Reading the rebel riot act

"I was so frustrated with the board and executive team's resistance to new ideas that I finally read them the rebel riot act," an insurance executive told me. "What happened? What was in it?"

"I told them that we're losing our internal entrepreneurs, the very people we need if we want to be able to innovate. We're at great risk at falling behind the competition. We either change the culture by seeding innovation rebels throughout the company or our best people are going to continue to leave.

"Then I told them what I wanted. A one-year funded pilot to help put innovation rebels in place. I showed them a plan, expected results and how we will measure results."

Paul had been talking about the need for culture change for a couple of years. But it took reading a rebel riot act to wake the executive team up.

The reverse rebel riot act?

The origins of "The Riot Act" were an English law, enacted by Parliament in 1715. If more than 12 people "tumultuously" assembled and refused to disperse within an hour of a magistrate reading a proclamation, they would be charged as felons.

In the last century "reading the rebel riot act" has come to be a common expression. It means the boss was setting an employee straight, or giving the whole team a necessary kick in the ass, a wake up call to stop whining or slacking off.

Reading the riot act is like a high-intensity intervention because no one seems to be listening.

In 1915 the coach of the Kansas City Rebels baseball team read his players a riot act.  The Pittsburgh Press reported:

"Manager Oakes, a conservative, peaceful manager, has dropped the mask of easiness and is fighting mad...instead of delivering heart-to-heart talks, for which he is famous, he delivered a flow of cutting southern eloquence that sunk deep into the hides of his players...It was all to the point -- very much so -- and in plain words meant that the men on the team would have to play baseball and play it right or there would be several checks shy when payday rolled around."

Today we're starting to see a different kind of rebel act. Corporate rebels reading the riot act to management to wake them up to needed changes.

Greg Smith certainly read the riot act very publicly to Goldman Sachs when he published his "Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs" Op-Ed a couple of weeks ago.

If your company  has a transparent corporate culture, people can read the riot act as a way to create positive change, like Paul at the large insurance company. Reading the riot act means that you still care about your organization. You want to help change and be part of the change.

And if your culture is  closed culture, not willing to listen? Well, that's when you get lambasted in The New York Times and throughout social media. Like Goldman Sachs. Like the controversy at the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

What makes a good rebel riot act?

  • Succinct summary of the problem and its risk to the business. No mincing words.
  • Data, or at least several credible anecdotes, to support the point. This can't be viewed as your opinion. It is you showing a pattern that has negative consequences.
  • A proposed plan to correct the problem. If you're going to read the rebel riot act, be prepared to ask for what you think can solve the problem.
  • Willingness to lead the change. What you expect to accomplish and by when.

The more a rebel act hits on what the organization really values, the more likely people will be to listen to your proposed alternative approach.  The successful "reverse rebel riot acts"  I've seen that hit a chord zero in on:

  • Hurt revenues
  • Lose talent (especially talent that generates revenue)
  • Fall behind the competition
  • Break promises
  • Hurt the company's reputation
  • Potentially embarrass high-profile executives

Be ready for potential fallout

Reading the rebel act to established powers that be is risky.  Paul succeeded in getting a one-year innovation rebel pilot funded. But he knows that if he is unsuccessful, he will likely be asked to leave the company.

In trying to do a leveraged buy-out of an employer,  I read the riot act about needed leadership changes. I lost, and felt the need to leave.

In other cases, rebels are labeled as "trouble makers" after reading the rebel riot acts. A lonely place to be.

Yet it is often possible to rebuild bridges, especially if your riot act was in support of the organization's vision and goals, which  always makes good sense.

Take a deep breathe, and remember what Thomas Jefferson once said: "On matters of style, swim with the current. On matters of principle, stand like a rock."

Sometimes it takes reading a rebel riot act to stand like a rock.