Calling bullshit

I call bullshit jpegI’ve had ridiculous years before, but never a year of bullshit.  Well, half a year to be more precise.

Here’s how all the bullshit started.

In June I was having dinner with a  close friend from college whom I hadn’t seen in 36 years, catching him up about my life and talking about all that I’ve done and accomplished.

“Lois, stop the bullshit,” he said.

What? Me?!

In other words, he felt that I was trying to impress him, which in truth may have been one of my defaults over the years. I never knew it was so obvious. (Or maybe it’s not, except to people who really know us.)

Being called on bullshit in June, I started to pay much closer attention to it. In myself and others.  Now I see it everywhere, especially in business situations.

Bullshit, according to philosopher Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University, is a lot like humbug but a less polite word.  Both mean false talk or behavior, absent sense or meaning. In verb forms they mean deceiving.

We love confident people

I don’t think most people at work are intent on deceiving others. But our society sees confidence and certainty as positive, desirable attributes.  Most of us have bought into the belief that confident people are successful people. By confidence in this context I mean the Merriam-Webster definition:  The quality or state of being certain :  certitude <they had every confidence of success>

We buy from confident sales people. We believe confident coaches, consultants and “thought leaders.” We want to follow confident leaders. We glow when teachers tell us that our children “exude confidence.”

But how much of all that confidence is just a veneer over uncertainty?  How much of it is “faking it until you can make it?” How much of it is bullshit, deceiving ourselves and others and hoping to God that we can deliver on what we’re saying?

My hunch is quite a bit.

What if we revealed our Dark Sides?

So what might happen if we exposed more of our uncertainty and vulnerability? Would people buy less from us? Choose to work for a different company or boss? Not pay attention to our ideas? Would they judge us less competent?

Or might they like and trust us more because of our honesty?

I’m participating in a program this month (Quest 2015) to help us creative types look at how we can lead a more creative life in 2015. On Saturday morning a prompt came from Todd Kashdan, a psychology professor and author of the book, “The Upside of Your Dark Side.

The Upside of the Dark Side: Which emotions do you feel most guilty about having? Afraid that others might find out? How could you spend this year trying to be open to the emotional window that allows you to be courageous?”

Whoa, Nellie. “There’s no way I’m going to share my most guilty emotions publicly,”  I posted to the Quest 2015 community Facbook page.  Sorry, gang. I like this community writing and sharing, but I’m not going there. I don’t do darkness. I’m the positive, optimistic chick. And, good grief, what would people think if they knew my real dark side?

Todd replied to my “NO WAY!” right away.

Thank you for sharing this, Lois.  Let me share two thoughts from the science:

  1. Shared pain serves as social glue. And binds us into greater intimacy than almost anything else. Sharing our vulnerabilities is a sign of strength.
  2. What we know is anxiety, sadness, anger, embarrassment, guilt, and boredom aren’t the problems. Our unwillingness to be in contact with these emotions and our unwillingness to listen to the information they provide is the problem.

What if we made space for these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings and still moved in the direction of what matters most? What are our intuitive emotional reactions telling us that we can learn from?

You’ll be amazed at what happens when you are open to them. What if our deep dark secrets are the same as everyone else?

Getting real is really hard

So after a few hours, I wrote my “Dark Side” story, shared it with the group, and turned off the computer.

You can watch and praise Brene Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability, but to lay bare your vulnerabilities is Really. Hard. Scary. Work. That’s why most people avoid it like an IRS Audit.

But guess what? Nothing bad happened. Only good. Ripping my soul open helped people see the real me.  Instead of judgment, I got encouragement and compassion, and a whole lot of love from people I have never met.  I’ve also seen some new light in my dark places.

All of this leads me to consider:

  • How can I show up more as my real self, making it safe for other people to come as they are?
  • How can I pay as much attention to the information from people’s emotions as I do to research data?
  • How can I more regularly call bullshit and invite people into honest conversations that need to be had to solve important problems?

Note:  Many of us rebels are good at calling BS, especially when we're angry. But how could we call BS in a way that doesn't whip up a shitstorm?  What skills can we put into practice so that we have honest conversations and not "I'm right, you're wrong" debates with people who don't agree with our ideas?

  • How as a society can we stop rewarding the bull shitters?

This is a one person at a time change, although some individuals can influence thousands. A recent client incident brings this alive for me.

The executive vice president of a Fortune 100 company was explaining the eight behaviors important to shaping their corporate culture.

“To be honest, I’m only good at these three behaviors, and I really struggle with these two,” he explained during a company Town Hall.

People’s reaction to his talk was off the “employee engagement” charts. “I never heard an executive be that honest and self-aware – especially at this company. I thought this was going to be another BS session on vision and values. But this one executive changed my whole view about the company because he was so truthful,” an employee told me.

The gift of calling bullshit

In all honesty, I was upset with my college friend when he called my bullshit.  Today I realize he gave me an important gift.

- See more at:

Shame on you

Shame boyShame is one of those big, ugly words. It implies that detestable, dishonorable and hugely embarrassing acts have been committed. Unlike embarrassment, shame is much more painful. Making a mistake can be embarrassing. Doing something immoral or disgraceful is shameful.

Carmen and I have written a lot about how uncomfortable it is to be a rebel at work, asking frank questions and suggesting new approaches that upset “business as usual.”

But we were truly taken aback during a recent workshop when we asked people about their biggest fears and so many started talking about SHAME. One, and then two and then several people said that their bosses had made them feel shameful for speaking up about issues in their workplaces.

Social scientists have done extensive research around the issue of why employees fear speaking up, coining terms like Organizational Silence, the Mum Effect, and the Spiral of Silence. (See the book “Voice and Silence in Organizations.”)

Despite the awareness of the problem and its causes, this fear of speaking up at work remains pervasive. Not because people are afraid of looking dumb or making people (and themselves) feel uncomfortable.

But because they are made to feel shameful by their bosses.

The Shame Game jpeg

The sad fact is that most people who speak up at work CARE about their organization more than most. They want to make things better. To consciously or unconsciously make them feel that speaking up is a disgraceful, improper act feeds a culture of fear and silence.

And no amount of money spent on employee engagement is going to fix that.

Perhaps managers’ 360 feedback surveys should ask questions like:

  • What do I do to make people feel comfortable raising uncomfortable issues about our organization?
  • How fearful are you about raising uncomfortable issues with me? (1 to 10 scale)
  • How often, if ever, have I made you feel guilty about speaking up and raising unpopular views?

And perhaps it’s time to write down questions  and comments that fly around the workplace that imply shame. Keep a list, and then share it with your boss or the corporate ombudsman or HR to have an honest conversation.

  • Why can’t you be a team player like everyone else around here? What’s your problem?
  • Do you really have to bring this up again? Why can’t you just let it go? All you’re doing is causing trouble and diverting us from our real work.
  • You should know better. Really, at your age and at this point in your career it’s kind of shocking that you can’t understand how the business really works.
  • You’re kidding me, right? You actually think that…

If we really care about our organizations, we’ll continue to suggest ways to improve – however uncomfortable they may be.

We rebels may also have to be the ones to raise the need for developing an important organizational behavior: learning how to consider new ideas, without being defensive or resorting to destructive behaviors like shaming people.

And if people refuse to learn this skill and continue to make us feel shameful? Well, that’s a signal that it’s time to find a new job.





Do Something

solve problems vs fixateInnovation managers from two Fortune 50 companies got together a few weeks ago and the conversation devolved into just how frustrating internal barriers are to getting anything substantive done. Yesterday nurses from a prestigious Boston hospital group talked about patient care and the conversation turned to how impossible it is to improve health care because vice presidents are making decisions without any input from the people working directly with patients. In other words, the nurses.

These conversations can be pretty intense. There are enormous barriers to getting things done inside large organizations.

But talking over and over again about all the obstacles, politics and bureaucracy doesn't help make anything better.  Nor does it make us feel better. Dwelling on what we can't do saps us.

I asked the nurses what they had suggested to the vice presidents.  In what ways could the nurses be part of the VP discussions about important decisions affecting patients?


The nurses are so stuck in thinking that the "hierarchy is the hierarchy" that they hadn't even considered proposing possible solutions.  " What if," I proposed, "you suggested that the nurses and VPs get together every three months for a session to discuss the issues and talk about different scenarios to consider?  Maybe you suggest doing this type of collaborative session twice as an experiment to see if it provides more value. If it works, it continues.  If it doesn't the VPs can go back to their old ways."

Wishing that things were different is a waste of time.

Similarly, one of the Fortune 50 innovation managers finally said, "Aren't we wasting time wishing things could be different. What if we recognize how it really is and work on a success plan based on that reality?"

People across industries are frustrated with how hard it is do change things at work.  The opportunity for all of us  is to create possible solutions -- regardless of our title or "rank" in the hierarchy -- and suggest ways to test them out.

And maybe a way to get started is to NOT to focus on "disrupt the industry, change the world, innovate the business model" kind of ideas.

Sometimes big change starts just by getting the right people together -- like hospital administrators and nurses -- to talk about the real issues.

Magical thinking may lead people to believe that their thoughts by themselves can bring about effects in the world or that thinking something corresponds with doing it.

Andrew Colman, Dictionary of Psychology




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.

Millennials at Work

Triumph-gabriele25    “I’ll never have as many new ideas as I do now, and yet no one wants to listen to me.” “What really bothers me is the lack of honesty. When they interviewed me they said they  were interested in my creativity and new   ideas, and yet now that I’m on the job, I realize  that if I challenge the way things are done, I’ll just get slapped.”

“I really want to help the government do better, but I’m afraid of getting trapped in a  bureaucracy.”

“He told me to be quiet and wait my turn. And in 20 years I’d be in a position to change  things. And so I left.”

This is how many Millennials describe to us their experiences and fears about today’s workplace. They care about making a difference, but just aren’t prepared to sacrifice their souls in the process. They’ve heard all the talk about how they have unrealistic expectations and should just wait their turn and pay their dues.  But what should they do, they ask us, if they think they have good ideas right now? Why doesn’t the organization want to take advantage of new ideas and fresh thinking during such times of disruptive innovation?

Why indeed! Although Lois and I are decades past our entry points into the workforce, we both recall acutely how it felt when we first realized that the organizations we worked for weren’t necessarily interested in our best ideas. Some of our best ideas were horrible or naïve or both, but a few of them weren’t so bad really.

The cost for organizations of ignoring the ideas of your new hires seems much higher today. When I started work in 1978, the technology in my office hadn’t changed in 20 years, maybe not even since World War II. I wrote on an old typewriter that had been around for years. I used a land line. And a ball point, although if you were really cool you insisted on a fountain pen. Today, however, Millennials bring into most work places a native familiarity with new ways of thinking and doing that organizations say they really want and need. It really doesn’t even make sense to ask them to wait five years for their voices to matter, let alone 20.

You can even make the case that if organizations really want to boost their creativity and innovation, they should go out of their way to harvest the ideas of their younger, newer employees. After all, young men and women in their 20s have given birth to some of the most convention-shattering ideas in human history.

  • Einstein was 26 when he published his paper on the theory of relativity.
  • Isaac Newton postulated the theory of gravity when he was 23.
  • The founding generation of the United States was famously young. On 4 July 1776, Betsy Ross was 24, Nathan Hale 21, James Madison 25, and Tom Jefferson was 33. (Ben Franklin of course was 70!)
  • A 27-year old Coco Chanel opened her first boutique in France.
  • JK Rowling got the idea for Harry Potter at the age of 25.
  • By the time he was 25, Mark Zuckerburg had been running Facebook for five years.
  • And it was a 29 year-old Elon Musk who founded the company that would eventually become Paypal.

These individuals either worked outside organizations or founded them. I suspect, in fact, that a correlation exists between the growth and importance of organizations in the last 100 years and the popularity of concepts such as paying your dues and biding your time.

So while we have a tendency to write about individuals who have been struggling for many years to make organizational change happen, it’s time to acknowledge that you can find yourself a Rebel at Work within the first few weeks of your first job. Those “wiser and older” will tell Millennials to just cool it. But the better option for the smart organization may be to ask Millennials to “bring it on.”

The Many Faces of Bureaucratic Black Belts

We've written about Bureaucratic Black Belts over the years, and even distinguished one subtype--the benevolent bureaucratic black belt. But we're thinking there's a lot more to be said about BBB's and more subtypes to discover. We'll start by identifying three archetypes we've been thinking about but we know there's many more. We welcome your contributions. First, let's remind ourselves of who BBB's are and what they do. Bureaucratic Black Belts are those individuals in an organization who have mastered all the ins and outs of both its bureaucratic rules and bureaucratic culture. They are frequently the Professor Moriarty to the Rebel Sherlock, a clever operator, a bureaucratic mastermind, who understands the bureaucracy much better than the Rebel at Work. Asked to figure out how to accomplish a particular goal, they can, like an excellent navigation system, identify multiple routes through the bureaucracy. What they're usually not so good at is coming up with an original destination. Many BBB’s act as if maneuvering the bureaucracy is its own reward, like solving an English garden maze where, when you’re done, you’re right back where you started from. Most BBB's believe, almost without thinking, that preservation, sameness, and symmetry are the ultimate purposes of organizational life.

Three BBB archetypes we've been thinking about:

The Wind-Surfers. Wind-Surfers are somewhat rare, we think, because they pair strong personal ambition with bureaucratic finesse. Unlike many BBBs who are support/administrative specialists, Wind-Surfers usually directly execute the organization’s mission. Their strong personal ambitions have led them to figure out every possible angle to ascend the hierarchy. Although early in their careers they often held convictions about how the organization could improve, over time and usually, in our estimation, without conscious awareness, their instincts for climbing to the top sublimated their desire to improve mission execution. Of course, they would deny this if confronted and insist they are just playing for the right time and opportunity. But the opportunity clock never seems to strike. And in the meantime their views on what the organization needs to do shifts with the prevailing leadership winds.

The organizational astuteness of Wind-Surfers is always prized by more adventurous leaders in the organization, who need the support of BBBs to get their own initiatives implemented. Wind-Surfers are always happy to do the bidding of those above them in the hierarchy, but are reluctant to back any new ideas that came from below them in the organization.

The Tugboat Pilots. These BBB’s make their mark in the organization through their ability to navigate any difficult organizational terrain, whether it be new leadership, bad publicity, or new administrations.  Like mountain goats, their first step, i.e. their first bureaucratic response, is always spot-on. They can recall every detail of the organization’s history and leverage it to their advantage.

Tugboat Pilots are masters of context and of reading people. They seem to have recognized early on in their careers that their innate skills were best suited to guiding others, and they embraced that mission with enthusiasm and sincerity. Tugboat Pilots are motivated to arrange productive meetings for the organization, thus Rebels at Work should always consider their advice. Unlike Wind-Surfers, Tugboat Pilots do not become BBBs because of their desire to advance their careers; most of them see themselves as the guardians of the organization’s well-being. They have watched several leaders come and go and so understand the damage that even good intentions could cause and know not to get too caught up in any one change agenda. Tugboat Pilots are among the best BBB’s for rebels at work to befriend. If they believe your intentions are good, that you too are motivated more by helping the organization than by ego, there’s a good chance they will try to help you. But beware, the instincts of Tugboat pilots are likely to be more conservative than yours. Taking a chance in dangerous waters is just not their style. Keep that in mind when deciding how much of their advice to take on board.

Bureaucratic Green Belts. We think this type of BBB, actually a BGB, can do more good than harm. We call them green belts because, while they are masters of one particular set of bureaucratic processes, they are not defenders of the entire bureaucracy and have not yet adopted a complete organizational mindset. In fact some bureaucratic green belts never become BBBs, and instead devote their careers to defending just the particular processes they own, sometimes from the rest of the organization.

Rebels at Work can too easily dismiss Bureaucratic Green Belts, who often can have important insight into the implementation risks of their proposals. Rebels at Work can assume that green belts won't understand their vision but instead we've found that they can relish applying their knowledge and skills to an entirely new set of puzzles. If a rebel change agenda touches upon some of the processes that a green belt owns, some early conversations with that individual can win you some important insights and warn you of problematic aspects of your ideas.

OK--now it's your turn. What types of BBBs have you encountered?

Communicating new ideas

clarity illustration Most rebels do a great job at bringing passion and enthusiasm when talking about their ideas, which is essential for getting people’s attention. In addition to this positive energy, there are a handful of communications fundamentals to master so that people understand your idea, consider its merits, and lend their support.

Show what’s at stake

To get people’s attention, frame your idea in terms of what people care about. Show how the idea relates to what they want.

If there’s nothing at stake, if there are no emotionally compelling risks or rewards for acting on your idea, people will probably ignore it. A common mistake we’ve seen is that people launch into the details of how their new idea will work before doing the much more important work of communicating why it matters so much.

So step one is jolting people awake to understand why your idea matters so much to what’s important to them. The more relevant your idea is to what everyone wants to achieve, the more likely people will consider it. The more your idea rescues people from a fear or frustration that is getting more acute every day, the more they will consider it. Similarly, the more widely and/or deeply felt the issue or topic, the more likely people will consider it.

Paint a picture of what could be

Emotions get people to consider an idea and influence decisions. Paint a picture of how your idea creates a better situation. Expose the gap between how things work today and how they could work. Make the status quo unappealing.

Paint a picture of how much better things will be with your ideas in place. You want to make the status quo unappealing and the alternative a much better option, so much better that it will be worth the work to get there. Walk people through how things will work differently with your new approach. Help them feel this new way of doing things, evoking a positive emotional response. Remember: people make decisions based on emotions, either the desire to flee from pain or to seek relief and rewards.

Show that the idea can work

Highlight what it will take to be successful and where the greatest risks lie. Show the milestones that will need to be achieved. This demonstrates that you’ve done your homework and thought through the risks, uncertainties, and practicalities.  People support ideas (and people) that they think will be successful.  

Show the gap between the ideal and where things are today, and briefly highlight the milestones for closing the gap and getting to the ideal. Avoid communicating all the details. You don’t want or need to drill down into specific details in a meeting where you’re trying to get buy in and support. We’ve seen too many great concepts die an early death because the blizzard of “how it will work” details buried big idea.

You do, however, need to have done your research so that the milestones you present are realistic, doable, and make sense based on how things get done where you work. This makes people comfortable. It helps them see that while anything new is fraught with uncertainty, you have been thinking about the risks and have thought about ways to minimize them.

Build support

Mobilize people to support the idea. If 10% of the people in an organization believe in an idea, it is highly likely it will be adopted.

Before doing any formal presentations, talk with people you like and trust at work about the “what’s at stake” and “what could be.”

Communicating a new idea is about developing relationships, learning from others, asking for their help in making the idea better, and enlisting their support to be able to make the idea happen. A mistake rebels make is thinking that the way to get an idea approved is to present it to the management team, which will either say yes or no.

The way to bring an idea to life is helping people see the value in the idea for them, and asking them to help be part of the effort. Socialize your idea with many people, and work hard to get those one or two first followers who will also take ownership of the idea and start to talk about it.   The first followers provide credibility to you and the idea and often can be more influential than anyone in positional authority.

Once the first followers get behind the idea, work together to influence 10 percent of the people in your organization.

Why 10 percent? Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when 10 percent of the people in a group believe in an idea, the majority of the people will adopt their belief

“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,” says Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”

If there are 200 people in your organization, that means you need to get 20 people behind your idea, willing to stand up to the powers that be to say, “We should do this.” With just 20 people supporting an idea, it is likely to be adopted. That’s not so daunting, is it?

Even if there are 1,000 people in your department or community, 10 percent support means 100 people. Not all 1,000: you need just 100 to get leadership’s attention, interest others in considering an alternative new way,  and get funding for an experiment.

So create a tribe or community, not just a PowerPoint presentation. Being a rebel is not about being a hero or lone wolf; it’s about creating better ways to work with and for our co-workers. The energy, ideas and support from a collaborative group are much more

Be positive and succinct

Show enthusiasm, but don’t get so carried away talking that you fail to listen for others’ thoughts and good ideas. How we communicate is as important as what we communicate.

When you embark on your effort to change THAT WHICH REFUSES TO BUDGE, act as if success is just around the corner. Be cheerful! Be emotional! Show some enthusiasm. There's nothing less appealing than a dour reformer.

On the other hand, don’t let your enthusiasm turn you into a boor. We’ve all probably sat through presentations where the person drones on and on. There are flow charts, project timelines, quotes, charts so detailed that you can hardly read them, and a running commentary that never stops for ideas or questions. Don’t be that person.

And if people don't like what you have to say?

If you’ve communicated clearly about how to solve a relevant problem and people don’t like your ideas, it’s wise to pause and assess whether the issue is important enough to keep going, despite the lukewarm reception.

If the answer is, “Yes, this change effort can make a big difference,” or “The organization is at risk if it doesn’t move in this area,” it’s time to learn one of the most important rebel lessons of all: how to navigate controversy and conflict.

What else?

What else, rebel friends, have you found to be helpful in communicating new ideas inside your organization?

Be prepared

Planning "I read your bio and watched your video about rebels," the CEO said to me yesterday during our first meeting. "I just want to let you know that we squash that kind of person around here."

What an interesting introduction to a company hiring me to facilitate their growth strategy planning.  Like all good change agents, I was curious about why this executive disliked those brave souls who bring up new and sometimes uncomfortable ideas.

"I just can't stand it when people throw out these big, radical ideas and haven't thought them through or done any research.  You can't just say, 'We should move into this market or expand into this new product category.'  What are the implications to operations?  What kind of sales support will we need? What will it take to hire and train the right people?  What will be the impact on cash flow?  When might we see a return? One year? Five years? Ten years?   I realize you can't have all the answers, but when someone presents an idea they better have done some homework or they'll lose all credibility."

The lesson: rebels and change makers need to do their homework, be prepared, and understand how to sequence their ideas. As Carmen wrote in the post "Top Ten Mistakes of Rebels at Work:"

Mistake #2. Putting things in the wrong order.

Ironically, successful Rebels at Work must be able to mimic good bureaucrat behavior. Specifically, they have to approach their change agenda in a disciplined fashion and make careful and thoughtful decisions about how they will sequence their activities. What do they need to do first; what can come next; what can only be attempted after they have reached a critical mass of supporters.

A common rebel sequencing error, one in fact which I’ve been guilty of more than once, is advertising your reform intentions before you have assessed the organizational landscape in which you are operating. In the government making your goals public before you have a firm action plan only gives fair warning to all those who will oppose you.  They will sharpen their passive-aggressive claws to stop you before you even get started. There’s much for a rebel to do before they give fancy speeches or—God forbid—put together their Powerpoint deck.


Making change real after SXSW

Carmen and I enjoyed leading a conversation among Rebels at Work who attended our session at SXSW, all of whom worked for organizations with 100 or more people. Making change as an entrepreneur is challenging. Making change inside organizations is difficult, with many more obstacles. Though Twitter crashed during our session, here are some of the Tweets and topics that resonated among the change makers at the session.

Do your organizational homework

  • Does your idea actually jive with the values of your organization?
  • Rebels at work need to understand what makes the organization work, what actually makes it tick. Listen for the secret code.
  • You need to link your ideas to what’s important to the organization and answer the SO WHAT?
  • Do your homework: will the idea actually work? And will it work within my organization?
  • What ideas most align with your company’s values? Go for a quick win to spur positive change.

Don’t go it alone

  • Rebels at work can’t be lone wolves. You need to build support for your ideas. You need 10% of the organization to back you.
  • It’s important to do your homework when trying to effect change. Who will support you? Who will join you?
  • Rebels don’t do it alone. Find your team when introducing your ideas – the thinker, the doer, the planner.
  • Make friends with the Bureaucratic Black Belts.

Getting ideas adopted

  • Context, relevancy and emotion create meaning and can help your ideas get adopted.
  • Ideas alone are not enough. They need to be followed up with a “so what” and “now what.”
  • Change happens in 3 steps: dreaming (coming up with ideas),  discovery (external and internal research), and determination (seeing it through)
  • Avoid falling in love with your idea. When you're in love with an idea you don't see its flaws.
  • Sometimes long-hanging fruit is rotten. (Why the adage of starting with the low-hanging fruit is not always wise.)

Useful habits and behaviors

  • Rebels: our velocity scares people. Be patient with people who move slower and bring them along gradually.
  •  Focus on positivity, and remember that all change starts slowly.
  •  Rebels need to do homework. Get smart. Expect challenging questions. Know what people want.
  •  Spend enough time staging your ideas. Sequencing uber important when introducing an idea.
  •  Sometimes you need to cut your losses.

Conflict and obstacles

  • Work for a micro-manager? Figure out if they’re afraid of uncertainty or afraid of risk, and respond accordingly.
  • Uncertainty and risk aversion are not the same. Need to understand what’s motivating the fear and get past it.
  • How to work with micro-managers: usually they’re insecure about not knowing what’s going on. Build their trust.
  • A good question to ask when your idea gets shot down, “ What part of my idea did you like the least?” Opens up conversation.
  • Whens someone raises a concern in a meeting, it means they are at least engaged.
  • How to get buy in from someone who always says no? Link to something they care about.  Develop a relationship with them.

Here is a link to the handout we shared at the session.

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.


The appeal of subtraction

Erasing a path You may have heard the self-help gurus talk about how paralyzed people have become by all their stuff, jammed into their houses, garages, storage units.  It's overrunning people's lives and making them miserable.

The same thing is happening at work. We have so many programs, processes, special initiatives, goals, strategic mandates, task forces, and focus areas that people are overwhelmed.

I recently met with a company task force that was trying to figure out a way to communicate  the brand messages, corporate vision, company purpose, employee values, and four new "pathway to success" programs, all with their own titles and acronyms.

"What should we do," they asked.

"Subtract," I said.

No one cares about all your messages and programs.  It's too much.  What are the one or two, maybe three things, that will guide and possibly inspire your tens of thousands of employees in their work?  What matters for what you're trying to achieve?

The kill your babies message is never popular, but to move forward we have to look at what we can let go -- and do far less of.

This is especially important when rebels are trying to introduce big new ideas.  Leaders are reluctant to keep adding without some subtracting.  There's not enough budget and the "add add add" mentality creates bloated bureaucracy that slows everyone and everything down.

A new library director at a major United States university presented an inspiring vision for what the library could become.  The vision, the value, the thinking were superb. The funding needed to realize the vision was $12 million.  The provost said, "No."

The library director went back and found a way to cut $7 million from the existing budget. When she went back to the provost he said, "Here's the other $5 million you need."

If your big change idea is stuck in budget approval limbo, ask yourself,

"What can we subtract to get the support to do what's most important?"

Avoid distractions from Benevolent Bureaucrats

Climbing wallWe've written much about Bureaucratic Black Belts, those defenders of the status quo who try to stop rebels from achieving change.  But there's another type of person at work who can slow you and your project down too, The Benevolent Bureaucrat. These kinder, gentler bureaucrats tend to be people who see that your change idea is becoming a Big Deal with senior leadership and want to be associated with the Big Deal in some way. Yet they don't know enough about your initiative to provide substantive value so they pick on small things.

For example, HR may step in and say that to succeed you should use their new interactive training methodology and world class learning platform. Or the former journalist in the marketing department may nit pick language describing the initiative. "Is this really the right word to describe what you're trying to achieve?" Or the IT people want more meetings to discuss how to establish baseline Intranet analytics so that the program measurement will be as accurate as possible.

Before long a rebel is stuck in bureaucratic meetings that can slow the project progress WAY down.

What to do?

Ask people for to give you their recommendations in writing by a certain date, the sooner the better so that you can stay on track and focus on the most important next steps for  advancing your initiative. Often they'll miss the deadline.

Thank them for their ideas and tell them you'll circle back to them when you think the timing is right to focus on training or wordsmithing or analytics.

By all means keep going. Don't let the Benevolent Bureaucrats' desire to be somehow involved slow you down.

Your success is about achieving results important to your organization  Going to unnecessary meetings with nice people whose ideas aren't especially relevant slows down the time to success and results.

So exactly how LONG should you wait for Change?

The other day I was in a conversation with a long-time rebel (first-time caller) who has been tirelessly constructing a radical new work practice for an organization. For years. Except that now he's gotten kind of tired. Perhaps you might even say fed up. His ideas are not really moving beyond the prototype stage and it's been...years. "People keep telling me that 'Change Takes Time' but my question is: How much time is TOO LONG?"

As a card-carrying member of the "Change Takes Time Fraternity", I realized I had never asked myself that question. Sure, real change takes time but when does that truth become just empty words for the Status Quo to hide behind?

My friend had worked some of this out for himself.

"Many organizations realized the need to move into a different model at around the same time. A decade ago. Most of them now are well underway into making the transition. Some have completed it. But we're still futzing around."

"That's how I know our change is taking too long."

Rebels need to have an idea (maybe even a timetable?) for how long it takes to complete certain types of change in comparable organizations. They need to use this information (cleverly) to establish expectations not just for themselves but also for the organization around them. Because in most change initiatives, the Status Quo remains in fact the most important player.

I can imagine it would be quite effective to let the bureaucratic black belts know what the typical transition time is for comparable change initiatives. Status Quo leaders may not always buy the idea for change but they are quite inclined to support the need to keep to a schedule. And talking explicitly about how long you expect something to take and "how long too long is" will also prevent the passive-aggressives in your organization from availing themselves of one of their favorite techniques--using the unmonitored passage of time to wait the rebels out.

Finally, having a clearer framework in your mind to help you determine when change is taking too long will help you avoid rebel burnout. Rebel self-care is essential and yet most rebels are horrible at it. We really do suffer from the sunk costs phenomenon, particularly because our sunk costs usually represent emotional and psychological investments.

Rebels sometimes also need to think about whether they are prepared to stay in their position long enough to see a particular change through. Are you strong enough to hack away at your organization's undergrowth for let's say five years to make something happen?  Be honest when you answer that question. Because change takes time.


Rebel Lessons from Wendy Davis

Wendy DavisTexas state senator Wendy Davis is a rebel at work. Changing the rules by playing by the rules. Her 13-hour non-stop filibuster on Tuesday to stop a piece of legislation being passed is an example of how rebels create change.   Regardless of your views on the issue, Senator Davis’ strategy is an example of how to take on the Bureaucratic Black Belts at work, in government, in our education and health care institutions. (Hint: if an organization is referred to as an institution, rebels are especially needed and need to be especially canny.)

Tuesday’s example in Texas showed that:

  • You have to play within the system to change the system.
  • You need supporters. You can’t go it alone. Her supporters filled the legislative gallery, supporting her throughout those 13 hours of non-stop speaking on the issue.
  • You will feel discomfort, but discomfort means you’re being true to your convictions. Aside from the intellectual challenge, Senator Davis could not go to the bathroom or take a drink of water in 13 hours. She had to stay on her feet talking about that one issue without pause.
  • The stronger the force of the opposition, in this case conservative Republicans, the more vulnerable they are. The more force and the shorter the fuse of people trying to block you, the greater your opportunity. This signals they have likely run out of strategies and are starting to feel at a loss. This is the cue that it’s likely a good time for rebels to act.  (See Mistake #2 in Top 10 Mistakes Rebels Make.)
  • The drama of the act, in this case the filibuster, is not the end. It is just one action of many more that will be needed.  Sometimes rebels get caught up in the spectacle and drama and forget that the hard work is still to come, and it’s likely to be the small, tedious things that will push change over the finish line.

I’ve always had a hunch that Texan women are especially good rebels.  They can be sweet and mean, getting their opposition comfortable and then bringing out a formidable no-nonsense will to get things done. It’s only a hunch, but Wendy Davis  sure convinced me that I may be on to something.

Don't go it alone

We can't do it alone,

whether it's changing things at work

or living through personal challenges.  

As Carmen and I have written here so often, don't go it alone as a rebel at work. You need allies, to both accomplish change and stay positive.

While I know this to be true, I have been guilty in trying to go it alone.  I am the fire-starter, the organizer, the person who gets things done.  My  husband has a similar mindset. So when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease two years ago, we found one of the most renown Parkinson's neurologists, got the medication,  read the books, and decided that we wouldn't let Parkinson's define our lives.

It was with great apprehension that we went to a five-day a "wellness retreat" with 57 other people with Parkinson's and their care partners last week at Kripalu, the yoga and spiritual center in the hills of Western Massachusetts.  Since the program was sponsored by the National Parkinson's Foundation, we thought that we would learn a great deal  from medical experts about research, symptoms, medications, resources, and what to be aware of as the condition progresses. And we did.

But what I really came away with is less anxiety and more confidence that I can do this, no matter how wonky the disease may affect my husband.  The wisdom, practical know-how, and generosity of those 57 people in the retreat was a stark reminder that it's better not to try to take on difficult situations alone.  There's always much to learn from people  who know more and have experienced worse. One self-less act really brought home this message.

Now to the one self-less act. Yoga Dance

Selfishly I wanted my husband to participate in a noontime event called Yoga Dance, open to everyone at Kripalu not just the PD folks. It's like a wild-ass dance party with great music and free form dancing. Makes me feel like 19 again. I asked each man in our PD wellness workshop if he would go to yoga dance, explaining that if a bunch of guys went my husband would too.  They all agreed, including Ray who was having a particularly tough day with his PD.

Ray and his partner Richard went into the big dance room, music blaring, lots of athletic yoga people dancing like joyful fools.  Feeling very uncomfortable Ray told Richard he needed to leave, his body just couldn't move to the music.  They left the room for a few minutes and came back, where Ray tried again.  He and Richard soon left a second time, and then they came back in for a third try.

Ray was upset that he couldn't move. Richard was upset that Ray was upset. It was a horrible, unsettling incident that reminded them both of the realities of Parkinson's.

While they struggled my husband and I danced like young lovers. Ray and Richard didn't know, but it was our 30th wedding anniversary.

Genuine collaboration is what Ray did coming to that lunchtime yoga dance.  He came  from a deep well of thoughtfulness and wanting to help me.  Even though it was so, so hard for him.

As I reenter the "real" world, I keep with me a new question as a rebel at work:

What would Ray do?



Obsession and Controversy: One is a Rebel's Friend; the Other his Enemy

Can you guess which is which? I was reflecting the other day about how, once we become seized with the need for an important change in our organizations, the issue can become all-encompassing. You can't stop thinking it about. You become obsessed.

You start bringing up the topic in almost any conversation at work. Any meeting that doesn't address it just seems like a colossal waste of time. I know when I was a rebel at my old agency I had a tendency to bring up my existential angst at what really where the most inappropriate moments. Perhaps we were having a modest conversation about reforming the performance appraisal system. It didn't matter. I would find a way to inject some comment about the need for fundamental change.


You know, people can get pretty tired of that. They start avoiding you. Before you know it, you have a reputation for being cynical and negative. This is not a guess. It's a fact. I lived it.

Here is my depiction of The Rebel Arc--the stages of being a rebel. (This is a Beta version, so all ideas, as always, welcomed.) The line between advocacy and obsession is admittedly a fine one, but only for the rebel herself.  Her audience immediately senses the difference between the two, and reacts accordingly.

So be sensitive to how often you talk about your big idea. Rebels will have more credibility if they are seen as still functioning members of the team, and not as one-trick ponies. Choose your opportunities to talk about your ideas judiciously.

Now to the topic of controversy. It's not up on the chart because it's a consequence of rebel actions--not a rebel stage itself. I've often spoken about how rebels need to understand that handling conflict well is a necessary skill they must develop. The precursor of conflict is, of course, controversy. As soon, if not before, you reach the top of the Rebel Arc, you will, if you have an idea that is truly challenging to the Ways Things Always Are Done, engender controversy.

Controversy is your friend! Honest! It means people have begun to pay attention.

But how rebels handle this controversy will be a key determinant of how their proposals and careers will fare. These moments of controversy offer rebels opportunities to gain new allies (and new opponents) and will help temper their ideas. Just like the status quo, your ideas are imperfect. Dismissing others' suggestions is the first step toward obsession.

One last word on the Rebel Arc. OK, so it makes being a rebel look pretty miserable. I know, I rode it all the way down during the middle part of my career.

But there are several exit ramps available.  The ideal takeoff point is just at that moment when your proposals become controversial, i.e. you have captured the attention of your organization and people are energized negatively or positively. Like anything important in life, not every factor determining the outcome is under your direct or even indirect control. Rebels that have surveyed the bureaucratic landscape will be better equipped to take advantage of the controversy by, for example, having anticipated some of the issues and by lining up key supporters who can make the rebel's argument on their behalf.  But rebels need to realize that if their ideas don't begin to gain traction, the rebels will be viewed as obsessive. That's not fatal, but negativity usually is.

Working in a bureaucracy trains us to give up on our ideas prematurely. But the danger for rebels is the opposite: hanging on to your ideas long after they no longer have a future, at least for now, in your organization. There is nothing as weak as an idea whose time has not yet come.


Get things under control

"The Cardinals are tired of reading about financial corruption, sexual improprieties and infighting at the Vatican. They want a Pope who can get things under control," explained Father Thomas Reese to Tom Ashbrook on his NPR "On Point" radio show today. When there are calls to "get things under control"  there is no hope for control.

Whether it's trying to control clergy in the Catholic Church, parents angry over school policies, or customers  tweeting unfavorable product reviews, there is no control.

When I hear "get things under control" I know it's a situation that can only be addressed by getting at root cause issues.  It's not a "handling" or crisis communications issue, it's a systemic issue requiring that the real problems be addressed.

No new Pope can get the Catholic Church "under control" without addressing some deep seated issues.

No business leader can get customers under control if customers  hate the products or customer service.

No school official can get parents under control if they feel their children are not being served.

No politician can get voters under control if they believe the politician is more interested in getting elected than representing their views.

No good can come from trying to control.