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Rebels at work: Interview with Janet Swaysland of Monster.com

What fun to be interviewed by friend and client Janet Swaysland, senior vice president of Monster Worldwide, for the Monster corporate blog. Here’s what we talked about.

1.    When you told me you were doing research on corporate rebels my first reaction was, “Why look at the troublemakers? To what end?”  What attracted you to this work?

I heard Carmen Medina, recently retired CIA deputy director of intelligence, talk about how she was part of an informal Rebel Alliance of employees at the CIA, and how questioning assumptions and the status quo helped two rebels at the agency create the Intellipedia, a groundbreaking approach to intelligence that was awarded a Service to America national medal.

I began wondering how innovation and change happens in big organizations. You hear about innovators in start-ups all the time. But not so much in big companies. I was curious about the people in big organizations who blaze new trails and find ways to change business as usual. What are their characteristics? What makes them tick? How do you find them? Could they be an untapped resource for creating more innovative, engaged corporate cultures?

Carmen graciously let me pick her brain for a day about her personal experience as a “heretic” and about the Rebel Alliance at the agency. Then I had to know more.

2.    Are there “good” rebels and “bad” rebels?

There are always those people who are frustrated and bitter, more focused on stirring things up than making things better. Unfortunately those “bad” rebels get noticed while so many of the good rebels do not. The good, or what I call benevolent rebels, aren’t looking for attention. They want to help their organizations succeed, and fix things that aren’t working as well as they could be.

In my quantitative and qualitative research about rebels, I’ve found that these benevolent rebels are creative (88%), curious (82%) people not afraid of risk (88%). They are motivated first and foremost by wanting to feel like they’re making a difference. (92%).  They also tend to be positive, which has led Carmen to say, “Optimism is the greatest act of rebellion.”

3.    What’s most important for leaders and HR executives to understand about rebels?

Rebels have the courage to name the elephants in the room, see new ways to solve problems, bring outside ideas into the organization, and be the first to try new approaches.

However, these change and innovation rebels will make you feel uncomfortable. They call out problems others are afraid to (92%) and challenge assumptions and sacred cow practices (92%), both of which are essential to real innovation, but often shunned in organizations.  They also tend to go around the rules, question executive decisions, start projects without all the official approvals, and ask a lot of questions.

4.    What has surprised you the most in your research about rebels?

Rebels are not motivated by formal recognition or financial incentives. They’re self-motivated to want to make a difference and to solve things that are not working as well as they could. The research found that just 27% want formal recognition. What they do want is to be asked their opinions more often and be invited to work on special teams to solve specific issues.

I was also surprised by what I call the 90/30 conundrum. Approximately 90% of the survey respondents agreed that activating rebels can improve corporate culture and create a more innovative company. Yet only a third said they were very satisfied with rebels’ ability to provide that value in their organizations.

5.    Is there a rebel inside everyone? Should there be?

I think there is a rebel in everyone, but our rebel spirits has been suppressed. We have a couple of generations of people in the workforce who have been rewarded for keeping routine things going and for conforming.  That goes for everyone from CEOs to front line workers. The result is complacency, fear of doing things differently, and resistance to change. People complain but don’t act. Rebels are the kind of people who act.

6.    How can organizations bring out the inner rebel-ness of their people?

There are many ways. The most essential is creating more collaborative ways to lead and manage. The days of leader-as-hero are over. No one person — or handful of people –has all the answers or the best answers.

To activate the inner rebel in their people, leaders need to set clear purposes or missions, ask questions that challenge people to think in new ways, and then create safe, collaborative ways for people to get involved in creating the ideas that support the mission.  When I guide collaborative sessions where people dig into meaty issues, real magic happens; the power of diverse thinking coupled with people’s desire to create something bigger and better than they could alone or in their departmental silos is pretty amazing. No surprise, this type of involvement and collaboration is what rebels most want with their companies.

7.    Can people really afford to be rebels – making change can be risky — when they are just trying to hang on to the jobs they have?

If you are a “keep the routine going” person you face far greater risks than someone with the skills and courage to question the status quo and create new approaches.  When things get tough – as they always will — who do you want to keep on your team?  The benevolent rebels who see ways to improve and have the fearlessness to pioneer new ways? Or the person who keeps the engine running? Who do your most talented people want to work for?  Safe, complacent Charlie or innovative, risk-taking Charlie?

Rebels are proactive thinkers and creators.  There will always be a market for those skills in capitalistic economies.

8.    Are you a rebel?

All my life. Like Lady Gaga, I was just born that way. Sometimes my velocity for seeing emerging patterns and opportunities — and wanting to do things in new ways — has put people off. A boss once told me, “You’re always three years ahead in spotting what’s next. You have to help us catch up with you.”  I wish someone had taught me early on how to more effectively introduce new ideas and navigate organizational politics to get those ideas adopted.

My struggles as a benevolent rebel is one reason why I’m so intent on helping rebels learn how to be more effective change agents inside big organizations. Similarly, my admiration for leaders who embrace and empower rebels is why I’m driven to help leaders be more effective and courageous.