The Rebel Penalty Box Revisited: Avoid Becoming a Bruiser!!

The text below is from our friend and fellow Rebel at Work Curt Klun. He posted it on the Google+ community Corporate Rebels United and kindly agreed to let us repost it over here. You can always tell a good metaphor when others can mine it for additional insight, and that's exactly what Curt did. And just a reminder--the metaphor is not mine but from yet another Rebel at Work.  

Olympic/professional players have to expect to endure the box, and from experience, it sometimes feels more like a "hot box" in Cool Hand Luke. While you can also take advantage of the penalty time to add new tool sets for the next opportunity of engagement, I'd recommend using the “down time” to decipher what sent you to the penalty box in the first place, for each set of referees (status quo keepers) have different rule sensitivities and histories. Did you receive the penalty because a) you were executing your coach’s plan too aggressively and outpaced the system’s ability to cope; b) were you receiving too much limelight chafing authority in power, overly threatening sacred cows, or clumsily revealing ugly truths; c) were you excessively operating outside your assigned role on the team; and/or d) did you forget that this is a team sport in that change requires official and covert partners and buy-in?

Learn from my burnt fingers, for I have unwittingly ran afoul of all of these offenses. The risk of becoming an unrepentant or repeat offender is receiving the reputation as being a dumb oaf or even worse, "a bruiser” -- One, who like a raging bull in a china shop, runs over others towards what they see as their own goals or even intentionally hurt others. If one receives a reputation like that, the organization’s referees will be hyper-vigilant over the most minor infraction in order to perpetually neutralize you. You may even become a disposable hatchet man for other leaders; be marginalized back to a junior league team in Siberia, where you will do no harm; or be slated for rejection from the team, when politically convenient.

Our goal is to return to the ice with a greater understanding of the environment and a refined set of change finesse tools. Finesse is that much more important in order to keep the organization moving forward, while leading change. Surgical finesse is especially vital, when the sensitivities of others and risks appear that much more dire. For instance, when we have been asked to change the corporate engines while flying full throttle and at altitude.

We must also remember that as much as we love the mission and the organization that we serve, that we operate in a system of official and unofficial rules, and that there are consequences/opportunities, when we work the edges of these rules. The one thing to always keep forefront is having a keen knowledge of what the rules are, the reasoning and equities behind the rules, and how one needs to behave in order to work the seams and processes to advance the organization in the right direction, while avoiding being called out for a penalty or doing harm. In honing such skills of finesse, we will hopefully increase success, engender trust, and open opportunities for advancement into positions of greater influence.

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.