Creating a Safer Workplace

Workplace-related suicides have increased in recent years, and organizations and businesses need to ensure they are doing right by their staff by sustaining healthy work conditions and providing appropriate resources for colleagues facing difficult times. The RANE network just published an advisory for its clients about mental health in the workplace and interviewed me (Carmen) for the piece. Rebels at Work, of course, encounter stress in the workplace; the chapter in the book Rebels at Work on rebel self-care is among the most popular. Here are some excerpts from the article and at the end a link that will download the PDF file of the complete text.

My comments emphasized that the default way organizations function creates tensions in the workplace. One example is the stigma against rocking the boat. Even when organizations do not specifically state it, employees often perceive that “companies do not like it if they challenge the organization in any way, including by offering a new idea or by stating that they have too much work.” A related dynamic is the value that so many organizations place on “smoothness.” Managers that let employees know they value stability and smoothness are also making it harder for individuals to tell you they perceive a problem or need some time off to deal with personal issues.

Organizations also promote stress by creating a work plan and objectives that require 100% of workforce time to achieve. There is no flex in the schedule to deal with personal emergencies, unexpected work load, or hiccups in the supply chain. Businesses that consistently run at the red line are guaranteed to burn up their employees.

I suggested that companies instead design their annual goals in such a way that the organization retains some excess capacity that can be used to deal with contingencies or to allow staff to pursue new projects. Companies interested in creating a psychologically-safe work environment should conduct cultural audits to reveal all the subtle ways they impose unnecessary stress on employees—from how they talk about performance appraisals to the way they run meetings and the expectation to answer emails during non-work hours. The introduction of artificial intelligence to knowledge work will be a new stress point for staff, some of whom may find that what they are good at is now done better by a machine.

There’s much more good content in the article including some specific information about preventing suicide in the workplace from Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas. Download the complete text here.

United We Fail?

By now I'm sure you've read and been appalled by the story currently destroying United Airline's reputation. An overbooked flight, not enough passengers accept a $400 voucher--eventually raised to $1000, and the next thing you know a passenger already seated is forcibly removed from the plane. And of course in this day and age, several passengers take pictures and post the dreadful details. I just read an article by an airline pilot explaining what he thinks happened. (He also reports an overlooked fact--the flight in question was being operated by United Express--a contractor--and not United Airlines itself.) He makes this particularly astute observation.

What I sense is that the airline’s staff reached a point, after perhaps offering whatever dollar amounts their procedures called for, where they simply didn’t know what to do, and nobody was brave enough, or resourceful enough, to come up with something. Summoning the police simply became the easiest way to pass the buck.

Aha! There's more than one "EN" infecting employees in large organizations right now. We hear all the time about ENGAGEMENT, which hasn't improved at all in recent years. But EMPOWERMENT is engagement's kissing cousin. The pilot goes on to say:

...Airline culture is often such that thinking creatively, and devising a proverbial outside-the-box solution, is almost actively discouraged. Everything is very rote and procedural, and employees are often so afraid of being reprimanded for making a bad decision (not to mention pressed for time) that they don’t make a decision at all, or will gladly hand the matter to somebody else who can take responsibility. By and large, workers are deterred from thinking creatively exactly when they need to.

Doing things by rote is not without its benefits for high risk, high performance organizations. Such organizations--airlines, hospitals, the military come to mind--engage in important tasks that must be done with Six Sigma levels of reliability. Substandard performance doesn't just affect the bottom line; it entails significant risk for the organization and, more importantly, for others! As someone who flies 100k miles per year, I applaud the safety standards of the airline industry. But the downside of the "checklist" approach to organizational excellence is that it blinds everyone to the exceptional situation that must be handled in a better and non-rote way.

Of course, this is when those pesky Rebels in the workplace can come in handy. Perhaps there was an employee at the gate who had a better idea. But my guess is he didn't know how to speak up. Perhaps she was low in the pecking order, a new employee? Maybe past suggestions had been ignored? Or just maybe the go-along-to-get-along culture was so strong that no second thoughts entered anyone's mind. In some ways that's even worse. The employees were so unengaged and so unempowered that they had stopped thinking.

And isn't that the worst risk ANY ORGANIZATION can run? When EVERYONE is on the SAME PAGE, no one is available to turn it. The most important checklist any high risk, high performance organization can develop is the one that helps employees know when they must abandon Standard Operating Procedures. You can't leave this up to the personal courage of the employee; it's something that teams need to talk about and leaders need to facilitate. Together...or united they will fail.

Are you solving the right problem?

It’s discouraging and frustrating to work tirelessly on solving what you think is an important issue and nothing happens. Despite brilliant thinking, smart teammates, and innovative solutions, the organization never fully embraces the new approach.

There are a lot of reasons why good ideas never get adopted. Sometimes they’re not critical to the organization’s goals, require too many resources, or scare the managerial keepers of the status quo.

But there’s another reason that’s rarely acknowledged: we’re trying to solve the wrong problem.

Defaulting to tactical fixes: a sad, but true story

More specifically, we go after creating tactical solutions – new systems, processes, behavioral ways to do the work – when the real problem is an underlying belief or mindset issue.

It’s the old iceberg model: we try to fix the 10% of work that’s visible instead of addressing the invisible issues under the surface.

Let me share a story to illustrate.

A few years ago an executive of a large, global company told me that the company’s marketing and communications organizations weren’t collaborating. Hundreds of people seemed to either being doing slightly redundant work or certainly not working as efficiently or creatively as they could be.

The siloes did their annual plans every year and sent them up through their hierarchies to the president, who clearly saw overlaps and missed opportunities.

I was asked to help the two organizations break down their organizational barriers. The immediate goal: develop one integrated plan for the coming fiscal year.

We used Art of Hosting and The Circle Way techniques to identify shared purpose, establish common goals, and have conversations in new ways so that everyone was heard. We created simplified, shared planning templates. There were raucous, collaborative sessions where people worked intently and with good intentions. The thinking was smart; the output was strategic and creative. Great relationships were formed.

But after that one planning cycle, people slid back into their own silos where marketing and communications each did their thing, apart from the “governance” committee meetings that were in reality lipstick on the collaboration pig.

While people gained a new appreciation of one another and the diverse roles in each organization, the goal to create new processes and open communication was a dud.

Uncovering the real problem

After 18 months I was called in to facilitate a session with just four executives – two from marketing and two from communications to figure out “how to fix this collaboration problem.”

Sensing that there was a deeper underlying issue, I led the executives through creating an Immunity to Change map to see if there were assumptions and beliefs holding people back from achieving their goal of working together.

Immunity to Change, developed by Harvard School of Education professors Robert Keegan and Lisa Lahey, is a diagnostic tool that pinpoints individual beliefs and organizational mindsets that make us immune to seeing what’s really stopping us from achieving our most important goals.  Just as our body becomes immune to disease, our mind can become resistant to certain types of change.

By making these immunities visible you begin to see root causes -- and can then focus on solving the right problems.

What was revealed among the corporate executives: the marketing people believed that they and their staffs were much smarter than the communications teams.

That’s why marketing didn’t want to collaborate. They felt they were the strategic, creative minds and the communications people were tactical and lacking in an understanding of the business issues.

It was a painful session and oddly freeing. Now the real work could begin.

Be a problem identifier vs. just a problem solver

One of the most valuable things Rebels at Work can do for our organizations is to identify the real problems.

While problem solving is valuable, problem identification is foundational.

And one of the most valuable things we can do for ourselves is to identify what might be holding us back from being confident, effective Rebels. Motivation is valuable. Clearing away beliefs that limit our influence is bliss.



For more information on Immunity to Change, go to Minds at Work, the consulting firm founded by Drs. Kagan and Lahey  or read the book, which explains the research on resistance to change, how to create an immunity map, and how individuals and organizations have used the process to unlock what’s holding them back from making important changes.

If anyone is interested in participating in a special Immunity to Change training for Rebels at Work, send Lois an email:  If we can get enough people, we’ll make it happen.

Rebels in Government!

These are difficult times for civil servants. Some have asked us to reflect on what advice Rebels at Work has for federal employees. We offer the following dos and don’ts with a big dose of humility and an even bigger degree of caution. I imagine that everyone will find our advice to be unsatisfactory to some degree: We don’t go far enough or we go way too far. But somewhere along the way we hope our readers will find at least one tidbit that helps them.


Do Sharpen your Bureaucratic Skills. If there’s a time to get smart about how bureaucracies work, now is it. Whenever there is a new administration, incoming political appointees try to enact procedures without sufficient regard for or even knowledge of existing laws and regulations. It’s the DUTY of civil servants, of legacy staff to point out the landmines. Ill-conceived government actions make the US Government vulnerable to lawsuits and public ridicule. They also have the potential to weaken our democracy.

Do Your Job! Don't be so distracted by the current political brouhaha that you do not adequately perform your basic duties. If you are a supporter of President Trump, you do him no favors by putting politics first. And the same goes for opponents. In fact, your partisan views should have no bearing on the performance of the duties of your office. This is the essence of federal civil service.

Do Write Everything Down! As civil servants you have rights and protections. If you find yourself dealing with a difficult manager, or if you are asked to take actions that you believe are unwise or perhaps even illegal (more on that later!), document as best you can everything that happens. And share the particulars with someone you trust. It’s probably unwise to store this documentation on your government computer. Perhaps you can dedicate a favorite notebook to keeping your paper trail. Be sure you don’t improperly store or keep government documents and/or sensitive information, however. If management is out to get you, they are sure to use any simple mistakes against you--no matter how innocent or trivial.

Do Monitor your Emotional Well-Being. Right now the hardest-hit government Agency appears to be EPA but employees in all federal departments and agencies will be challenged in the months and years to come. Pay attention to the emotional costs. Forego that extra drink after work. Take a vacation or a strategic mental health day. Don’t take it out against your family or friends.


Don’t Confuse your Partisan Views with your Official Duties. The Civil Service oath demands that federal employees defend the Constitution and faithfully discharge the duties of their office. The US political system would collapse if Federal employees believed their authority superseded that of the American people. That said, you are well within your rights to argue against a policy decision or an interpretation of the law that you believe unwise or counterproductive. But if you don't win the argument and unless you believe you are being asked to do something illegal, your job is to execute policies regardless of whether you agree with them.  For you own mental well-being, however, it’s important to understand your own personal red lines. Under what conditions would I resign from government service? Under what conditions would I go to the Inspector General? Get smart about the Whistleblower provisions in your agency.

Don’t Do it Alone. Allies are one of the most critical success factors for Rebels at Work. There will be many in your workplace who think and feel like you do. Find them and collaborate. Share best practices. Avoid mistakes made by others. You can develop a powerful information network in your workplace.

One Last Thing. We at Rebels at Work often poke fun at bureaucrats. And yet it is often the relentless thoroughness of people making sure all the i's are dotted and Oxford commas removed that preserves due process and the rule of law. As I write Sunday evening, the executive order on immigration is being criticized, even by supporters, for not having been properly vetted and coordinated within the vast US Government bureaucracy.

Take heart, all ye Bureaucratic Black Belts. Your time may have come!!

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.

Advice for having difficult conversations

Everywhere Carmen and I speak people tell us that one of their top challenges is having difficult conversations.

One of the best sources for learning to have difficult conversations is the Harvard Negotiation Project and the book from faculty members Doug Stone, Sheila Heen and Bruce Patton, aptly titled "Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most."

My biggest takeaway from the book is that we can't change someone's mind in a conversation. No matter how skilled you think you may be. Not going to happen.

The purpose of a conversation is to create mutual understanding of an issue so that you can both figure out the best way forward.  In other words, the  goal is to genuinely figure out what's important to the other person and express what's important to us. That's how shifts and change begin to happen.

I encourage you to read --no, devour and highlight -- this book. It will not only make you more effective at work, your personal relationships are likely improve, too.

Until then, here are my book highlights to get you thinking in some new ways.


Biggest mistakes

  • Blaming: it inhibits our ability to learn what’s really causing the problem and to do anything meaningful to correct it.
  • Believing it’s their fault: when things go wrong in relationships, everyone has contributed in some important way.
  • Assuming we know the intentions and feelings of others.
  • Avoiding the problem is one of the biggest contributors to a problem.
  • Not preparing, rushing, catching someone off guard.
  • Not acknowledging feelings.

Important realities

  • Difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations and values.
  • They are not about what is true; they are about what is important.
  • What happened is the result of what BOTH people did – or failed to do.
  • Difficult conversations don’t just involve feelings; they are at their core about
  • The two most difficult and important things are expressing feelings and listening. (And our ability to listen increases once we’ve expressed our feelings.)
  • When a conversation feels difficult it’s because something beyond the substance of the conversation is at stake for YOU.
  • People almost never change without first feeling understood.
  • Don’t share your conclusions as “the” truth; explain what’s behind your thinking.
  • When conversation goes off track reframe it to focus on mutual goals and issue at hand.



  • What do you hope to accomplish? What’s the best outcome?
  • Is a conversation the best way to address the issue? (Sometimes what’s difficult has a lot more to do with what’s going on inside of you than what’s going on between you and the other person. So a conversation won't actually help. You've got to do some inner work.)
  • Plan a time to talk. Don’t do it on the fly.

How to start

  • Reduce the other person’s anxiety! Don't put them on the defense.
  • Describe the issue in a way that rings true for both sides and is free of judgment, e.g., We seem to have different assumptions and preferences for how to accomplish work we both feel is important.  I wonder whether it’s possible for us to look at the best approaches in view of what we want to achieve.

Explore: their views and yours

  • Listen and explore their perspectives, asking questions, acknowledging feelings, paraphrasing so the person knows you’ve heard them.
  • Express your views and feelings: what you see, why you see it that way, how you feel and who you are. Begin with the heart of the matter for you, e.g., “What is important to me is…”

Problem solve and figure out best way forward

  • Figure out the best way forward that satisfies both of your needs.
  • Talk about how to keep communication open as you move forward


  • What did we each do -- or not do -- to get ourselves into this mess?
  • Can you say a little more about how you see things?
  • What’s most important to you about this situation?
  • What information might you have that I don’t?
  • How do you see it differently?
  • Were you reacting to something I did?
  • How are you feeling about all of this?
  • What would it mean to you if that happened?
  • How do you see the situation differently?
  • Help me understand how you would feel and how you might think about the situation if you were in my shoes. What would you do and why?

First Followers

"Wow, that would be amazing for us to do. It could really change how we work together,"  concurred a group of managers at one of the biggest technology companies in the world last week.

"But it's just not how our culture works," someone said.

Then the grumbling about the culture began until, as the strategy facilitator, I cut the naysaying short and asked, "Why couldn't this group start working differently and then open the way for others to follow?  Change has to start somewhere. Why not you? You view yourselves as creative and innovative."

Someone has to start, having the guts to stand alone.

And someone has to be the first to follow, also an act of leadership.

Both are acts of positive Rebels at Work.

That's how culture changes and movements start.

Dare to start or be the first follower.

Amplify Courage


Courage helps us challenge what no longer works, fight for better ways, achieve more than we thought possible and overcome all the stress and unexpected land mines that are thrown in our paths.

How do you become more courageous? These four strengths amplify our courage. The more you use and develop them, the stronger they become.

How have you used each one to overcome challenges?

How could you use them more in 2017?

(These same questions are useful to use in team planning, as well.)

1. Perseverance: finishing what you start; persevering in a course of actions despite obstacles.

2. Bravery: Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty; speaking up for what's right even if there is opposition; acting on convictions even if unpopular.

3. Vitality: approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing things halfway or halfheartedly; living life as an adventure; feeling alive and activated.

4. Integrity: speaking the truth but more broadly acting in a genuine and sincere way; being without pretense; taking responsibility for your feelings and actions.

The Sting of a Rebel Win

show-up One of the most popular questions Carmen Medina and I get asked during our Rebels at Work talks is: “What happens when your boss takes your idea and doesn’t give you credit for it?”

Our response: When someone takes your idea that’s a Rebel Win. It means your good idea is moving forward.

Yet we should probably spend more time acknowledging the disappointment and sting that can come when we don’t get credit for our ideas, and suggest some ways to bounce back and not become all angry and kind of pissy,

Like what started happening to me this morning when five friends forwarded an email from Harvard Business Review announcing “The Big Idea from HBR: Rebel Talent.”

Are you kidding me — how are you not in the center of this? This should be by YOU!!!!

What the what?? Seems like you should be leading this webinar

The email was from the editor of Harvard Business Review, with whom Carmen and I met exactly three years ago to pitch him on the idea of publishing our Rebels at Work book. He loved the idea, shared his personal experiences being a lifelong Rebel at Work, and forwarded our manuscript on to the acquisitions editor, who rejected it.

So here’s the Rebel Win: he’s moving the Rebels idea forward, with all the credibility that Harvard brings to stodgy leaders whose organizations can benefit so much from helping their rebel thinkers thrive.

And here’s the Rebel Sting: he’s never acknowledged any of our ideas or work.

What’s a Rebel to do?

I admit I did stew for an hour this morning, and then used these Rebel Practices to break out of my mental Crazytown. Maybe some of these practices will help you next time someone takes credit for your idea.

1. Name the emotion: when you’re angry, name the feeling out loud. This diminishes the power of the emotion over us and let’s us think more clearly and logically. This two-minute video from psychologist Paul Furey, “How To Ruin a Really Good Idea,” is especially helpful.

2. Dodge thinking traps: ask these quick questions from Karen Reivich, author of The Resiliency Factor, to avoid spiraling into negative thinking traps that are rarely accurate or helpful.

  • What is a more accurate way of seeing this?
  • What other outcome is possible?
  • What might be one other possible explanation?

When I asked myself these questions I saw the situation differently: the Harvard attention on Rebel Talent is a potentially huge boost for rebels, and the purpose of Rebels at Work is to help Rebels succeed, not get attention for our writing or ideas or book. Reframing provides clarity and creates positive energy.

I also considered that the editor had forgotten us and our meeting and sent him an email offering to write an HBR blog post with some of our new research.

3. Lean on your signature character strengths: the field of positive psychology has identified 24 universal character traits that all of us have, some much stronger than others. (You can take this free scientific assessment from the VIA Institute on Character to uncover your top strengths.)

When we use our top signature strengths we decrease stress and increase our wellbeing.

Three of my top strengths are honesty (speaking the truth and presenting oneself in a genuine way), creativity (thinking of novel and product ways to conceptualize and do things) and bravery (No shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty or pain; speaking up for what’s right even if there’s opposition.)

Today I’m thinking about how to better serve Rebels at Work (honesty, creativity, bravery), writing this post (honesty), and developing a new master class on resiliency (creativity). I’m in the flow, feeling good about my work despite a not-so-positive start to the day.

4. Avoid flirting with the Dark Side: This is one of Carmen’s favorite pieces of advice. Things get dark for rebels, she advises, when their only goal is to advance their own agenda. Your ideas are important, but more important than any single idea is the creation of an organizational ecosystem that is hospitable to honest reflection and change.

Permission to be human


One last bit of wisdom comes from Tal Ben-Shahar, one of the foremost experts in the field of positive psychology and author of Happier:

Give yourself permission to be human, accepting your positive and negative emotions. Repressing intense emotions actually intensifies them.

So if your boss takes your idea and you get no credit, let yourself be pissy and angry for a while. Go for a walk. Listen to music you love. Watch a good movie. Turn off the monkey mind.

Then consider your purpose and narrative as a Rebel.

Many of us are firestarters and idea igniters.

By the time the world is ablaze and buzzing about our idea seedlings, we are onto exploring what’s next.

Adelante, dear Rebels. The world needs us more now than ever before.

Rebel Learnings

This summer I had an opportunity to talk to many rebel audiences--I know Lois did as well. And as usual we learned a ton from people we spoke with. So much is worth passing on. So let's get right to it. The EGO. One of the groups I spoke to was the NextGen Leadership Summit in Washington D.C. It's a conference put on by GovLoop for civil servants at every level--federal, state, local. Lois and/or I have spoken to the group several times now and I wish I could say that the situation for rebels in government has improved. From the questions I got, not much. I was sharing our learning that for a rebel one of the best things that can happen is for someone else to take credit for their idea. In fact, we believe that a priority for all rebel change agents is to make your idea their idea. Many participants didn't like my advice. At all! Getting any kind of personal recognition in their bureaucracy is so difficult, the idea of voluntarily eschewing it struck them as NUTS. After I spoke, a sympathetic person came up to me and said:

Carmen, to avoid this reaction, next time why don't you just say that rebels need to remember that it needs to be less about them and more about their idea. And leave it at that!

Admitting you're not perfect. Similarly, the NextGen audience balked at my suggestion that rebels avoid false confidence when presenting their ideas. You should admit that your idea is imperfect and invite others to make it better. Again, many in the audience noted that the culture in their organization demanded confidence at all times. Acknowledging uncertainty is a cultural mistake and could even cost your group in that nutty competition for resources that occurs in so many bureaucracies. So you do have to calibrate how receptive your organization is to honest talk and how high its penchant for delusion. Maybe your candor can only occur in one-on-one or small group situations.

These next two ideas come from a conversation I had last month with Brice Challamel, a fellow rebel whom you can see in our learning video, Be a Brave, Big-Hearted Rebel at Work. He believes that an occupational hazard for Rebels at Work is the loss of perspective on their ideas. Rebels can do a better job at self-editing themselves with two simple tricks:

Develop some criteria to evaluate your ideas. For example, maybe you will only go forward with ideas that would benefit your immediate boss and improve conditions for other units in your organization, not just your own section. So as you sift the wacky ideas in your head, you have a basis for putting aside some and proceeding with others. And along those lines...

Limit the number of ideas. A real hazard for rebels is that they become known as flighty, jumping from one idea to another without ever seeing one through. Tell yourself that you can only advance two or three suggestions at a time. This then becomes another criteria by which to evaluate your thinking. It also will make you more effective by concentrating your energies and that of your supporters.

I hope some of these ideas will help you.

Happy Rebelling!

Rebel for the soul of government

Door opening

“Please don’t tell rebels like me to abandon organizations that clearly need them, and thereby abandon the public those organizations serve.”

A city government manager sent an email last week challenging the point in the Managing Conflict chapter of our “Rebels At Work” book that “if your values are far removed from those of your boss or organization, you have a stark choice – suffer at work or leave.”

Here are his views, which are inspiring and informative.

Real rebels embrace conflict

“When you’re ready to be a real rebel, embrace these conflicts.

“I agree values-based conflicts are the hardest types of conflicts to address and they will produce some suffering for the rebel and all around…But should we just assume that a government agency should be left to its own devices when its values decay or become misaligned with their public mandate or do we have a duty, especially as rebels, to do something about it?

“I've facilitated, nurtured, and instigated positive organizational culture change centered around perceived values-based conflicts. Values-based conflicts can be remarkably constructive. They're a shortcut to camaraderie that fails to materialize through decades of strategic, wise, fearful, or polite avoidance of these issues.

“They produce highly efficient relational synapses of trust in critical relationships. What's more, people's values (distinguishable from priorities) are often less at conflict than we or they believe.

“The only way to discover that in any specific time and place is to talk about it; i.e. experiential learning. This is the conversation bad bosses fear most, as they should. The worst bosses have values that are deeply immoral by any standard.

"Commitment to avoiding these matters through rebel "self-deportation" ensures a lost organization will never rediscover its collective soul from within. “

Resiliency as antidote to suffering

I’m thrilled that this person has the moral motivation, relationship skills, and resiliency  to work through values-based conflict.

While much is taught and written about organizational values and conflict management I’d like to see more people develop a capacity for resiliency. Resiliency practices help you keep going, find meaning in the often long and political process of creating change, and see the good in government agencies – even on days that can feel like you’re lost in a bureaucratic hairball.

Without the capacity to stay resilient, rebels often suffer, becoming bitter, angry and not the best versions of themselves. And then they serve no one well – not their organizations, not their family and friends, not themselves.

That’s when they need to leave.

The quest for one more day

A senior policy innovation adviser at the U.S. Department of Defense recently told Carmen that one of his goals is “one more day.”

“If I can get talented people to stay one more day working for the government, I’m succeeding,” he said.

So much attention is focused on national political campaigns.

The people who are making a real difference are these rebels in government, working to make sure agencies deliver on their mission and values.

Oh rebels, please, please, please stay just a little big longer.

Hey, Hey: When nothing goes as planned

crop Gothenberg museum imp copy Nothing is going as planned during this two-day tourist jaunt in Sweden. So many weeks of planning and expectations gone kaput.

Taking the ferry to the archipelago didn’t happen yesterday because of heavy rain and wind so I decided I would go see the opera Madame Butterfly at the Opera House. Sold out. OK, then, I’ll go to the one-star Michelin restaurant. No reservations. Plan C is the Konserthuset. Nope. The concert tonight is for a private audience.

Instead I board Tram 6 as instructed by the club’s web site to get to an edgy part of town to see two progressive rock bands, both fronted by young Swedish women.

As the tram moves out of the inner city I carefully watch the digital screen in the tram for my stop. After people get on at each stop they shake rain off their jackets, close their umbrellas, and open the protective plastic on their baby carriages, smiling at their children.

The tram is no longer in the city. The skin shades of my fellow tram travelers range from milky white to deep ebony. People are wearing headscarves, nose rings, headphones, floral wreaths, Afros, beards and orange lipstick.

OK, Milady?

A young woman whose hair is matted to her head from the rain gets on with a baby carriage and a beagle and parks them by my side. “OK, Milady?” she asks me.

Tram 6 stops again but not at my stop. A young Somalian man tells me that this is the end of the line. It’s dark and there are no lights at the tram stop. “Where is this stop,” I ask him opening my tourist map and pointing to where I’m trying to get to. He can’t help because he doesn’t speak English. I have to get off. I am lost.

The young mother with the baby carriage and sad-eyed beagle comes to Milady’s rescue, telling me which tram to take and advising me that it will be a 30-minute ride. If I’m on Tram 11 longer than that, I will have missed my stop.

Thirty minutes later I get off at the right stop and walk into a magical concert space.

The woman at the door greets me by saying “Hey, Hey” in that lilting, welcoming Swedish way. It’s like having a laid-back cheerleader giving you a personal rah when you walk into a Swedish restaurant of shop. I wanted to say back, “Hey, Hey,” I made it. But the young woman is already puzzled to see a woman my age at the club’s door. No need to make her think I’m totally nuts.

The venue has worn hardwood floors, sophisticated lighting and sound systems, local beers at the two makeshift bars in the back of the room, and people arm in arm, talking, laughing, kissing as they wait for the show to start.

Shaken awake.

My boots are still wet from waiting for Tram 11 and I am out of my familiar environments. I am shaken awake. Observant. Enjoying the right now. So happy my traditional tourist choices didn’t pan out.

It’s still raining the next day so I do another Plan D and go to the Gothenburg Art Museum. As I walk into the first gallery the painting I see is the original of a postcard I’ve carried around for years. It reminds me of falling in love with my husband. Here it is, a huge canvas, more beautiful than I imagined.

Gothenberg man and women painting

A statue of a green Norwegian imp with flowers growing out of her head is sitting on a table in the same room. I don't see the connection between the statue and the other art in the room. The security guard explains there is no connection. Someone at the museum just thought the table would look better with something on it.

Nothing has gone as planned and everything is better than planned this weekend.

The painting reminds me of love and how little time I may have left with my husband.

The music club reminds me of how art happens – welcoming, gritty and unfinished.

And the tram ride with Milady’s rescuer and the refugees Sweden has welcomed into its country is like an injection of kindness and compassion.

These reminders of art, love and kindness are my Swedish souvenirs. Unexpected and treasured.

Here’s to staying open when our carefully developed plans go awry.

Hey, Hey.

Brainstorm Better, Bring Diversity to your Team, and Let Others Change your Idea--Answers to your Rebels at Work Questions

I've been participating the last few months in a new web platform--wiselike--where people can ask questions of practitioners in other domains. I've been answering Rebels at Work questions and I thought I'd post some of the answers here, unedited.

What is the best way to get an idea across to top management in a big company without antagonizing your immediate boss or those who will be affected by it?

Well, I don't recommend going over your boss's head. It may work once in a while, but the odds are against you.

The best way to get an idea across in that situation is to demonstrate it. Is their part of your idea that you can start under your own power so that people could see how it works?

Another important step is to get others to support and in fact change your idea. People will support an idea that they have contributed to. Your idea needs to grow and develop, and it will do so when you share it with others. You need to remember that it's about improvement not necessarily about your sacred idea and certainly should never be about your ego?

Do you think a corporation could succeed if all its employees are 'Rebels at Work?'

Nope, not every employee can be a rebel at work, but it would be good if every employee felt that they could express their ideas at work, within reason, without fearing penalty. Of course, just because you have an idea doesn't mean it's good. But too many organizations have a top-down mentality and don't really want employees to do anything other than execute the plan. This is why so many American workers don't feel engaged at work. In fact, something like 50% of managers report not feeling engaged.

Even though I was a manager for several decades, I actually think that the traditional practice of leadership is broken. I never liked to think of myself as the leader who "called the shots." I much preferred to facilitate conditions that would lead everyone to provide the mission their discretionary energy. A leader can never make people give their discretionary energy; it is only ever volunteered.

What can I do in a company where all the managers are against a 360 feedback?

Geez. This is a tough one. Presumably the President is setting the culture of the organization and it is always tough to change a culture top-down. Couple of things I would suggest.

Is there a small thing that you can do under your own authority that moves you along the path you think is better? Seth Godin has a nice video about this

He notes that in organizations where you don't have the power you have to get people to copy good ideas.

Given that he suggested people go to HR, I would see if there is a good person you could talk to in HR not about whatever your issue is but how can to turn this "go to HR" into a process, option that could actually have impact. For example, does HR report to the management team the issues they hear from employees. I bet they don't. But that could really help. The problem with going to HR is that they will treat each complaint as an individual performance problem rather than as a symptom of an issue in the organization. You want the latter and not the former.

As an advocate of positive Rebels at Work.. How can we encourage diverse thinking within our teams?

It's important to have a team composed of diverse individuals. This isn't easy to do in the short term. So one way to encourage different thinking in the team, or at least implant it, is to invite guests to your team meetings. For example, someone from another office that you have to collaborate with. So they can share what will likely be their different perspective. When you do brainstorm, don't jump into group thinking right away. Give people a few minutes by themselves to come up with ideas/answers. Research shows that this helps generate better ideas. Otherwise the whole group follows lemming-like the first few ideas generated. If there are many people, have several tables work individually on their suggestions, and then have each table report one idea at a time. This forces people to come up with a different idea from the table that went before them.

The manager or leader of a discussion has to say things and ask questions that invite different ideas and disagreement. What am I missing? What are we getting wrong? What is the opposite of this point?

Have a process for deciding which ideas to pursue. For example you could brainstorm a whole bunch of ideas and then bucket them by safe ideas and dangerous ideas And then commit to pursuing one idea from each bucket.

Meetings: some counterintuitive advice

Meeting visualOh, the meeting, that time where you hope you can get through your PowerPoint presentation within the allotted time, have everyone love your ideas, and walk out getting exactly what you want. Oh, magical thinking.  Meetings are never that tidy and easy.

Yet meetings are an essential part of introducing new ideas, one reason we developed an entire segment of our video learning program, Be a Brave, Big-Hearted Rebel at Work: Get Unstuck, Find New Perspectives, to this topic, interviewing the talented Brice Challamel, author, entrepreneur, innovation expert, and a master of running meetings.

Some of his recommendations:

  • The worst thing you can do in a meeting: present a fully formed, perfect idea. You’ll be tempted to want to shove the idea down people’s throats, cautions Brice. Instead introduce your idea as a work in progress and ask people for their suggestions, whereby they become your allies and collaborators. The idea will get better as will your relationships.
  • The best way to get people’s support: Ask people what it would take for them to support the idea. And then listen respectfully to their suggestions. If people feel they are listened to, they will listen to you.
  • What ideas people support: Their own. The best way to get people to support your idea is to make it their idea. Again, ask for what they think should be included vs. trying to get them to buy into your version of the idea.
  • How long you should talk: Spend a small time presenting the idea, and leave the majority of the time for discussion about what people heard. This is how you improve an idea and gain support. “It’s important to remember that the purpose of the meeting is to gain allies for later,” says Brice. It is during the meeting conversations that we’re able to do that.
  • What your PowerPoint needs to be: “Keep it as simple as possible so you have room for improvisation based on what’s happening in the room.”
  • When to let go of an idea: “Sometimes it’s better to lose your idea and save the relationships,” says Brice. “You’ll have other ideas, but it may be difficult to repair damaged relationships.”

What's behind my anger, Estonia?

Anger can be foe or friend to rebels. Here's a story about a hard-earned lesson I've learned this week about taming and learning from anger. Under the Stars Kristjan Raud

After all these years maybe I should just get on the damned plane to Estonia and pick it up myself.

On a business trip to Estonia in 2006 I fell in love with a painting in the Kumu Art Museum, which had just opened. The museum was an extraordinary introduction to the art, culture and history of a country that had been occupied by Germany, then Russia, then Germany again in 1941 and then the USSR from 1944 until before finally becoming independent in 1991.

Despite these foreign invaders Estonians preserved their language, their national pride, and their ancient relatives’ worship of spirits of nature. Talk about determination.

After a busy week of speeches, I strolled through the museum on a sunny Saturday morning in May. I walked into a gallery and was captivated by a painting called “Under the Stars” by Estonian artist Kristjan Raud (1865 - 1943). I sat on a bench for over an hour looking at the folkloric painting, letting my mind wander, and in its wandering thinking about joy amid oppression, the healing and inspirational nature of the night sky, and, most of all, the wonderful people whom I had met during the week. They had inspired me with their sense of purpose, optimism, and perspective about anger.

But aren't you angry with the Russians?

Earlier in the week during the annual national marketing conference, which was why I was visiting, a respected Russian professor talked about Russian history and culture for two hours. I asked the conference organizer why Estonians would ever have a speaker about Russia, given what Russia had done to the country and was still threatening to do.

“It’s important for us to understand,” he calmly explained. Rather than be angry and shut down thinking, they were learning from their anger.

I thought a lot about anger when I looked at the painting, too.

Before leaving I scribbled down the name of the artist and the painting on my Museum map and asked the people at the Museum store whether they had a postcard or print of it for sale. Sadly, no.

 Nine year obsession: Stage three agony

Over the last nine years I would often pull out the Museum map with my scrawled notes about the painting and Google it, hoping I could buy a print somewhere. I hit a lot of dead ends.

Eight months ago I wrote to the Museum and asked if they could possibly make a digital print that I could buy. A lovely woman said she would look into it. In January she told me that they could make a print and would I please provide some information for the billing. In April she sent me an invoice, requiring a wire transfer to the country of Estonia, as the Kumu Art Museum is a national museum. At every step I responded immediately, thinking about where to put this digital print of the painting once it arrived.

But over the last month this process has started to drive me nuts, largely because of weird and sometimes stupid problems with wiring the money from my bank to the country of Estonia’s bank. Should be simple, right? Ha!

This morning I stormed into my bank, furious because the latest wire transfer they sent arrived 7.24 Euros short and as a result the Museum can’t send me the painting. The Museum needs me to send the exact amount. My bank has a minimum for wire transfers so I can’t send the exact amount.

To make matters worse, I acted snarky, showing just how ugly anger can be. When the bank manager asked in a condescending tone, “Where is THAT country?” I said, “Near Latvia,” knowing she probably wouldn’t know where that was either. I could have politely and helpfully said, “Near Finland or Russia.” Oh, but my anger was turning me into a snarling animal.

The timing for this bureaucratic inanity is awful. I’m in what Sally Hogshead calls the Stage 3 Agony phase of some creative projects, the most grueling phase where we get stuck, stressed and start thinking the whole project – or our competency to do said project -- sucks. I know if I can slog through this creative hell I may get to Stage 4 – Epiphany and Stage 5 – Finesse. But, as has happened to me before, Agony kills the work. I either consider the project done because I can’t stand the being stuck part or I give up.

So this painting paperwork is setting off what a beloved boss used to call my ”hot Irish head” where my passion turns into obsession and anger. Nothing seems to be moving in the right direction.

After leaving the bank I stopped at FedEx Office to get a poster made for a talk I’m giving at a Harvard Innovation Symposium on Saturday. They opened my thumb drive and found two old PowerPoint presentations but no poster file. Grrrrrrrr……

Good and worked up, I went back to my office and decided to see how much it would cost to fly to Tallinn, go to the Museum, hand them a credit card, and pick up the digital print myself. Enough with the bureaucrats, just make it happened within my own power.

Oh, anger, you torturer and teacher

And then I remembered a hard-earned lesson: What’s behind my anger? Anger is really useful data, if we can calm down enough to be curious about it.

In this case I started wondering why this painting is so important to me. What about it keeps calling me, especially over the past eight months? Is it the painting or something else?

I don’t know about you, but it’s often something else. When I can somewhat objectively dig into that something else, I find helpful answers. Thank you anger, you torturer and teacher, you.

You see, I am struggling to make these new creative endeavors great and in this Agony Phase I am tempted to give up, say they’re “good enough,” or worse, say, “they’ll never be good enough” and quit. Oh, what our terrible self-talk can do to us.

The painting and the Estonian culture represent purpose, determination, hope, and joy to me. On the last night of my 2006 trip I went to the small, out-of-the-way Museum of Occupations in Estonia. How did these people persevere, I kept wondering as I learned more.

“Under the Stars,” I fantasize, will help me persevere, remind me to look up to the night sky and stay open to joy amid struggles. My creative struggles are so much less significant than want Estonians have had to endure.

Now that I’ve wondered about the anger, it’s diffused and I’m a tiny bit wiser.

I don’t really need the painting, after all.

But maybe, just maybe, I’m looking for a good excuse to travel back to a wonderful country rich in history, culture, possibilities and creative fun.

Did I also tell you Estonia is home to the Wife Carrying World Championships?

The Cowboy Trail and the 10% way to get buy-in

AlbertaI’ve been fantasizing about going on a road trip this summer to Alberta to experience the majestic Canadian Rockies.  While browsing possible itineraries, I keep noticing this advice:

“Leave the beaten path and take the alternative route of….”

If you’re trying to get new ideas considered at work, I’d like to suggest similar advice.  The best route may not be beating a path to your boss and the usual up-the-chain-of-command approval process. If she says, “NO,” then what? You’re sort of at a dead end.

An alternative approach is to reach all around you and get 10% of the people at work behind your idea. When you reach 10%  the idea is likely to be adopted, according to scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  The 10% can be people at any level; in other words the assumption that you need “executive buy-in” may be a faulty assumption.

“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority,” said SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer.

“Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”

So if your company has 1,000 people you would need to get just 100 people to support your idea for it to spread. If there are 5,000 people, your aim is 500.  Many say it’s easier and sometimes faster to get 100 people to support a good idea than to work an idea through the traditional hierarchical approval chain.

“As agents of change convince more and more people, the situation begins to change,” SNARC research associate Sameet Sreenivasan said. “People begin to question their own views at first and then completely adopt the new view to spread it even further.

Use the tools: Work Out Loud

Influencing the 10% at work is not easy but it is easier than it was five years ago.

You can write blogs on the internal Intranet and work out loud (WOL) about the idea’s potential value, what it would take to make it happen, and asking for input from colleagues to refine the idea.

If you don’t yet know about the Working Out Loud concept, I urge you to learn more. It’s a BIG idea that is starting to reshape how people work, how new ideas develop, what it means to collaborate and innovate, and, of course, reach that 10% so new ideas catch on.

Check out John Stepper’s Working Out Loud blog to learn more about the concept, and get some useful articles about how to start incorporating this practice into how you work.

Of course, depending on the idea, you can also consider using external social channels to write about the concept, get ideas, ask for help and connect with people at work on these channels.

YOUR GOAL: Make the idea stronger by involving more people and by involving more people get to the 10% tipping point.

But what if my boss gets upset?

Your boss may feel uncomfortable with you Working Out Loud and socializing ideas with people outside his chain of command.  What happens if she pushes back and asks you to stop?

  •  First, acknowledge the discomfort and empathize: “I see this makes you uncomfortable….”
  •  Reassure her that the idea supports what the organization values or a shared goal.
  • Then explain how you’re trying to learn more about the viability of a possible idea and trying to get a sense of what would be needed for it to be successful.   Initiative, learning and research are valued in most organizations.
  • If you work in an organization espousing the need for greater collaboration, innovation, empowerment, or employee engagement explain that this is exactly what you’re doing.
  •  Invite your boss into the process so she can, too, can learn about the developing concept. Maybe she wants to follow you on Twitter?  Get alerts when a new blog post comes out?  Join the project community?  In the spirit of openness and Working Out Loud, don’t hide, invite.

And if you’re the boss?

  • Appreciate that you have someone in your organization with ideas and the courage and initiative to put them out there and get frank feedback.  (THIS is employee engagement at its best.)
  • Make it safe for your team member to keep going. Encourage and ask how you can be helpful.
  • Chill about a bad idea making you look bad. If people don’t like your team member’s idea, they are not going to get behind it.  The wisdom of the crowd will breathe life in or out of the idea.  Your job is to help your team members grow and achieve outcomes, not control how your team member learns, gets input and builds organizational support.
  •  Know that this is the future of work and a much better way of vetting possibilities than the traditional slow and often exhausting meeting-after-meeting approach. Be grateful that someone is helping you learn the value of working out loud and introducing ideas in new ways. Your team member is doing you a favor by helping you become more relevant.

The Cowboy Trail

While many will head to the popular Banff and Lake Louise this summer, I am learning about the alternative routes.

The Smith Dorrien Spray Trail, The Dinosaur Trail and the Cowboy Trail sound like they are just off the beaten path enough for this cowgirl rebel to find wonder and creative renewal.

Stop the worrying: manage your boss

“What’s your biggest obstacle when you try to introduce new ideas or improve things at work?”

That’s one of our favorite questions to ask people who come to our  Rebels at Work talks and workshops.

The number one obstacle: My Boss. (The second is fear.)

So what do you do if you’re championing a new idea? Learn how to manage your boss, particularly in these two ways:

  1. Understand what most worries your boss and find ways to ease those worries.
  2. Build credibility and trust with your boss.

Chart managing boss jpegBuild credibility with your boss

  1. Don’t mock your boss:  Whatever you do, don’t criticize your boss for being cowardly or too concerned about her own job security, because after all, that’s only human. The fact that you both want job security may even be a good way to develop a common understanding. Neither of you want to hurt your careers. If you can establish that as a given, perhaps your boss can begin evaluating your ideas on their merit.
  1. Don’t go over your boss’ head: This can seem like the only option if your boss is recalcitrant, particularly if he forbids you to discuss your ideas any further. Going over your boss’s head is like trying to draw to an inside straight in poker: the chances that it will turn out well are very slim and, when it doesn’t work, you end up with the worst cards at the table. Once a rebel shows one member of a management team that he can’t be trusted, he has almost certainly tarnished his reputation with every other boss in the organization. If you decide to do this anyway and it turns out badly, apologize sincerely and profusely. It’s your only hope.
  1. Don’t worry about your boss stealing your idea: We often hear rebels complain that management took their ideas and didn’t give them enough credit. Our take? When a manager likes a rebel’s idea enough to steal it, that’s a rebel win. As rebels, we often have to swallow our pride and savor the internal satisfaction that comes from knowing that we planted the seed.  If it’s any consolation, know that as a rebel you are likely to have new ideas, spot emerging trends, or figure out problems unimaginable today. Our creativity and vision form the pattern of our lives. They are a renewable resource we can depend on. Our creativity is our safety net.