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.

DOS

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'TS

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.

CONTEXT

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.

HAVING THE CONVERSATION

Prepare

  • 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

GOOD QUESTIONS TO USE

  • 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.

Get Your Lipstick On: A Rebellious New Year Wish

Some people say listen to your body for what it needs. I say watch the shade of lipstick you’re buying to find out what you want or need.

Over the lazy holiday break a new lipstick urge came over me one day. When this flares up I fall into a black hole of reading beauty bloggers for hours, looking at colors, figuring out which ones won’t dry out my lips, and considering which colors will go with my favorite clothes. Then I order two and wait for Sephora to deliver.

Unlike many friends, I don’t trust the department store makeup people to tell me which colors are most flattering. I value advice on taxes, health and investing. When it comes to lipstick, love and the pursuit of happiness, I listen to my inner goddess, who sounds a lot like the late, great actress Ruth Gordon. Bold, brave, courageous, opinionated and occasionally shameless.

Before choosing new colors for 2017, I opened the medicine cabinet to see what I had. I found the names of my standard favorites sound a lot like Ruth, er, I mean me. (See photo) I’ve never selected lipsticks based on their names, only their color. (OK, I also consider whether they’ll keep my lips moist, be easy to apply without a mirror, and won’t bleed into those tiny, annoying lines around my lips.)

But this week I’m realizing that the lipsticks we choose may tell us what we want and need. How we want to show up in the world.

Why aren’t you wearing lipstick for me?

Years ago a boyfriend asked why I wasn’t wearing red lipstick for him.

“First of all, I wear lipstick for myself, not for anybody else,” I told him. “Second of all, what I wear subconsciously says how I’m feeling.” I was wearing “Radish,” a kind of peachy pink. The relationship went nowhere.

When I had just turned 40 my father asked me why I wasn’t wearing any lipstick. “You look better with a little lipstick,’ he gently said.

Before my “oh-my-god-is-my-father-a-sexist” brain spewed unkind words my father added, “You look more like you with lipstick.”

Alrighty, then.

Showing up

Lipstick should be about making us feel more like us. (And if it makes you feel icky, don’t wear it! )

Don’t wear it to impress, conform, or hide. But using it to play, find pleasure and fill your heart with mischief and possibilities is highly recommended.

In this morning’s New Year’s Day Journey Dance Joan showed up wearing a beautiful, bold shade of red lipstick with a sparkly silver and gold top. The kind of top you might wear to a New Year’s Eve party. But here it was 10 a.m. and Joan, who is probably 40 years older than some of the other dancers, was lighting the room with an inspiring confidence and grounded wisdom.

I asked Joan the name of her red lipstick, but she had no idea. Only that it suited her. If I had to give it a name I would call it “Just Red.” Because Joan exudes a kind of integrity, self-compassion and no-nonsense attitude.

2017: Kiss and insoumise

My new lipsticks won’t arrive for another week, but I think they’ll be right for 2017. As always, I chose by the colors. But the lipstick names reveal my New Year’s wishes.

I went with the Dior Addict line and chose two pinky/rose colors, named Kiss and Insoumise.

I suppose Kiss is for “If you think strong women are going to take your bullshit, you can Kiss my ass, you conservative, male politicians with too much dicktitude.” Or maybe it’s about Kissing the sky with gratitude, kindness and optimism. Or Kissing those whom I love so very much.

Insoumise was a surprise and not a surprise. A surprise because I really had no idea what it meant when I put it in my shopping cart. Not a surprise because it’s the French word for “rebelliousness.” And I do so love my work helping Rebels at Work find their voice and create positive change.

So today I send a a rebellious New Year’s kiss to you — and wish you joy in wearing lipstick that lights up your soul and helps you bring your voice to the world.

Amplify Courage

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 Curly Hair Rebel Manifesto

A woman came up to me a couple of weeks ago after I spoke on a panel about Diversity and Inclusion in the National Security Sector. She was in her 20s, just trying to start her career. She kept applying for jobs, getting to the final round of interviews, but not getting hired, and was hoping I could give her some advice about getting over that final hurdle. She told me that she had even considered straightening her naturally curly hair in hopes of making a better impression.

"WHAT?!?"

Her university career counselor had suggested she do that because, presumably, curly hair is not consistent with a serious National Security demeanor.

I had no words...I was with another experienced veteran of the intelligence community. She had tears in her eyes.

How can this still be the case? How can completely irrelevant attributes of individuals impede their ability to contribute to organizations that badly need their help?

Let me get something off my curly hair.carmenpicture I'm not fond of the phrase "Diversity and Inclusion." Diversity has become the word we use to refer to minorities, thereby implying that only they can bring different opinions to the table. When in reality we are all diverse, curly-haired and straight, and should be heard when we have something to say.

And don't talk to be about Inclusion. I don't need to be included.

I BELONG.

Rebels at Work do not need to be included. We belong. Many organizations still don't appreciate that, but they're on notice now that the Harvard Business Review has recognized that organizations overvalue conformity.

I'm thinking many rebels have some type of "curly hair" in their background. They differ in some way from the norm in their organization: they think differently, they have an unusual academic degree, they're square pegs in round holes.

Don't let others persuade you that your DIFFERENCE is a PROBLEM.

Your DIFFERENCE is your SUPER POWER.

Own it. Wear it. Use it!

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

painful-emotions

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.

The Stupidity Paradox

“There's a worldwide conspiracy for the preservation of mediocrity—and we're all co-conspirators.” That's one of my key take-aways from about 40 years in the workforce. Whenever I say it, people tend to assume that it's based on my 30+ years in government, although actually this particular realization didn't strike me until post-retirement as I gained more experience with the private sector. (I came to realize that so many of the problems that I thought were unique to government were really symptoms of what I now call Large Organization Disease.)

But it wasn't until I read the new book The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work that I came to understand how the conspiracy maintains itself, both in the private and public sectors. The authors, Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer, are business professors based in Sweden and the UK respectively. They were inspired to collaborate on the book when they realized, as they write in their introduction, that “many of our most well-known chief organizations have become engines of stupidity.” As soon as I read those words I knew I was in for an honest discussion of why it was that “organizations which employed so many smart people could foster so much stupidity.”

I expected to gain many valuable lessons and insights for you valiant Rebels at Work. And I was not disappointed.

The Stupidity Paradox carefully explains why “functional stupidity” is actually an important survival strategy for many organizations. “Functional stupidity is an organized attempt to stop people from thinking seriously about what they do at work.” Why do companies do this, you may ask? Alvesson and Spicer offer this explanation:

By ignoring the many uncertainties, contradictions and downright illogical claims that are rife at work, people are able to ensure that things run relatively smoothly. We often value convenience over confronting the inconvenient truth.” (Emphasis mine.)

This is an important consideration for Rebels at Work. We often despair when ideas we KNOW to be CORRECT are ignored by leadership. And so we accuse leaders of being stupid, cowards, or perhaps even evil. But what The Stupidity Paradox tells us is that many organizations value consistency over excellence and existing practices over innovation. As the authors write: “Most decisions made in organizations are about coming up with satisfactory outcomes, not optimal ones.”

stupidityOuch! The entire book is full of such blunt assertions. It was fun reading a no-holds barred critique of the cultures of large organizations. Lois and I are always counseling Rebels at Work to restrain themselves and employ Ninja moves, so it was refreshing to read someone say what so many of us actually think.

But don't imagine that the worker bees get off scot-free!!! I actually looked up the origins of that phrase to make sure it wasn't an inappropriate ethnic characterization. Indeed it is not—scot comes from an old Scandinavian and Middle English word for taxes.

But I digress! The authors of The Stupidity Paradox have plenty of blame to spread around. Strategic ignorance is a common condition among today's knowledge workers. “Knowing what to know—but also what not to know—is a crucial skill that people working in any organization pick up rather quickly.” And the authors observe, in one of my favorite lines, that “living a happy life in an organization often requires a capacity to avoid trying to learn too much.”

Sound familiar? Again I think it's important for Rebels at Work to realize that, for many of their colleagues, laying low is a survival strategy. Overcoming such inertia requires constant communication and careful consideration of what might motivate their colleagues on an emotional and/or personal level.

There's much more of interest for Rebels at Work in The Stupidity Paradox. It's a fast read that will help you understand better how organizational culture usually impedes efforts for improvement, whether they come from management or the grass roots. Alvesson and Spicer skewer just about every modern business strategy, from total quality management to branding. But they seem to take particular delight in puncturing the cult of leadership. As they note casually, “We have spoken with many individuals who have devoted their careers to delusional ideas about leadership.” They continue:

Leaders often encourage followers to avoid thinking too much. They ask them to buy into narrow assumptions, not ask too many questions and avoid reflecting on the broader meaning of their actions. By corralling followers' cognitive capacities, leaders try to limit how followers define, think and act.

And that's precisely why the world needs more Rebels at Work!

The Rebel Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali's conscientious objection to the War in Vietnam is the first social/political issue I can remember capturing my attention. When Ali refused induction into the military in 1967 I was 12 years old. My family had just returned the previous year from Germany where my dad the Army sergeant had been assigned. We had had no television to speak of in the small Bavarian town of Bad Kissingen, so the ferment of the civil rights movement, for example, didn't penetrate my consciousness. (I remember when we landed in the United States from Germany being transfixed by an American television show--a black and white episode of Lost in Space featuring Billy Mumy--broadcast somewhere in the airport.) Everything about the Muhammad Ali case confused me. 384px-Muhammad_Ali_NYWTSOf course most people then were still calling him Cassius Clay, including my parents. My father had no sympathy for Ali's refusal to go to Vietnam and yet he had admired the brash irreverence of Cassius Clay the boxer. I remember wondering why such an attractive person would risk all that success by making an unpopular argument. I couldn't imagine anything ever being so important. And yet I also remember disagreeing with Ali's critics who questioned his patriotism and manhood. The one thing he didn't seem to lack was courage.

Fifty years later, Carmen the adult-approaching-senior-citizen has achieved more clarity about the example of Muhammad Ali. In a wonderful retrospective I recommend to all Rebels at Work, Ali is quoted as saying during the height of the controversy:

I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs.

Actually, he had just about everything to lose materially. Because of his decision, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title--the most prestigious athletic honor of that era--and was unable to fight during what should have been his most productive years. He lost a lot. But, as the article makes clear, Ali's principled stand buttressed others to do what they thought was right, including female tennis star Billie Jean King and Nelson Mandela, who, it should be remembered, was a heavyweight boxer himself in 1950s South Africa.

I think Muhammad Ali intuited the impact that a single individual can have when he stands for something beyond just himself. He took on the most extreme of positions at the most inopportune of times and was ready to suffer the consequences if proven wrong. He understood what a 12-year old couldn't and what many adults still don't:

Life's ultimate success is being true to yourself.

 

 

New growth

June bud  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It's June 1 and the city garden behind my Providence, RI, office is bursting with new growth. What's fascinating about plants -- and organizations -- is that so much unexpected and counter-intuitive growth happens at the tips and edges of organisms.

New cellular structures -- and ways of working -- often happen by chance, emerging unexpectedly in the least likely places.  This is emergent innovation, not cultivated by an innovation department, task forces, expensive consultants or forced mandates. This is where many Rebels at Work hang out.

Normally cells enlarge all over the surface. However, in many organisms, there are also specialized cells that grow only at their tip. How the necessary materials are delivered to the growing tip, is largely unknown.

Tipping Plant Growth, Universitaet Tübingen, "Science Daily," Dec. 19, 2011

What these "tip growth" areas do need to reach their potential is light. My invitation to leaders is to allow emerging new practices to develop.  Don't over-analyze , demand ROI, question how they fit with existing policies or spray them with cynical "nasty-dust."  (Nasty-dust is as toxic as asbestos and is more common in office buildings than asbestos.)

Give people and ideas light.

Expect possibilities from the least expected sources, and get everyone to lighten up -- or simply abandon -- the command and control buggy whip.

The development of new leaves is triggered by light, a finding that contradicts 150 years of conventional thinking. Leaf initiation was thought to be unaffected by environmental cues such as light.

Plant Biology: New Light Shed on Growth, "Nature," July 2011

 

The power of being heard

Why do I care so much about helping people speak up and be heard? Why has my labor of love become helping rebels at work?

It didn’t start on this day, but all these years later this incident feeds my determination to help people speak truth to power.

FAirmont ballroomJPEG

The New York City hotel conference room was plush, with fifty rows of gold ballroom chairs with red velvet seats lined up carefully in two sections. At the head of the room stood a formidable business executive who had just published a book called “Power and Influence.” He didn’t need a microphone. He exuded confidence in the way he held himself, projected his voice and opinions, and “commanded” the room.

Men in dark business suits filled most of the seats. And then there was me, 23-years-old in my dorky blue suit with one of those ridiculous “female bow ties” that were so popular in the 1980s. I was eager to “be corporate” so that I could do the work that I loved, which was working for a Madison Avenue public affairs and crisis communications firm.

I convinced my boss to let me go to this event. So much – too much -- in the field was about tactics, and here was someone talking about how to affect the outcomes – influencing opinion and changing perceptions. It was an easy sell because my boss admired Mr. Power and Influence, who was the CEO of one of the largest public relations agencies in the world.

That's your question, miss?

When it came time for questions my arm shot up. There was so much that I was hungry to know. Mr. Power and Influence kept calling on the middle-aged white men. I kept my arm up. Finally he called on me, “Yes, Miss.”

I don’t remember what I asked. I just remember his response. Not the words, but the body language. First a sigh, then a smirk, then the condescending tone. As if my question and I were not worthy and he couldn’t believe that someone had been so ridiculous to ask him such a question. A few people coughed as he lectured me. Were they embarrassed for him or me?

Maya Angelou once said, ““I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I still remember how he made me feel, and it still makes me angry. When people are seeking to understand or contribute or help, they are worthy. Even if their question is unpolished. Earnestness deserves respect.

I’m just an admin

Flash forward 30 years and I am running a writing workshop for a Fortune 100 company, and people are in small breakout groups, individually writing in response to a prompt about healthcare.

“OK, would everyone now please read aloud what you wrote to the people in your break out groups,” I ask.

In one group a young woman says, “Oh, skip over me. I’m just and admin not a writer like you all.”  In her, I see my 23-year-old self.

”Taneesha, of course you don’t have to share.  But there are no right or wrong responses here and you bring a different and valuable perspective because you are an admin.”

Taneesha reads her story and people are stunned. While the professional communicators wrote from their heads about healthcare policy, Taneesha wrote from her gut about her healthcare experiences as a single mother. Her writing was breathtaking.

“Geez, Taneesha,” her colleagues say, “What are you doing as an admin? YOU should be a writer.”

The next day Taneesha came to the workshop wearing bolder lipstick, with her hair done up in a handsome bun. I may have been imagining it, but I think she stood taller, too.

She had been heard. And seen.

Oh, the power that gives us.

Rebels at Work and the Narcissism of Small Differences

It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them. ~Sigmund Freud

I've mentioned a couple of times Adam Grant's new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. I've done so for the self-serving reason that my Rebel at Work story is captured in Chapter 3. And the other self-serving reason is to remind you that Adam is one of the experts we feature in our learning video: Be a Brave, Big-Hearted Rebel at Work.Be a Brave Big Heared Rebel Video Cover

But this time it's to clue you in to what I consider the most powerful chapter for Rebels at Work in Adam's book--the chapter on creating and maintaining coalitions: Goldilocks and the Trojan Horse. Lois and I have observed that successful Rebels at Work don't do it alone. Often their first step is to form alliances with others; that's certainly what we would recommend. Adam Grant's chapter explores the realities and subtleties of coalitions. His stories and observations not only led me to reflect on past mistakes but also to realize for the first time just how many I'd made.

Adam orients his lessons for building coalitions around the story of the American suffragette movement of the 19th century. Early on the suffrage movement suffered a crippling split when Lucy Stone, one of the first voices for women's suffrage, couldn't agree with Susan Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on important movement issues, and vice-versa. Among the issues that divided them was the push to grant the vote to African-American men. Stone supported the right to vote for ex-slaves even if it occurred before woman's suffrage. But not Anthony and Stanton, who were so committed to their cause that they even struck an alliance with a racist opponent of African-American suffrage. Other issues divided Stone from the other two, more-famous suffragettes with Stanton and Anthony holding what could be fairly described as the more extreme positions. Eventually Anthony's and Stanton's disdain for moderation, at one point they allied with the first woman to run for US president--on a sexual freedom platform, cost them supporters and lost them potential victories at the state level. Their organization and woman's suffrage suffered.

Adam Grant labels this tendency of change agents to fight each other as the narcissism of small differences. Another term for it is horizontal hostility. Research shows (and I bet your own experiences confirm) that groups battling a fierce status quo often disparage more mainstream groups even when they are all trying to make progress in the same general direction. In politics, for example, political parties can feel more visceral hatred for their potential coalition allies than toward their common opponents. I experienced this firsthand in change efforts I was involved in; many believed I was too willing to compromise just to make some progress. Striking a balance between your ideals and the need to show forward movement is never easy, but change agents that can find the "Goldilocks" spot enjoy better odds. As Adam Grant writes: "to draw allies into joining the cause itself, what's needed is a moderately tempered message that is neither too hot nor too cold, but just right."

A couple more points in the chapter are worth calling out. Adam recounts how the suffragette leader Lucy Stone and others pursued alliances with the 19th century temperance movement. Although the women backers of prohibition were more socially conservative than the suffragettes, they were able to combine forces to win important victories particularly at the state level. This story reminds me of how useful it can be for change agents to pursue their ideas through adjacencies. When an issue faces tough resistance, it's often more effective to approach the change indirectly by working first on an adjacent issue.

Adam Grant also makes the case for why rebels should try to turn opponents into allies. This is daunting but worthwhile. "...{O}ur best allies aren't the people who have supported us all along. They're the ones who started out against us and then came along to our side." And why is that? Well, one reason is because a reformed opponent is the most effective proselytizer of others to join our cause.

Adam Grant writes that on her deathbed Lucy Stone whispered four last words to her daughter: Make the World Better. I can't think of a better motto for Rebels at Work.

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.