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Rebels at Work by Debra Cameron, Carmen Medina, Lois Kelly

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Chapter 1. Good Rebels, Great Work

Good rebels just want to do great work.

We want to improve things that aren’t working and that put our organizations at risk. Our motivation is not personal glory but introducing new ideas that can benefit our coworkers, customers, or community members. The greatest calling for rebels is helping our organizations evolve from what they are to what they can become, finding thoughtful ways to examine new ideas, identifying when and how to move on them, and taking the first step to get to a better place.

We realize the term “rebel” is loaded, so we’ll explain what we mean. 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 a chart that shows the difference between good and bad rebels (see Table 1-1). It has been downloaded more than 100,000 times and has shown up in tweets and presentations around the globe.

We believe it’s 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 shows that many who start off as good rebels get so disillusioned that they end up joining the dark side, even though they started with good intentions. The frustration of trying to get people at work to listen and agree to sensible new ideas can become so acute that good rebels can become pessimistic, point fingers, or become angry and obsessed.

One note about the chart: while it’s useful, it can also oversimplify matters. Many of these attributes are on a continuum. At some point in your rebel journey, obsession with your idea may well be necessary, although we don’t think obsessive behavior is a good long-term strategy for any rebel. To get management’s attention, there may be times where vocalizing problems in public forums is more effective than slowly building agreement by socializing ideas with people individually.

Table 1-1. Bad rebels versus good rebels
Bad rebelsGood 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

Who Are These Good Rebels?

Just who are these good rebels and what changes do they strive to make?

We’ve talked with hundreds of rebels over the past three years. They began their journeys when their concerns grew so acute that they felt compelled to act. Most would never consider themselves change agents, innovators, and certainly not heroes. They would, however, say they are people who care deeply about their organizations, coworkers, and people their diverse organizations serve, from customers and students to patients and citizens.

While some rebels make big, company-wide gestures, many more create small-scale changes. Here are some examples of rebels working in many contexts and roles:

  • An administrative assistant, frustrated by coordinating meetings and decisions among vice presidents, invites other admins to a monthly brown bag lunch. They sit down to figure out better ways to manage their bosses’ time and bring about organizational change from their sphere of influence.
  • Exhausted by the layers of bureaucracy involved in approving innovation programs, a government manager sends a tweet asking the 1.35 million agency employees to pledge to do one small thing to improve the organization’s effectiveness. Employees make 189,000 pledges on the first annual National Health Service (NHS) Change Day, unleashing creativity and improvement ideas throughout the United Kingdom.
  • A 25-year-old communications manager, thrilled to be working for a law enforcement agency whose mission he greatly admires, sees new ways to use social media to help the agency fulfill its mission. When he raises new ideas, his bosses and the legal department cite complex and inane regulations. He wonders whether the government wants talent or obedience. He shows his bosses the risks of not adopting new ways of communicating and slowly gains support.
  • A policy analyst shares ideas for improving the way a government agency carries out its mission. Her boss listens quietly but then advises, “Just keep your mouth shut and in 20 years you’ll be in the position to make the changes you think are so important.” The analyst resigns, convinced that no progress will be possible in her organization.
  • After presenting an industry-changing technology idea to the executive team three years in a row, the sales director of a wastewater engineering company stops advocating for his idea internally. During the next six years, he continues to talk with clients and gather ideas to improve the concept. Ten years later, the company introduces the new system, which is a big success.
  • A military officer rises through the ranks, modernizing approaches to leadership and professional development. He retires early, realizing that the top brass promote people with whom they feel comfortable. Those who rock the boat to create change don’t make officials feel comfortable, and as a result, are unlikely to reach the highest ranks.

As rebels, our stories are different, but we have much in common. Table 1-2 shows some tactics and behaviors that successful rebels use and cultivate.

Table 1-2. Secrets of successful rebels
Tactics: Actions to achieve a specific endBehaviors: How you conduct yourself, especially toward others

Tap into the brilliance of others, knowing that no one can create meaningful change alone.

Stay positive: optimism inspires others to join them in fixing problems.

Align ideas with the organization’s goals. The more important an idea is to an organization the more likely it will be adopted.

Judge ideas, not people. Steer conversations away from personalities to focus on ideas and their merits.

Show how the benefits of change are commensurate with the costs of change.

Learn from anger: consider what triggers anger and avoid spiraling into emotional drama.

Use conflict productively: glean insights from disagreement and conflict to learn how to refine and advance an idea.

Respect others and consider different viewpoints.

Let ideas breathe, giving people time to absorb a new idea and consider its implications.

Know when to walk away, weighing the importance of the idea and the personal and professional costs of persevering.

In a World Without Rebels

For those who may doubt that rebels have a vital role to play in society, we invite you to reflect for a moment on what the world would look like without rebels.

We don’t have to look far for examples.

We teach our children about the importance of free speech and the dangers of “groupthink,” encouraging them to read novels like George Orwell’s 1984, in which the Ministry of Truth’s real mission is to falsify historical events. Lois Lowry’s The Giver portrays a world where pain, fear, intense love, and hatred have been eliminated. There’s no prejudice because people all look and think the same. Yet evil lurks because people all look and think the same.

Nonetheless, in our schools and workplaces, groupthink is rewarded. Those who question decisions and advocate for different ways are often ignored, ostracized, or fired. (Two of our most popular blog posts relate to employees being thrown under the bus.[1])

Yet without rebels, our systems, companies, schools, churches, government agencies, and healthcare organizations become rigid and sometimes even dangerous.

Kids are teased, and sometimes bullied, for being different. Government managers obsess about protecting their budgets and headcount and lose sight of what citizens need. Companies don’t see—or ignore—emerging trends and fail every day, putting people out of work.

The dangers of a world without rebels are often more specific, as well.

In 1986, engineers at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) warned that critical components in the Space Shuttle Challenger had a potentially fatal flaw and would not function well in cold temperatures. On a cold January morning, NASA officials decided not to heed the engineers’ concerns and approved the launch. Within 73 seconds of takeoff, Challenger broke apart, killing its seven crewmembers, while an estimated 17 percent of Americans watched on television. A subsequent investigative commission appointed by then President Ronald Reagan found that NASA’s organizational culture and decision-making processes greatly contributed to the catastrophe. The good rebel voices had not been heeded.

Responding to the ignition switch crisis that led to the recall of millions of vehicles, General Motors (GM) CEO Mary Barra publicly stated that the company’s corporate culture had helped suppress the voices of employees alarmed about safety issues. Speaking up at meetings was not safe. In 2014, the auto manufacturer admitted that it knew about an ignition switch safety issue for more than 10 years before it issued a recall. In the interim, at least 54 crashes occurred and up to 100 people died. As 2014 unfolded, General Motors issued 47 more recalls covering more than 20 million vehicles.

Rebels inside Eastman Kodak foresaw the demise of photographic film and created initiatives to get into digital photography. Kodak leaders, happy with the profits of film and the comfort of the familiar, did not provide sufficient support to these initiatives. Not only did thousands lose their jobs, but the heart of a once-vibrant community was torn apart.

How could this happen when people inside these organizations knew about the risks? Welcome to a world where rebels are shunned and authorities cling to the status quo, resulting in irrational decisions and unfortunate outcomes.

Following an internal investigation, GM CEO Mary Barra said, “The lack of action was a result of broad bureaucratic problems and the failure of individual employees in several departments to address a safety problem…. Repeatedly, individuals failed to disclose critical pieces of information that could have fundamentally changed the lives of those impacted by a faulty ignition switch.”

GM is not alone, or again, you might not be reading this book. Resistance to change, clinging to the status quo, and bureaucracy are pervasive, despite the pace of change in the modern world.

Organizational Silence: We Don’t Really Want Your Ideas

New York University researchers Elizabeth Morrison and Frances Milliken refer to this phenomenon as a culture of “organizational silence.” In their article, “Organizational Silence: A Barrier to Change and Development in a Pluralistic World” Morrison and Milliken show that although organizations may verbalize openness to new ideas, most organizational cultures send implicit and sometimes explicit signals to employees that they should remain silent about their concerns.

“Because managers may feel a particularly strong need to avoid embarrassment, and feelings of vulnerability or incompetence, they may tend to avoid information that suggests weakness or errors, or that challenges current courses of action. And it has been shown that when negative feedback comes from below rather than from above—from subordinates rather than bosses—it is seen as less accurate and legitimate, and as more threatening to one’s power and credibility. Thus, a fear of, or resistance to, “bad news” or negative feedback can set into motion a set of organizational structures and practices that impede the upward communication of information,” explain Morrison and Milliken.

While managers may suppress good ideas, so can all the work committees, governance councils, task forces, and peer-to-peer collaborative initiatives that are proliferating as decision making becomes more distributed and less top-down. The desire to incorporate everyone’s views can suck the life out of good ideas. A once strong idea can become so watered down that it’s not particularly valuable by the time it escapes the committee work. Even worse is when valuable ideas aren’t launched in a timely way because the committee meetings stretch on for months and sometimes even years. A good idea whose time has passed is not such a good idea.

Somebody Do Something

If our current workplaces were a novel, we might be tempted to stop reading. “Good grief! People’s souls are being sucked dry, and no one seems to care. I can’t take much more.” As we tried to keep reading, we’d desperately hope someone would help turn things around. “Please, get in there and solve the problems that are staring everyone in the face. Somebody do something.”

Fortunately, we don’t live in a world without rebels. Rebels are in every organization, in all types of jobs, and are learning how to turn things around.

Every day, people at work reach the point where they say, “Enough.” While every rebel’s reason for stepping up differs, almost all start with the same uncomfortable realization: “I have to do something about this.” A rebel with a cause has an important role at work. The rebel is the one who will step in and get the ball rolling, regardless of title, seniority, or experience.

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.

Questions to Ponder

  • What attracted you to this book at this time?
  • If you were more successful at creating change at work, how might your life change? How might your organization change?
  • Think of someone you know who is good at getting new ideas adopted at work. Look at the characteristics of good versus bad rebels listed in Table 1-1 and think about how they apply to that person. What can you learn from him or her?
  • What might be possible if there were fewer bureaucratic problems where you work? What is allowing that bureaucracy to fester?
  • What practices of successful rebels do you do well? Which ones are important for you to learn more about as you read this book?
  • When we learn with another person, we often learn more and become more committed to making changes. Who at work could you invite to read this book with you so that you can support one another in becoming more effective rebels at work? Is there a leadership book club?

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