me. I deserved that time in the rebel penalty box.

So, if you find yourself in the penalty box, how should rebels think about it? What can help them get through the period?

Try not to dwell on the fact that it's unfair. Of course it's unfair... in a way. But you're probably in the penalty box because you broke a rule of the organization--either explicit or implicit. In my friend's case she did not factor in the likely behavior of a new boss. They almost always reconsider the priorities of the previous regime--it might as well be a rule. We're not saying don't ever break the rules, although we do think changing rules is a much better strategy for the long term. But just keep in mind that if you're out doing something new, the chances rise that you'll be called for a penalty. It's the risk you run.

Take your helmet off and cool down. In ice hockey, players are advised to remove their helmets so they can release more heat and cool off from the exertion of the game. Not a bad idea for us rebels. The relative peace and quiet of the penalty box can be a great opportunity to think things through, replay the moves you made, and think about how your future strategy. In my friend's case, she minded her p's and q's to regain her footing with the new boss. We know some rebels might find that distasteful, but remember that in ice hockey, fighting when you're in the penalty box will probably get you ejected from the game.

Be thankful you weren't ejected. Unless of course that's your goal. Maybe you're so tired of trying to make people listen to your ideas that you've decided to leave. Getting thrown out is your grand fireworks finale. But just be careful how that plays out. Your firing might be the example that sets back change efforts in the organization for years to come.

Look for an opportunity to score when you leave the box. There's no more exciting play in ice hockey then when an aware teammate passes the puck to the player leaving the penalty box. It usually creates a scoring opportunity. Perhaps you can look for a new position where there's more tolerance for new ideas. Or maybe new leadership arrives that's more amenable to change. Having been in the penalty box, the rebel is more likely to observe larger patterns at work that he can begin to take advantage of.

This blog, of course, was also inspired by the Olympics and the exciting men's hockey game between Russia and the USA this weekend.


When you're thrown under the bus at work: part two

Thousands of people have read my original post, "Better Techniques for Throwing Employees Under the Bus."   The tone of that post was a tad tongue in cheek, perhaps not helpful for people who have been betrayed at work.  Here are some  some thoughts on what to do if you have been thrown under the proverbial bus. Don't let your anger lead you astray: First, is try not do anything dumb that will further exacerbate the situation and harm your reputation.  When we’re feeling betrayed, our emotions run wild and dangerous.

Go under the radar for a while:  Just as highly public figures like politicians or entertainers often do after a humiliating experience, go quiet for a while.    Do work that rebuilds your credibility and doesn’t make waves.  Learn how to better navigate the organizational politics. ( Obviously this doesn’t apply if you’ve been fired.)

Remember that this is work, not your life.  People are taking their work more personally than ever, and when work gets too personal people fall apart when something goes wrong.  While passion for our work motivates us, we can’t let it consume our whole lives. Work is not family, religion or our identity. It is a job.  Benjamin Hunnicutt, an historian and professor at the University of Iowa at Iowa City who specializes in the history of work, worries that work is fast replacing religion in providing meaning in people's lives.

"Work has become how we define ourselves," he says. "It is now answering the traditional religious questions: Who am I? How do I find meaning and purpose? Work is no longer just about economics; it's about identity," he says.

“Job-satisfaction studies over the past 20 years indicate that people are looking for identity, purpose, and meaning in their work, but very few are finding those things. That's why people are job-hopping, desperately trying to find the work equivalent of the Holy Grail. They aren't finding it because what they're looking for -- salvation from a meaningless life and a senseless world -- simply can't be found at work."

In other words, love your work, but always maintain a life outside work that provides meaning and contributes to your identity. Should you get thrown under the bus, you will have better coping skills to bounce back.  You are not defined by your job.

Think of the betrayal as a divorce It’s natural to rehash what went wrong and get angry about it.  But at some point you begin to get mired in those feelings and get trapped, acting as victim.  The other route is to acknowledge the hurt, free yourself of anger and resentment, figure out what you can do to put the issue to rest and move on. Not easy.

Put on an anthropologist hat:  Try to look at the situation like a scientist to more objectively understand what happened, and what you can learn from the situation.  Eruptions, though painful, can be tremendous learning experiences.  We get much smarter from our missteps.

Avoid failure language:  Calling yourself a “failure” is an unhelpful label that may blind you from learning and recovering from the situation.  We creative, innovative types tend to accomplish much, but not without missteps.   It may be that your ideas were threatening or you didn’t understand the environment well enough before stepping on a landmine. This happens.  Your actions or behavior erred. But you as a person are not a failure.

Find a new boss whether inside the same organization, or in a position with a new company.  Sometimes you’re never going to succeed with a particular boss. You can’t change him or her; only find canny ways to maneuver. Is the energy spent on maneuvering a good use of your energy?  It might be depending on the opportunities and the organization. Or maybe not.  See my previous post on how to find the right boss for questions to ask in an interview.

Getting thrown under the bus is a terrible experience. You will recover. It may be painful, but next time you’ll be so much more prepared.

I also like this thought from author Sherrilyn Kenyon:

“Everyone suffers at least one bad betrayal in their lifetime. It’s what unites us. The trick is not to let it destroy your trust in others when that happens. Don’t let them take that from you.”