The Rebel Trinity: Culture, Mission, Tactics

Last week I gave a talk at the Defense Intelligence Agency as part of their month-long commemoration of Woman's History Month. In preparing my remarks, I reflected back (for the upteenth time) on my career as a rebel at work at the CIA. Much of that career is described in one chapter of Adam Grant's new book: Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. Adam talks about how my quest to bring the Agency into the digital age had two distinct stages--the first where I all but self-destructed and the second where I actually made some progress in large part because of many lessons learned. What Adam Grant didn't discuss but which I included in a my talk was the story of a much earlier rebel period, while I was still a junior analyst at the Agency, when I held a minority view on an important and controversial substantive issue. My espousal of that minority view didn't hurt my career; in fact, it probably in the end helped it. What was the difference, I asked myself?

It soon became clear.

During that first rebel period, I was arguing for a different analytic judgment but not for a different approach to performing the mission. Although my analytic views were not widely shared by the organization, my analytic methods were familiar to all. It's usually less risky for a rebel to suggest a different solution to a mission problem confronting their organization. It's much harder to convince your organization that its basic approach to the mission is wrong-headed or, even worse, that you're tackling the wrong mission altogether.

Lois and I write in Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within that, for our own sanity, we need to be careful about rebel causes that run counter to the culture of an organization. It's hard to change organizational culture from the bottom up. Similarly, it's hard  to disrupt an organization's operating manual and its operational theories. We know of many domains where rebels are trying to do that exactly that: health care, consulting, government to name a few. We don't want to dissuade you from trying; but we do want you to understand the steepness of that climb.

I'm in Texas right now. The bluebonnets are in bloom.


Brainstorm Better, Bring Diversity to your Team, and Let Others Change your Idea--Answers to your Rebels at Work Questions

I've been participating the last few months in a new web platform--wiselike--where people can ask questions of practitioners in other domains. I've been answering Rebels at Work questions and I thought I'd post some of the answers here, unedited.

What is the best way to get an idea across to top management in a big company without antagonizing your immediate boss or those who will be affected by it?

Well, I don't recommend going over your boss's head. It may work once in a while, but the odds are against you.

The best way to get an idea across in that situation is to demonstrate it. Is their part of your idea that you can start under your own power so that people could see how it works?

Another important step is to get others to support and in fact change your idea. People will support an idea that they have contributed to. Your idea needs to grow and develop, and it will do so when you share it with others. You need to remember that it's about improvement not necessarily about your sacred idea and certainly should never be about your ego?

Do you think a corporation could succeed if all its employees are 'Rebels at Work?'

Nope, not every employee can be a rebel at work, but it would be good if every employee felt that they could express their ideas at work, within reason, without fearing penalty. Of course, just because you have an idea doesn't mean it's good. But too many organizations have a top-down mentality and don't really want employees to do anything other than execute the plan. This is why so many American workers don't feel engaged at work. In fact, something like 50% of managers report not feeling engaged.

Even though I was a manager for several decades, I actually think that the traditional practice of leadership is broken. I never liked to think of myself as the leader who "called the shots." I much preferred to facilitate conditions that would lead everyone to provide the mission their discretionary energy. A leader can never make people give their discretionary energy; it is only ever volunteered.

What can I do in a company where all the managers are against a 360 feedback?

Geez. This is a tough one. Presumably the President is setting the culture of the organization and it is always tough to change a culture top-down. Couple of things I would suggest.

Is there a small thing that you can do under your own authority that moves you along the path you think is better? Seth Godin has a nice video about this

He notes that in organizations where you don't have the power you have to get people to copy good ideas.

Given that he suggested people go to HR, I would see if there is a good person you could talk to in HR not about whatever your issue is but how can to turn this "go to HR" into a process, option that could actually have impact. For example, does HR report to the management team the issues they hear from employees. I bet they don't. But that could really help. The problem with going to HR is that they will treat each complaint as an individual performance problem rather than as a symptom of an issue in the organization. You want the latter and not the former.

As an advocate of positive Rebels at Work.. How can we encourage diverse thinking within our teams?

It's important to have a team composed of diverse individuals. This isn't easy to do in the short term. So one way to encourage different thinking in the team, or at least implant it, is to invite guests to your team meetings. For example, someone from another office that you have to collaborate with. So they can share what will likely be their different perspective. When you do brainstorm, don't jump into group thinking right away. Give people a few minutes by themselves to come up with ideas/answers. Research shows that this helps generate better ideas. Otherwise the whole group follows lemming-like the first few ideas generated. If there are many people, have several tables work individually on their suggestions, and then have each table report one idea at a time. This forces people to come up with a different idea from the table that went before them.

The manager or leader of a discussion has to say things and ask questions that invite different ideas and disagreement. What am I missing? What are we getting wrong? What is the opposite of this point?

Have a process for deciding which ideas to pursue. For example you could brainstorm a whole bunch of ideas and then bucket them by safe ideas and dangerous ideas And then commit to pursuing one idea from each bucket.

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.

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!


Rebel Dangers: When your Boss Leaves

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

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

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

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

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



Jill Abramson: Rebel at Work?

Most of our focus at 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.


Obsession and Controversy: One is a Rebel's Friend; the Other his Enemy

Can you guess which is which? I was reflecting the other day about how, once we become seized with the need for an important change in our organizations, the issue can become all-encompassing. You can't stop thinking it about. You become obsessed.

You start bringing up the topic in almost any conversation at work. Any meeting that doesn't address it just seems like a colossal waste of time. I know when I was a rebel at my old agency I had a tendency to bring up my existential angst at what really where the most inappropriate moments. Perhaps we were having a modest conversation about reforming the performance appraisal system. It didn't matter. I would find a way to inject some comment about the need for fundamental change.


You know, people can get pretty tired of that. They start avoiding you. Before you know it, you have a reputation for being cynical and negative. This is not a guess. It's a fact. I lived it.

Here is my depiction of The Rebel Arc--the stages of being a rebel. (This is a Beta version, so all ideas, as always, welcomed.) The line between advocacy and obsession is admittedly a fine one, but only for the rebel herself.  Her audience immediately senses the difference between the two, and reacts accordingly.

So be sensitive to how often you talk about your big idea. Rebels will have more credibility if they are seen as still functioning members of the team, and not as one-trick ponies. Choose your opportunities to talk about your ideas judiciously.

Now to the topic of controversy. It's not up on the chart because it's a consequence of rebel actions--not a rebel stage itself. I've often spoken about how rebels need to understand that handling conflict well is a necessary skill they must develop. The precursor of conflict is, of course, controversy. As soon, if not before, you reach the top of the Rebel Arc, you will, if you have an idea that is truly challenging to the Ways Things Always Are Done, engender controversy.

Controversy is your friend! Honest! It means people have begun to pay attention.

But how rebels handle this controversy will be a key determinant of how their proposals and careers will fare. These moments of controversy offer rebels opportunities to gain new allies (and new opponents) and will help temper their ideas. Just like the status quo, your ideas are imperfect. Dismissing others' suggestions is the first step toward obsession.

One last word on the Rebel Arc. OK, so it makes being a rebel look pretty miserable. I know, I rode it all the way down during the middle part of my career.

But there are several exit ramps available.  The ideal takeoff point is just at that moment when your proposals become controversial, i.e. you have captured the attention of your organization and people are energized negatively or positively. Like anything important in life, not every factor determining the outcome is under your direct or even indirect control. Rebels that have surveyed the bureaucratic landscape will be better equipped to take advantage of the controversy by, for example, having anticipated some of the issues and by lining up key supporters who can make the rebel's argument on their behalf.  But rebels need to realize that if their ideas don't begin to gain traction, the rebels will be viewed as obsessive. That's not fatal, but negativity usually is.

Working in a bureaucracy trains us to give up on our ideas prematurely. But the danger for rebels is the opposite: hanging on to your ideas long after they no longer have a future, at least for now, in your organization. There is nothing as weak as an idea whose time has not yet come.


Lessons for Rebels from David Petraeus

The Petraeus affair is a tragic story, of which all I know is what I read in the "papers". It does, however, provide a "good" bad example of what I observe way too much of in organizations: the turning of a "leader" into a "hero"; the love of a strong hand at the controls; and the conflation of an idea with the person carrying it. Heroism is not a Leadership Strategy. Repeat after me. Heroism is not a Leadership Strategy. I remember once when I was attending a year-long leadership seminar about a decade ago--right after 911. We would occasionally take trips together and the instructors would show films about leadership during the bus rides. EVERY SINGLE MOVIE was about a leader in war. The favorite of course was the Henry V film by Kenneth Branagh. Honestly, I have nothing against Shakespeare; in fact most of his dramas actually speak to the foibles of the Leader as Hero myth. But the emphasis in this and other courses I took was always about the importance of YOU the LEADER as a visionary individual, as the person who could make everything happen, and as the essential individual in extraordinary situations. How about leadership in normal times, I asked? Could you show a movie about something a bit more relevant to our likely experiences?

Petraeus, it seems to me, fit the Leader as Hero paradigm. And if you read his biography, with his apparent emphasis on always being the best, you get the impression that the Hero mantle was one he himself took off the coat hanger. The problem with the Heroic Leader, of course, is that there ain't no such thing. Not for long anyway. And the organization becomes overdependent on the individual as the wise decisionmaker, which as we all know carries considerable risks. The person anointed as the Hero is also at considerable risk of believing what people say about him. As former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates said earlier this month: "There is something about having great power...that skews people's judgment." (Full quote appeared in this great piece in the Washington Post.)

The lessons for rebels here is that Heroism is not a Rebel Strategy either. There are perhaps some rebels that are still storming the ramparts in hopes of overwhelming those who don't "get it!" How's that working for you? In my experience most organizations become wiser slowly; people start having "aha" moments here and there; the rebel is often  just the person who gets to the "aha" moment more quickly. And if the organization wants to anoint you as a hero, RESIST!

Closely related to the Heroic Leadership model is the desire for a Strong Hand at the Controls. Clearly there is something deep in human evolution that leads us to want someone who will just tell us what to do. There is a reason why so many small children want to be Darth Vader on Halloween.

History (by which I mean many individuals doing difficult and time-consuming analysis and research) will eventually tell us how much the "surge success" in Iraq can be traced back to decisions made by General Petraeus and how much were the consequences of complex interactions and chaotic lucky bounces. But I am certain that two analytic lines will emerge: 1. the decisions of any one individual were always buffeted by the dynamics of the situation, and 2. the strong decisionmaker was unable to anticipate the many downstream and often adverse consequences of his decisions. Which is why that nice feeling we get knowing there is a strong hand at the controls inevitably becomes, at some point, an illusion.

This is not so much a lesson for rebels as for organizations who tend to breed them. Without Darth Vader (and the Emperor), there would have been no need for a Rebel Alliance. If you find yourself confronting mini rebellions all over the workplace, then you too are suffering from the Strong Hand at the Controls disease. Stop pulling so hard at the levers. Step away from the controls.

The final lesson illustrated by the Petraeus affair is the constant danger rebels run of conflating themselves with the ideas they are advancing. Petraeus became synonymous with the US military's new insurgency doctrine. In this case, the concepts he advanced will likely survive his scandal. But I think we're all familiar with ideas that become so identified with the individuals who espouse them that any doubts about the individual end up besmirching their ideas as well.

I think ideas have their own trajectory independent of the individuals who come to believe them. Rebels are the carriers of new ideas; rarely are they the owners. Just making the mental shift from being an idea owner to an idea carrier could be helpful to rebels in large organizations. If you are carrying an idea then your Number 1 goal should be to get someone else to share the burden with you. Infect others as soon as you can. Let your idea mutate as it makes contact with other ideas. Make the idea independent of you as soon as you can!

While You See a Chance, Take It!

I attended an informal meetup of Rebels at Work earlier this month. About 15 individuals all working in the same outfit gathered to share ideas, particularly about strengthening the rebel and innovation spirit in their organization. It was a great meeting judging by how well over schedule it went and the quality of the ideas we harvested. Here are a few of them; I bet many of you will find one or two useful.

  • The importance of the First Follower to any Rebel at Work. I’m tempted to say that, perhaps after mastering the bureaucratic landscape, attracting your first follower(s) is the top priority for rebels at work. In fact it’s probably ideal if your First Follower is in fact a Bureaucratic Black Belt. (Ideal but probably unlikely. But we can dream!) If you want a good example of the importance of the first follower, watch this great video.
  • Pay attention to what happens before and after you get your great idea. Identify the people who will try to stop you. (One person at the meeting had attended the Creative Studies Program at Buffalo State University--according to him the only such program in the country. At this program they stressed that too many innovators spend too much time and effort on the ideation process and nowhere near enough on the sticky aspects of getting it done. Here’s the link to the Buffalo State program. It looks absolutely awesome.)
  • Strike a balance between the need to deal with reality and the desire to create a new reality. No great insight yet on exactly how to achieve that balance but everyone in the room had felt that tension. I guess what I would say is that you must resist the temptation to only do the former. Tactically there will be moments, perhaps even long periods, when you will need to deal with reality but you must always discipline yourself to return to your creative impulse.
  • Encourage the protectors of the status quo to take a chance. The meeting ended with what I thought was a quite useful conversation about the need to reframe conversations around the idea of taking a chance rather than around avoiding risk. All situations, including the status quo, involve risk. The advantage the status quo seems to have is that it has a known risk rate or error rate. Leaders clearly prefer the error rate they know over the error rate they don’t know. One attendee at the meeting reported having luck by reframing the question around the idea of taking a chance. It was important to acknowledge that he was asking the leader to take a chance. That rang true to me. Sometimes rebels can oversell their change idea. Perhaps we need to be more honest about what we are asking of the powers that be.

Which reminds me of this old Stevie Winwoodsong:

While You See a Chance

Happy Thanksgiving to all the Rebels at Work.



Rebels at Work Make their own Categories!!

I've been in a thinking mood lately.....Well, I'm always in a thinking mood but lately I've been thinking about "thinking" a lot. During my first career in the Intelligence Community I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how analysts could satisfy the policymaker's desire for insight. Now that I'm in the consulting profession, I find that clients want the very same thing: Give me a way of thinking about the problem that is new to me and that I will find useful, i.e. a perspective that will open up new options for me on how I should act, make decisions, respond. I would say to some analysts: "We need more insight here!"

And they would rightfully challenge me: "Well what do you mean by insight?"

Good question!! I could describe to them the outcomes insight should produce (see above.) but I needed to describe the process by which one generated insight--that was harder. I finally concluded that all analysis involves early on the "slotting" of information into categories. Most of the time analysts are sorting information into predetermined categories. In other words, prevailing or conventional wisdom. Insight therefore is coming up with new ways of categorizing information that others find useful. That last part's a little tricky because it's still subjective, but until we decide on the absolute meaning of life and understand completely the laws of the universe, pretty much all knowledge will remain subjective. As in subject to further review and modification. (Indeed, I'm tempted to think humans are destined to live in a universe without explanation, but that's a completely different blog post.)

There are two ways I know of to categorize differently.

  • Slotting information into different categories than everyone else. You're still using the same categories, but you can make the argument that X event actually means the government of Y is getting stronger, not weaker, for example.

or, and I think this is the highest or hardest form of "insight":

  • Developing an entirely new set of categories. What we think of as a paradigm shift is also a Category Reset.

Individuals often become rebels at work as a result of doing one of the above...or both. They can process information differently and they can also invent whole new modes of categorization.  The latter usually implies a significant change in how an organization does business. The trick of course is to persuade the rest of the organization that this new way of categorization--this unconventional thinking--will in fact  not only be useful but better.

On my other blog,, I wrote earlier this week about the 10 habits of non-conventional thinkers. Check that out if you want a little more on the habits that can lead to new ways of categorization.

Am I a "minority" or am I a "rebel"? Both!

As most of you know, I served for 32 years at the Central Intelligence Agency. During my last ten years there, I would attend recruiting and outreach events where I would answer questions about my career at the Agency. Given who I am, I was often asked this question: "Could you talk about what it was like being a woman and a minority at the Agency?" And I always gave the same answer: "Actually, neither of those was as much of an issue for me as just being a different thinker. Somehow I often saw things differently from everyone else." I was recalling this last week when I was thinking about what I might say at a couple of events I've been invited to speak at associated with Hispanic Heritage Month, which starts this coming week. (It's actually not a month, but a 30-day period from 15 September to 15 October.) And as I said out loud the previous paragraph, it came to me like the most gigantic "DUH" moment you can imagine. POW! A giant fist bopped me on the  head.

I had gotten it exactly backwards. It wasn't that being a different thinker was more of a career issue than being a woman or a minority. I was a different thinker in large part BECAUSE I was a woman and a Latina.

Q. You mean that it took you until one month before your 58th Birthday to figure that out!!

A. Sadly, yes.

Many sincere attempts to diversify organizations fail because the organization's leadership does not appreciate that any significant diversity effort is in fact an organizational change effort. It could very well end up being transformational for the company.

When different types of people enter the workforce--women, minorities--many actually become default Rebels at Work, although they often are not aware of their dual identities. People with different backgrounds should bring different perspectives and ideas with them. (Although truth be told, many learn as early as high school to stop volunteering their different ideas when they realize they are not welcomed.) And yet  you often hear leaders say: "It's a shame about so-and-so. Some interesting ideas but he doesn't quite know how to fit in." or "You have great potential but you need to learn to be more corporate."

And that's how diversity initiatives degrade and become more about the Appearance of Diversity than about the Impact of Diversity. The organization has made space for people who are different but no space for their different ideas. Helping Rebels be more effective at work is in fact a diversity initiative. And increasing the Impact of Diversity on an organization is in fact a Rebel initiative.


What do Rebels Really Think: Poll Results from GovLoop's NextGen Summit

Late last month I was a keynote speaker at GovLoop's NextGen Summit. If you don't know GovLoop, it's the social network for government employees: federal, state, local. You can listen to a followup interview I did on being a government heretic and find a link to the speech here. During the talk I conducted several live polls of the audience (well over 500 I'm sure of which at least 150 answered every question.) on some key questions about being a rebel/innovator/heretic in government. You'll recognize at least one of the questions as something we've asked here at RebelsatWork. Here's the first question about how you learned you were a rebel. What I find encouraging here is that most people learn before they have a horrible experience at work--good news. What is also interesting is that only 7% of those responding said they did not consider themselves rebels. Although the GovLoop audience trends, I'm sure, toward minor acts of rebellion, it's still interesting how many believe there is a better way.

I also asked about why the audience thought rebels (innovators) fail. What I thought was interesting here where how few in the audience selected lack of funding. I would have thought that number might have been higher in a government audience. It is encouraging that so many believed that doing better is not a function of more money.

Finally came the question about what we can do to improve our chances of success. My choice of options was perhaps not the best and there may have been some anchoring effects in play as I asked this question toward the end of my talk.

The fact so many possible solutions got significant support tells me that there are many ways we could improve rebel outcomes.

Only Good Rebels Die Young

It seems like it's appropriate to follow up that last post by Lois on the anger of rebels with what to do if and how to notice when your Rebel energies are getting out of control. The passion--and sometimes the anger--that sharpens the courage of Rebels at Work enough for them to seek to change the status quo does not easily dissipate. But my experience and the conversations I’ve had with many other Rebels at Work tells me we need to be careful to heed the warning signs of rebel flameout. Even good rebels can self-destruct; perhaps it is good rebels that are most in danger of self immolation. So what are some of the signals that a Rebel should pull the plug, at least for a while? What are some particularly difficult scenarios?

  •  The potential for the greatest disappointments comes just after you thought you were about to make progress, about to get a hearing, and you didn't or it all fell through. Most organizations will make several failed runs at initiating real change, pursuing new directions. At these moments, they come looking for those individuals they know have different ideas and ask them to participate in all sorts of task forces and working groups. (My years in government taught me that working groups are groups that do no work but that’s a topic for a different time.) These are parlous days for rebels. They can become giddy with the potential for influence and drop, for a moment, the masks of studied skepticism or nonchalant bantering they wear to conceal the intensity of their feelings. Once the organization discovers that the recommendations for change steer it into uncharted territory, most will abruptly cut the task force off. This can happen multiple times and is crushing for Rebels. So if you can, manage your anger and disappointment, take weeks of deep breaths, go on a vacation, and, for God’s sake, don’t do anything rash.
  • Be mindful that it’s difficult to handle the emotional load of being a rebel when there’s something else going on in your life. And, of course, there is always something else going on in your life. In my case, I was dealing with career disappointments at the same time as I was thinking of myself as the person who could see the future better than most. I couldn't help but compare myself to peers who were advancing more quickly by, as I saw it, choosing to ignore reality. This kind of cognitive dissonance was not good for my soul or my common sense. If you’re experiencing such feelings, walk away.
  • Rebels should also walk away when they begin thinking they have become smarter than everyone else in the organization. This may or may not be true...(cue wry laughter) but it’s just not healthy when your mind starts obsessing over it. It means you have begun to personalize every skirmish and battle in the Long War of Change. Time to retreat and take a break.
  • When you start arguing with people who are your best work friends, then you know you’re reaching an unhealthy breaking point. If you’re a Rebel it’s likely that your good work mates are people who share some of your ideas. When they start looking at you strangely or when you find yourself snapping at them, find a way to recharge and recover before you lose important friendships.
  • At some point as a Rebel at Work, you may find yourself not recognizing others’ descriptions of yourself. This was certainly the case for me during my Agency career when people began to describe me as being cynical and negative. I remember thinking, whom could they possibly be talking about? And yet, unbeknownst to me, that was in fact the person I was projecting and in danger of becoming. When that happens to you, my advice is to divert your energies elsewhere for a while. Find a direct mission-related job and go do it. Look for a rotational assignment outside your own department. Be wary of sacrificing who you are in an attempt to get a troubled organization to become something it’s not ready to be.

The Rebel Life: Random Observations and Learnings

Last week I attended the MIX Mashup in San Francisco. The MIX is devoted to reinventing management for the 21st century and many of the presentations revolved around being mavericks and rebels at work. The titles of the first three sessions capture the general mood.

  • The End of Hierarchy: Natural Leadership
  • The End of  Bureaucracy: When Everybody (and Nobody) is the Boss
  • The End of the "Employee"

Gary Hamel also set the tone when he declared in his introductory remarks that he feared we are not mad enough about how bad our organizations are and not aspirational enough to fix them.  His fiery energy was inspiring and I tweeted his comment at the time, but, upon reflection, I'm not sure anger is ever a productive rebel emotion. (Please feel free to argue the point.) Aspiration is, however.

My Favorite Presentation...

...was by Japanese businessman Tsukasa Makino, who spoke movingly of how his company, Tokio Marine and Nichido Fire Insurance, had humanized their business. You can find several of his blog posts on the MIX. I particularly liked his discussion of the LIGHT and DARK side of the FORCE at work.

That's the slide he uses, which you can see more clearly here. I think one of the dangers rebels risk is that, if they become angry, they begin to flirt with the DARK side of the Rebel Force. I think maybe it looks something like this:

More Good Thoughts


Don't do pilots! Experiment instead. I hadn't ever thought of that distinction and God knows I was involved in lots of pilots during my career. But one of the speakers noted that when a change-oriented management team introduces a pilot to the workforce, the implied message is that the team has figured out the right thing to do and now they're going to test it on the employees, aka the guinea pigs. And employees love to make pilots fail. Boy, did that ring true!! There wasn't a pilot I was involved in that the emails and message boards weren't full of just about everything that was wrong with the pilot. And by launching a pilot, aren't you inviting relentless comparison to the status quo? Bad as the status quo may be, it at least benefits from some internal logic and lots of muscle memory. Think instead of encouraging experiments. When you encourage your employees/managers to run experiments, your message is that you're not sure of the answer and you want them to help figure it out.

The power of budgets. There was a good discussion of how companies need to free themselves from the tyranny of budget cycles because they stifle innovation. All true but frankly, as a rebel, if you are able to change how your company budgets, you've pretty much won the entire war. (more on that later.) But Bjarte Bogsnes of Norway's Statoil did describe how his company abolished traditional budget cycles and even the calendar to boot!! When you're dealing with the BBB's (bureaucratic black belts), there's no doubt in my mind that the power of the budget is their most powerful weapon.

Mobilizing the introverts. There was a lovely discussion of how, if you have a knowledge organization and it's a really smart one, then you likely have a lot of introverts. And mobilizing introverts to get behind change efforts can be awkward. You can't count on them to speak up in meetings. And they may not even do a good job proselytizing their work colleagues. Other than engaging introverts one-on-one, not many solutions or good tactics were offered. (Something for us to noodle at RAW.) I think the whole topic of how rebels and rebel managers in organizations mobilize support is underdeveloped. Perhaps it's something we can tackle at our first ever Rebels at Work Conference, which will be held 18 October. You can find more information on that here.

If you're explaining, you're losing. This piece of advice is not from the conference, but comes from a retired senior government official who was sharing lessons from his mentors at a party I attended last night. I'm sure all the rebels who visit our website have been in the meeting where they, or someone else, are trying to explain exactly how their idea will work. Once you go there, you begin losing your momentum and you're stuck trying to explain how the sausage will be made. A sausage that no one has ever tasted. A sausage, in fact, that you've never even cooked before.

The Integrity of the Rebel

I said I would get back to the Statoil example of an organization that's rethought it's budget process and many other sacred ways of doing work. This got me to thinking about the integrity of the rebel. In your workplace, are you suggesting a new way of making widgets that you think is better than the current way of making widgets? Or are you actually offering a fundamental rethink of how the enterprise operates and makes decisions so that it becomes permanently more agile, permanently more contextual, and permanently more sensitive to its own values. Both of these are appropriate but they are quite different from each other.  At first blush I'm tempted to say that the more tactical change effort is easier than the more strategic one, but I'm not so sure. They can both be difficult, and I find it completely believable that in some cases people will resist tactical changes more than they will oppose conceptual ones. Again, another topic for noodling. But it reminds me of something I always worried about as a rebel at work. What if I'm wrong? I cannot escape the fact that my ideas are creations of my ego and that therefore I can never be objective about them. Difficult as it is, I think the rebel must learn to maintain some humility about their beliefs, even if they are mano-a-mano with a status quo that is cock-sure.

Finally, here is a link to a presentation by Pam Weiss of Appropriate Response, who, along with Todd Pierce of, shared their story at the MIX Mashup of how they brought meditation techniques to the workplace.  The introduction of a meditation practice actually correlated with significant increases in productivity and employee satisfaction. First check out Pam's presentation and then read the details of the practical application at the MIX. Perhaps we really can change organizations by teaching people how to breathe.


When You Manage Rebels: A Long Overdue Blog Post

I promised I would share my lessons on how to be a manager of rebels more than two months ago, which just goes to show you how fast time flies....PERIOD. Time's a wastin', so let's get started. Here's the scenario: you have somehow reached a position of authority and some flexibility in your organization. You have some kind of bully pulpit and control of some resources, and you find yourself drawn to some kind of change agenda. Perhaps you, like I at my previous employer, were a rebel when you were just a worker bee and you would like to encourage and support the colleagues you know who are rebels and change agents too. Or maybe you have never described yourself as a rebel but now that you're in higher management you believe it's time to encourage some new energy and new ideas in your organization. What should you do? What shouldn't you do?

(Methodology note: these comments are based on my personal experiences, what I've observed in almost 35 years in the work place, and the many conversation I've been having with others who know more.)


  1. Find a way to meet regularly with random people throughout the organization.This may seem unrelated and a strange place to start, but my reasoning is this: if you are going to use your time at the top to support rebels, you need to keep informed on what's really going on in the organization. It's absolutely amazing how quickly power isolates you: my sense is that you become compromised within six weeks of assuming a senior position.My approach at the Agency was to try to have dinner with random groups of analysts at least every other month. When I say random, I mean random. I would somehow run into someone who worked for me (once I ran into a fellow at one of the reststops on I-95 for example.) I would ask the person to gather a group of people he or she knew; I nor anyone else would vet the names. And we would have dinner. There were just a couple of rules. You could not be critical of a person, although you could be critical of a position or type of person, like branch chiefs. And we at some point had to talk about something other than work. That was it. I probably had dinner with close to 100 analysts in two years. The amplification affects of these conversations were incredible.Another "trick" I used was reaching out to everyone on Instant Messaging on their birthday. (I actually had HR run a list of the entire workforce by date of birth (but not the year to stay clear of any equity or discrimination issues, although I did get to figure out everyone's horoscope sign that way.) This activity, which maybe took ten minutes on an average day, turned out to be an absolutely fascinating psychological experiment. Some individuals were embarrassed and/or couldn't wait to end the conversation; others engaged me in small talk; and a very small group--I suspect all rebels or rebel aspirants--engaged me immediately in a conversation about some aspect of how work was done. My rule was that if the issue required more time than we had then, they would get a followup meeting.
  2. Give Rebels real work to do. Once the organization identifies you as a rebel (and let's be truthful, most smart leadership teams cultivate one or two "house rebels"), then they'll start assigning you to these special rebel tasks. I can't tell you how many different task forces and working groups I served on during my Agency career on some aspect of Change and the Agency. While the first one or two of these assignments was interesting, they soon became moderately depressing. Being asked to do "rebel work" is also a career killer. Most rebels are already distraught at having to choose between speaking their mind and stoking their career. Rebels often hear in performance appraisal sessions how while their work on such-and-such change initiative was admirable, it did distract them from the mission. Don't make this phenomenon worse by heaping more such assignments on them. So what's an example of real work?
  3. Bring your rebels into key support positions in your organization. Make them your Chief of Staff, for example. Encourage others on the Executive Team to do the same. Every organization has key positions that lubricate all the other processes. Executive Office, Chief of Staff, many other names. These are usually filled by classic high-performing, hard chargers. Try a different approach. Bring someone who is known for having different ideas into these positions. The benefits and down-the-road payoffs will be huge, I guarantee. The rebels will learn to be much more realistic and effective in their approach to change. The executive team will benefit from a more nuanced and forward-looking perspective.
  4. Something Concrete in support of your rebels. If you're at the top of an organization, saying that you support change or an idea espoused by a rebel is significant, but not significant enough. Everyone in the organization will look to see if you intend to support your words with concrete actions. One clear step is to provide money for implementation, but sometimes, for example in most governments, shifting resources is not that simple, or can only be done at certain times of the year. When I was at the Agency, I was known as a supporter of Intellipedia. I made a point of speaking at as many of the Intellipedia training sessions as I possibly could. My memory is these were held every other week; my executive assistant knew it was a priority. By showing up at well over half of the sessions and spending an hour talking to each class, I demonstrated my commitment extended beyond pronouncements.


  1. Mistake bellyachers and troublemakers with rebels. This is a problem that can particularly afflict non-rebel managers. You want to promote change and some change agents, but you're not sure who's the real deal and who's not. We have a useful chart that is of some help that you can find here. I also think it's useful to remember that most "good rebels' are reluctant rebels. The mantle of rebellion does not rest easily on their shoulders. So if you want to know who the real rebels are, keep your ears to the ground and talk to everyone not just the self-appointed change agents.
  2. Assign rebels to the New, High-Profile Center for Innovation. This is a cousin of Do #2 above, so I won't repeat what I said there. But I will add that nothing can be more dispiriting for many rebels than to be asked to lead the organization's new Center for Innovation. As my colleague Lois Kelly discovered in her survey of corporate rebels a couple of years ago, most rebels are at best lukewarm about being asked to serve on special innovation projects. Too many innovation centers pursue change for the sake of change or new for the sake of new. Innovation needs to be centered on and central to the mission.
  3. Force your rebels to behave heroically. Although organizational heroism is a useful tactic, it is not, in my view, the basis of a long-term strategy. What are some ways that a well-meaning manager can unintentionally force a rebel to behave heroically? How about asking her to make a solo presentation to the executive team about a new change initiative? Ouch!! Or asking a rebel to write a critique, just for the manager, of an organization's new strategic plan. Both of these examples resemble realities I have observed. Most serious rebels have survived by mastering the indirect approach. As in the military, asking the rebels to take the point position is like asking them to step voluntarily into the ambush. It's really just a more sophisticated way of throwing your rebels under the bus.

Rebel Learnings from a YamJam

Can anyone be a rebel, or do you have to be a special kind of person? A rebel's life is full of setbacks.

Moving mountains is not a spectator sport. If you see someone trying to make change at work and you support the idea, get in there and lend a hand, why don't you?

At work last Friday I hosted a YamJam on how to be a good corporate rebel at work. (We use Yammer as a collaboration platform and have regular group chats on many topics. And we call them YamJams.) The above are some of the statements made during the Jam or ideas that were conceived during our very excellent conversation.

It was interesting to me that folk from all demographics showed up for the Jam, from the newest worker to senior managers. We had well over 100 distinct postings during the hour, in addition to the many “likes." Although completely nonscientific, we ran a couple of polls during the YamJam. About 90% of the poll respondents identified themselves as corporate rebels or aspiring corporate rebels.  Another great quality of the YamJam was how much conversation there was among the rebels. Although I was the Jam host, often questions got answered without me.

The positive reaction to the topic leads me to think this is a technique any company could use to reach out to the rebels walking their hallways. Holding a chat open to all employees is not a bad way to get a sense of the rebel temperature of your workforce. But I don't recommend doing so unless you have some idea of what you want to do with the rebel energy you find.

Some of the other fun comments and questions during the chat:

Being a rebel is tiring. "It gets old." A rebel’s life is full of setbacks.

People wondered whether there might be some places in the firm that are better homes for rebels than others. That got me to thinking that rebel energy is often discipline-agnostic and maybe it could be deployed, like a SWAT team, from place to place in a company, wherever that new energy is needed.

We all agreed that an organization dominated by rebels might be a little too disruptive, although we thought entrepreneurs are natural rebels. This brought up a car metaphor for thinking about organizations: the brakes are the traditionalists; leaders are the steering wheels; the rebels are the accelerators.

Social networks and platforms are great assets for rebels in organizations because you can often share your ideas there without having to worry as much about hierarchy, etc.

First time you speak up doesn’t make you a rebel, but if you keep doing so in the face of disapproval or possible career penalty, then you’re definitely a rebel.

What should you do when a manager says: "I don't support you, but I can't stop you."  Any ideas?


The Bearable Discomfort of Rebels

“The problem with Rebels at Work…” my good friend and fellow rebel said “is that it makes being a rebel seem very glamorous. And you know it doesn’t seem very glamorous to me at all. In fact being a rebel is just a miserable thing and you’re doing a disservice in your talks and writings by making it sound fun and easy. ” Well, I’ve always known my friend to be very direct, but still his exposition pushed my back into the chair. I asked him if I could share his views, without attribution, and he agreed. Why without attribution? Because life as a rebel is hard and employers often don’t appreciate rebel free speech.

Poor employers. Life isn’t so easy for them either, even the ones who have good intentions. They’re caught in what seems like an impossible dilemma. Most enlightened businesses want to be seen as  places that empower staff and encourage different views. And yet the very last thing any traditional company wants is to be known as the home of a growing rebel movement. The classic DIYD/DIYD problem.

So let this be a cautionary tale. If you feel the rebel instincts stirring within you; if you, as Umair Haque wrote in a blog post earlier this year for HBR, care about doing deeds that:

  • Stand the Test of Time
  • Stand the Test of Excellence
  • Stand the Test of You

then be warned that you will rarely feel comfortable in your work skin.  (Umair Haque, by the way, refers to the above post as his “tiny statement of rebellion.”) An important sign of rebel maturity in the workplace is the realization that being an effective rebel, being true to yourself, means you will often feel uncomfortable at work.

Someone actually came up to me 15 years ago, seemingly out of the blue, to deliver this important piece of advice. I was at a business function and this woman, my memory is that she worked at DuPont, came up to me and said she could tell I was a heretic in my workplace. (Apparently I walk around with a vivid flashing neon sign atop my head.) Her piece of advice: “You’ve got to learn to stop fighting this feeling of discomfort. You have to learn to accept discomfort as the indicator that you’re being true to your beliefs.” Short pause. “And you know it’s not enough to accept the feeling of discomfort. You’re going to have to enjoy feeling uncomfortable. You have to see the positive in it or you won’t survive.”

I confess I don’t think I ever quite reached that higher level of enlightenment. But I always thought of that woman from DuPont as my guardian angel.

And, as I implied above, it’s not easy being the manager of rebels either. Traditional management practices equate consensus with power and efficacy. It is truly difficult, particularly as most managers have senior leaders above them judging their performance, to sustain an environment where individuals can speak freely and act meaningfully. A leader prepared to support the insurgency will also feel uncomfortable; but, as is the case with countries and nations, rebels often can’t make a difference until they gain the support of at least one important legacy player.

Our hope is that Rebels at Work can start gathering the knowledge (and remember that knowledge includes both accomplishments and mistakes) that will help rebels be better rebels and give managers the tools and best practices they need to support ideas that matter. We’re starting by trying to collect as many rebel stories as we can. So if you think you have a rebel story to share (whether you’re a rebel or a manager) please consider filling out our short survey. Most of those who have taken it already tell us they learn a lot just by reflecting on their past experiences.

Finally, I just want to note that I (Carmen Medina) will be at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas starting next Friday, 9 March. Just reach out to me through Twitter (@milouness) if you want to do a rebel meetup.

Rebels do it together!