Rebels Everywhere!!

Often something happens or I have an encounter and I think I should blog about this, but then it strikes me as too thin for an entire blog post. And so these ideas bounce off my head, like poorly struck soccer balls, never to be seen or heard from again. Not this time!! Rebel Miscellany:

1. The Diagnostic Power of Laughter. Almost two months ago now I attended a great workshop on creativity from Brice Challamel and his company Act One. His content contains many useful hints for Rebels at Work, but my favorite and one I have turned to again and again in the weeks since is the importance of paying attention to when people in a meeting laugh at an idea. Laughter occurs when your brain hears something that disrupts its normal way of thinking, what it has anticipated would happen. Thus, the eruption of laughter tells Rebels at Work that the audience views their idea as disruptive and unusual. If you can, call out the significance of that laughter right away. Point out that the laughter means that the audience finds the idea particularly unusual, indeed...rebellious. Ask people if they can explain why. Even if you don't feel comfortable doing that type of instant analysis of a room's reaction, take account of it as you move forward. The idea they laughed at has tremendous power and potential. And if there is no nervous laughter in your meeting, well then maybe you aren't being rebellious enough.

2. Uncertainty and Risk: Not the Same Thing. This insight comes courtesy of Richard Boly, who just left government after setting up eDiplomacy at the State Department. We were catching up just before Thanksgiving and Richard reminded me that often times people oppose a new way of doing things just because it is uncertain. But they don't usually describe their concerns as being about uncertainty. They will say instead: "Your idea is too risky." It might be useful for Rebels at Work at that point to gently remind their interlocutor that uncertainty and risk are not the same thing. Exploring a new idea is one of the ways in which you determine whether there is indeed any risk involved. Not being willing to pursue a new idea just because it is uncertain is just about the dumbest thing really--OK...don't say that! If something is not uncertain, then it ain't new.

3. The Bitcoin Rebels. Yesterday I spoke at the Future of Money and Technology Conference in San Francisco, which was dominated by discussions about the virtual currency Bitcoin. This is not the place to talk about the very complex new phenomenon of virtual currencies except to say that I left the conference much more intrigued about its world-changing possibilities. But I was struck at the rebel energy in the room...and the visions. Listening to the heads of startups talk about how they could change the course of humanity with their ideas must have been what it was like listening to individuals in the early 1990s chat talk about what the Internet could become. If only we could bring such energy inside existing organizations. If only...

4. The Hacker Ethic. Finally, and also brought home by the Bitcoin discussions, I was struck by the similarity between Rebels at Work and the Hacker mentality. Both want to explore the art of the possible and do it because of their passion for the work, the mission, and for just trying to figure out how great things could become if we just pretended there were no boundaries and precedents. Just like Rebels at Work, you can have Good Hackers or Bad Hackers. And just like Rebels at Work, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.


Your faithful correspondent,


Mobilizing supporters by being disruptive

Last week I flipped through the University of New Hampshire alumni magazine when it came in the mail, scanning my class notes to see who died, re-married, got an interesting new job. Another page caught my eye. "Being Disruptive -- in a Good Way" by UNH president Mark Huddleston. Mark explained that he had heard Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, speak at "The Future of Public Universities" conference -- and that speech "wowed" him, and inspired him to begin creating a  disruptive new educational model for UNH. A model that would help more students learn -- for less.

What if we allowed online instruction to provide, where appropriate, the foundational knowledge, and directed students' time on campus toward learning activities that maximize the benefits of these mentor relationships?

As online instruction improves, might we not devote more class time to teaching methods that take real advantage of students' time together, such as team projects, discussions and critiques?

The article went on to talk about UNH's new eUNH initiative to identify ways to use online learning to improve teaching and help students progress faster.

Aside from being intrigued with disruptive models, here's what I liked about Mark's article. It mobilized me to want to write a check to support the university.

Few of us want to work for -- or financially support --  organizations that are plodding along, doing the same things well. We want to be inspired by leaders and organizations that create new ways to support visions we care about.  And who have the courage, leadership skills and discipline to move forward despite often formidable opposition.

(Sadly, last April the New Hampshire chapter of the union American Association of University Professors gave a 129 to 72 "no confidence" vote in his leadership.  The change involved in disruptive innovation inevitably threatens some who would like things to continue as they have been.)

  • If you want to mobilize supporters, do more than more of the same.
  • When a leader has the courage to create disruptive models, step up and support him or her. It's lonely being a game changer.

Now to write that check...

Techniques for throwing corporate rebels under the bus

Managers are so sloppy when it comes to throwing corporate rebels under the bus. Usually they are so damn angry with the employee that they botch their technique.

They are irrationally rough, their aim is imprecise and messy, and they end up running over the body with such force that it causes more damage to the employee than they intended. But it does seem a relief to have gotten rid of that problem.

Few think about an important follow-through skill: contact with the other employees still on the bus. Just as a baseball pitcher throws a pitch and then needs to be prepared to field the hit, you can’t just throw someone under the bus. You need to be ready for what comes next.

Alas, most get sloppy here. Despite carefully throwing someone under the bus at discrete places or times, or telling employees that the person asked to get off the bus or jumped out of the bus, annoying glitches happen.

Employees on the bus are shaken up when the bus unexpectedly hits and runs over something strange, like their colleague. They get scared and distracted from work; many update their resumes.

Then they see their ex-colleague outside of work, bruised, angry and victimized, stumbling around in disbelief. The water cooler gossip goes wild, people wonder aloud why bosses throw people under the bus, and they secretly fear it could happen to them.

What a mess. Not even HR does a good job cleaning it up. For being so precise with financial spreadsheets and quality standards, why can ‘t managers be better at throwing employees under the bus?

Why managers throw employees under the bus

First, let’s review reasons why they throw corporate rebels under the bus:

1. They are irate that the employee questioned their decisions in a public forum. How dare they! Being humiliated by that subordinate? I’m in charge, goddammit.

2. The employee has been meeting with people in the company to stir up ideas and support around an area that is not one of your five key strategic imperatives. Who gave them permission to do that? Why do they think they are entitled to be creating new strategies outside the standard  chain of command? Bet their parents coddled them. Probably were on those  sports teams where every kid gets a trophy.

3.  Fairly new to the company, the employee just doesn’t get how things work. They seem to miss all the obvious social signals and are getting on people’s nerves. Can’t they see that they’re suppose to informally socialize new ideas before bringing them up in monthly staff meetings?  What’s with the talk, talk, talk with the junior people? And strolling into the office at 9:30? Geez. Do I have to explain how everything works around here?

4. They are upsetting your boss and to save face with the big cheese, you need to act decisively and swiftly to eliminate the problem and calm your boss down. Like having an odd-looking mole removed from your face before it develops into full-blown skin cancer. I’m not going to jeopardize my career over someone making waves. She did bring some fresh thinking and energy we could sorely use around here, but after finally making it to senior vice president I’m not going to jeopardize my career.

Those in category #4 are the sloppiest at throwing people under the bus, yet seem to do it more often, too.  When insecurities twist a person in knots, they get reckless and irrational. Despite throwing more people under the bus than most managers, they really make a mess at it. Insecurity is a killer.

Improving your skills at throwing rebels under the bus

So how to improve your skills in throwing corporate rebels under the bus?

Well, before even getting to those skills I’d suggest that first you might want to consider a brush up course in bus driving.

If you get better at focusing on your destination and getting the right people on your bus, you might not have to throw many off the bus.  The focus will also help avoid distractions when employees on the bus get rowdy or restless, or someone starts hogging everyone’s attention even when you’ve told him to stay in his seat.

The refresher course will remind you to pay attention when employees on the bus yell at you from the back of the bus. They probably aren’t criticizing your driving.  It may be that they see a giant pothole ahead, or know a great short cut, or even want to drive for a while so you can get some rest for what you all know is a challenging journey.

And if your boss calls demanding an explanation about why you’re taking a different route than planned, drivers ed will teach you to stay calm and explain to you boss that several employees know this territory well and saw a better way to get to the destination. Sure he may fume and make threats. But your employees on the bus are with you, ready to fix the flats, pump gas in the rain, figure out ways around detours.

Who is going to go the extra mile for you? Them, or the boss?

Drive safely.


Why leaders reject rebels and innovative ideas

When our brain senses that our status is being threatened, our thinking shuts down.  We avoid the person or situation making us feel so uncomfortable, and we often stay away from any activity or idea about which we're not confident. Worse, we label the other person as "wrong" so we can be "right." We don't necessarily do this consciously. It's just our brains' natural response when our status is under attack, say the neuroscientists.

So when  corporate rebels and mavericks challenge an organization's status quo and executive decisions, leaders' brains go on high-alert. Their decisions, their plans, their position feel threatened and under attack. The neuroscience research says this threat to status activates the same brain regions as physical pain.

The leaders' knee-jerk reaction is often to label the people with the fresh new ideas as troublemakers. Or not having enough experience to really know what they're talking about. And jeez, that kid isn't even a manager, what could she  know? (See how put downs can make you feel better and restore your status?)

Guess what this reaction does to people with the fresh ideas that you need to lead? They run for the hills. Maybe they try to approach you or another executive again, but you're likely not to welcome what they have to say.  Through words, tone or body language you broadcast the message throughout your organization: your ideas are NOT WELCOME.

And then you wonder why the culture isn't more innovative and creative. Why too few people speak up with substantive comments at meetings.  Why it seems like you're the only one with the answers.

Time to get your brain in line and recognize your "threat" triggers so that you can control them --  instead of them controlling you.

Who needs to change their ways: leaders or rebels?

Some executives have told me that "rebels and change agents need to learn how business works. You can't just disrupt things and expect everyone to change."

But should the corporate rebels be the ones to have to adapt their style? Or should leaders find ways to better understand how to control their threat triggers so that they can create a safe, welcoming climate for new ideas?

To me, this is the responsibility of the leader. All people can benefit from understanding and managing what trips them up. But with the prestige and financial compensation of being a leader comes the responsibility for first and foremost managing oneself. So your head is ready to be in the game of leading.

Humility and reappraising

This is why so many great leaders are humble. Humility reduces the status threat. It puts people at ease talking with you. It clears the leader's mind of emotion so that he or she can really understand what people are saying.

Another way to manage the brain is to reappraise situations that start to trigger your emotions. What's  the other person's perspective? What does he want me to understand? What does she want me to do and why?  Look at what's being said as data and nothing more.

Economic and competitive threats are relentless, causing their own set of threats and associated behavioral responses. But to succeed companies need new ideas and the best ideas are likely to come from the rebels and mavericks inside your own organization.

As a leader, help those people who can most help you succeed. Even if they make you uncomfortable. Maybe especially because they make you uncomfortable.

Help yourself by seeing challenges to the status quo as possibilities not attacks on your position.