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!


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 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!

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.