May the Force be With You!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Avoiding backlash

horses drawingThe fear of backlash silences so many people with great ideas. While talking about Rebels at Work yesterday  a regional manager of an automotive parts company told me, "Lois I have plenty of good ideas on how to improve things at work and I know how to position ideas and connect them to what the company cares about.

"But if I  if I say anything the backlash will be horrible.  People's careers are ruined for speaking up at my company. I just can't risk my reputation."


So here's the deal. Don't go it alone.


Find some allies who also believe there's a way to solve the problem and together take it to your boss.  If there's a handful of people supporting a new approach the boss is much more likely to consider the idea than if it's just you, and there's less likelihood of personal backlash.

Unfortunately it's easy for a boss  to discredit one person who disagrees with the way the organization is being run.  "He's over his head.  He doesn't have enough experience. He's such a damn know-it-all. Etc. Etc.   But to discredit five or 10 people?   Now the boss is paying attention.

If you really want to avoid backlash, get 10 percent of the people in your organization behind the idea.  Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when 10 percent of a population holds a strong belief, the belief will be adopted. (Here's the link to the study.)

When you have to play corporate politics, play with a team.

Inklings: a rebel alliance at Oxford

Forming a rebel alliance within your organization is one way to find the support to accomplish important work. Work that is outside the cultural norm of the overall organization. Or, that challenges the assumptions of the larger organization. One example of a rebel alliance is The Inklings, a group of Oxford University  professors and writers who felt stifled by the academic seriousness and solemnity of that revered institution. Feeling a bit alienated from the English Dept in 1926, Professors C.S. Lewis, J.R. R. Tolkien and other friends started meeting at a local pub.

Their intent, in Tolkien's words was to explore "vague or half formed intimations on ideas." (Note: many rebel ideas begin in an  unformed way. But a feeling exists that there must be a different or better way. Explore that feeling.)

In other words, these Oxford rebels wanted to experiment with new ideas that didn't fit with what Oxford viewed as proper literature. Rather than feeling rejected, they came together to share ideas, experiment, get support from one another, and ultimately to create some of their best work.  For Lewis it was "The Chronicles of Narnia." For Tolkien it was "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings."

They didn't try to change Oxford. Rather, they found a way to do create fascinating new work while still teaching at Oxford.

This same approach can work today in large organizations.  The secret is finding people who have similar interests, making time to talk about observations and what if's, and supporting one another in a safe and enjoyable way.

Amazing things can happen when people who care about possibilities and one another find time to just hang out.

"Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither." C. S. Lewis

"Courage is found in unlikely places." J. R. R. Tolkien