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By Lois Kelly and Carmen Medina, co-authors, Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within

One of the great misperceptions about people who get labeled “rebels” at work is that they are simply young upstarts who are out to change everything. Our experience and our research say that’s not true. And as a manager, understanding your rebels’ true motivation is essential to benefitting from their enormous value.

Most rebels have a productive mindset; they tend to focus on the things that get in the way of achieving what matters and suggest better ways. They are not anarchists or people who want to reinvent every wheel.  Most rebels are much too practical to change what’s working well. Instead, they set their sights on what’s broken and aim to eliminate the organizational habits, bureaucratic rules, and widely accepted business practices that slow down progress without adding any value.

Most rebels are fixers.  Indeed, good rebels freely admit that they love order. What they hate is bureaucracy — and all the unnecessary meetings, processes, and approval layers that go with it.

Another common misperception is that rebels at work are hell-bent, fire-breathing, take-no-prisoners types of people.  Again, not so much.  We are a determined lot, yet we’re often incredibly reluctant to get involved.

Not because we don’t care. But because we know how hard it is to change things inside a company, a non-profit, a government agency, or any organization that has been functioning a certain way for a while.

We keep thinking that the people with the expertise should see the problem and step in. But when it becomes clear that the people with the expertise aren’t seeing the issue or acting to correct it, we feel that we must.

The fact is most rebels care too much to sit around and let a problem fester.  So we reluctantly get involved, even when we don’t necessarily have the expertise to solve the problem.

When the late musician Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead got involved in efforts to save the rainforests he famously said:

“Somebody has to do something, and it’s just incredibly pathetic it has to be us, with all the other citizens of the planet, and all the other resources out there, but since no one else is doing anything about it, we don’t really have any choice.”

Good vs. Bad Rebels

Our book is written to help good rebels get a fair hearing for their ideas for improvement and innovation – and do so in a way that minimizes the angst involved in change.  We like to say it’s the first business book written for the 90% of workers who aren’t managers but who often have important wisdom that could help their organizations — in ways both small and large.

Of course, not all so-called rebels are a positive influence. At the most basic level, good rebels are for creating new, better ways to do things while bad rebels just rail against what isn’t working. It’s easy to complain but much harder to figure out what could be done differently. A few years ago, we created the chart below that shows the difference between good and bad rebels. It has been downloaded more than 100,000 times and has shown up in tweets and presentations around the globe.

Bad Rebels Good Rebels
Complain Create
Assertions Questions
Me-focused Mission-focused
Pessimist Optimist
Anger Passion
Energy-sapping Energy-generating
Alienate Attract
Problems Possibilities
Vocalize problems Socialize opportunities
Worry that … Wonder if …
Point fingers Pinpoint causes
Obsessed Reluctant
Lecture Listen
 Source: Rebels at Work

We believe the chart is so popular for three reasons. First, it summarizes common behaviors of rebels. Second, it refutes the “troublemaker” label that managers sometimes slap on thoughtful people trying to make positive change. And, perhaps more complex, it helps explain why so many who start off as good rebels become so disillusioned that they end up joining the dark side, in spite of their original good intentions. The frustration of trying to get people at work to listen and agree to sensible new ideas can become so acute that once-good rebels can become pessimistic, point fingers, or become angry and obsessed.

Dear Boss: Rebels Want Support, But Not To Be “Managed”

To all the bosses of rebels, we want you to know that rebels want your support to learn, be effective, and stay on the “good rebel” side of the continuum.

We also want you to be aware that many of the young, talented people coming into the workforce think that you want new ideas. They assume that part of their job responsibility is to find ways to improve things at work. They’re not rebelling against you; they’re rebelling against what’s in the way of doing good work.

That said, it can sometimes be challenging to lead someone who continually generates ideas, asks endless questions, provokes controversy, and occasionally disrupts a collegial climate in your organization.

So what’s a boss to do?

Be clear about success: When rebels clearly understand what the organization is trying to accomplish and why, they can focus their energy on creating ideas that support that goal or vision. Your goals may seem crystal clear to you, but don’t assume they are to your employees.  Self-identified rebels repeatedly tell us how frustrated they are in trying to figure out what is truly important to their organizations.  Pull apart the rhetoric and corporate jargon: what would real progress look like this year?

Make it safe to disagree: One of the most important aspects of creating a truly productive environment is often among the most difficult things for a manager to do: make it safe for people to disagree with each other and with you.  Many managers mistakenly believe that a workplace with little disagreement is a healthy workplace. Others just can’t stand the uncertainty and disruptive nature of disagreement and controversy. Yet meaningful change rarely happens without a few ruffled feathers.

Coach, don’t micro-manage: Few rebels are corporate or bureaucratic natives so they often naively propose ideas without understanding the process for getting ideas adopted. As their manager, help rebels understand how to position ideas, build support and relationships with people who can facilitate or block new ideas, pace themselves, and keep a positive approach.

Not everyone in an organization needs to be a rebel, nor will every rebel continually want to be involved in leading change efforts at work, but all organizations need rebels who have the courage, ideas, and gritty determination to make things better.  And all rebels benefit from strong and supportive managers.


One Response to “Why You Should Love and Support Your Workplace Rebels”

  1. Tom Gueth

    One of the best statements about why rebels are useful and needed. But, as the article implies, rebels are not understood, appreciated or usually accepted. And, usually, eventually shot (fired actually) or get worn down to become just one of the pack.

    I was, and probably still am) a rebel. My treatment over the years by firms I worked for was hard to take. Now, to be honest, at times in my youth I could be a little righteous. But as I managed to move up the chain of management, I worked hard to identify the rebels under or around me and try to nurture them. Many of my greatest successes were actually due to my rebels doing what many considered impossible. And as may amaze some people, rebels are not always young people. Some of my best rebels were older than me, at least into my 40s.

    Medium and large-sized firms must find and nurture their rebels. But my experience is that most firms try to “manage” rebels, which usually means block and isolate them. It is a sad statement that most large firms slowly (sometimes not so slowly) fade because they are not open to the ideas and opportunities that rebels represent.

    To all fellow rebels, I salute you and wish you well in the battles you face. I near the end of my time at being a rebel. I can tell you that it is not always easy and seldom appreciated and it does wear. But when I look back on my career, my best memories are those related to being a rebel, successful or not.