What advice do you wish someone had given you earlier in your career? “Don’t climb, lift,” said veteran analyst John Bordeaux in his Rebel at Work story.
Don’t climb. Lift.
There’s much to take away from this advice. One question might be, “What allows us to lift?”
Optimism lifts. Skepticism requires climbing.
I remember my first week on a new job talking with a team of discouraged people, demoralized because their client was unhappy with their work.
“Let’s try to show the client how much we’re accomplishing. How about we change the monthly report formats and list everything that we’ve accomplished each month in bullet points, right at the top,” I suggested.
“Yeah, right,” said Cindy. “What happens if we don’t achieve those kinds of results?”
Though I had only been at the agency a couple of weeks I was optimistic that we’d be able to achieve more, especially if we changed a few approaches to the work.
“If we do these two things every month I really think we’ll be able to report some results that will make the client happy. Let’s just try it for a couple of months and see what happens.”
This optimism accomplished two things. The team didn’t resist my new ideas, although they were contrary to the way most teams did things at the company, and the team did in fact achieve results that surprised them and the client. Someone genuinely believing they could succeed lifted the team, and they achieved more than they thought possible.
Optimism has a powerful influence on people. It helps us to take a chance, do something new, invest in an alternative approach.
This is not about chirpy, fake platitudes and those motivational “Dare to do the Impossible” posters posted on bulletin boards near the lunchroom. I’m talking about adopting a mindset focused more on possibilities than problems.
In a world where the voices of the skeptics and naysayers seem to shout the loudest, we optimists quietly and persistently keep going. We do so because we believe that our idea is possible. We see the reasons why it can work and the value it will provide. We follow our passions, know and use our strengths, are open-minded and open-hearted, and we often reflect about what is working and where we can do things differently.
Sure we fall back and get frustrated, too. Big time. But it’s how you respond to setbacks that influences how likely you’ll be able to find the energy to get up and continue on.
How optimistic people achieve more:
- Attract supporters. People prefer to be part of teams that believe what they’re doing is achievable. They also get energy from being around optimistic people, so they like to be on your team.
- Get the ear of more people. Even if people don’t agree with our ideas, they are more willing to listen to us and have a conversation.
- Self-motivate themselves. When you believe something is possible it motivates you to stay with the idea, keep gathering information, ask questions, get input, think how to improve on it. Doing this makes the idea even more likely to succeed.
- Minimize stress: Persistence and determination are easier to sustain when you have an optimistic attitude. Make no mistake that being a rebel at work is stressful, but a positive perspective can make it less exhausting. Optimists ride the possibility wave to keep motivated. Pessimists tackle persistence and determination by pushing a rock up hill. People want to surf with you. Pushing heavy objects up steep hills, not so much.
- Trigger contagiousness. Positive ideas get talked about. Ones that connect with rational and emotional desires hop on the word of mouth train. “Here’s a way we can do our work faster, easier, safer, with more fun, and with much fewer headaches.” Sign me up to help.
- Look inviting. People who are negative show creases on their foreheads, furrows between their eyes, squint marks by the sides of their eyes, bags under their eyes from lack of sleep. I admit this is a superficial benefit of optimism, but looking healthy and restful also attracts more people to you than when you look haggard. Think about it. Who do you like to chat with around the proverbial water cooler? A positive, healthy looking person or someone who is stern, overly serious and coiled like they might strike if you say the wrong thing?
The science of positivity and optimism
The science backs up these views on optimism.
Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a scholar in social and positive psychology and author of Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3-to1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life, has found that positivity opens our minds and hearts, making us more receptive to ideas and making us more creative. Positive emotions help us to discover new skills, new knowledge, and new ways of doing things – and to recover more quickly when things don’t go well.
She suggests that we try to achieve at least a 3:1 positivity ration.
“This means that for every heart-wrenching negative emotional experience you endure, you experience at least three heartfelt positive emotional experiences that uplift you,” Dr. Fredrickson explains. “This is the ratio that I’ve found to be the tipping point, predicting whether people languish or flourish.”
You can’t force optimism and positivity, using insincere, gratuitous gestures and words. That will backfire. You have to really feel it and mean it. No platitudes and smiley faces. People see right through that.
In fact, the subtle difference between positivity and optimism is action, according to Elaine Fox, a psychologist at the University of Essex in England and author of a book on the science of optimism, “Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain.”
“Optimism is not so much about feeling happy, nor necessarily a belief that everything will be fine, but about how we respond when times get tough,” she writes. “Optimists tend to keep going, even when it seems as if the whole world is against them.”
- Use new words. If something doesn’t pan out, refrain from calling it a “failure,” or worse, saying “I failed.” Sometimes things don’t work out. The idea may be too risky for the organization. You piloted a concept and the data indicated it wouldn’t achieve enough of the right results. The thinking was sound but the investment costs were far greater than the likely returns. You get the picture. If we use failure words, we label ourselves and our efforts in ways that diminish the likelihood of trying again, or of people supporting us again. We rebels are idea people. Some ideas will work brilliantly, others not so. We’re not failures. We’re thinkers and experimenters.
- Hang out with optimistic people. Not the Pollyannas but realists who see what’s possible. Creators vs. complainers. Avoid the Debbie Downers and Negative Nicks wherever possible. Including in your personal life.
- Picture it. Envision how people will feel and be better off if you’re successful. Keep this image clear. Present this image when taking about your project so people are reminded of the big picture benefit. Ask an artsy friend to make an image of it, for you and for you to use when you have to make a presentation about the idea. Or find a metaphorical image that inspires you. (I like the rising moon image in this post.)
- Try to work on things that interest you. This isn’t always possible but when we’re determined it’s interesting to see how we can shift assignments and responsibilities, especially when we can demonstrate why the work we WANT to work on is important to the organization.
- Tune out. Though we rebels tend to have insatiable curiosities, there are some things we should stay away from. Like people who over use fear and anxiety to get attention and manipulate feelings. Hysteria clouds perspective and balanced thinking.
- Do one scary thing a year. Something that interests you but you find intimidating, as in “I don’t think I could ever do that.” Or, “I’d be way out of my league if I took that course.” “What would I say if I agreed to give a speech like that in front of those people?” The thing about doing one scary thing a year is that it builds up your confidence. You will almost always find that you do better than you think you could, or you were welcomed warmly by people you don’t usually associate with. The benefit? Your optimism increases. You believe that more is possible.
- Turn to learning: When you hit roadblocks and frustrations turn to learning and questioning. “What could I learn that would help me figure this out? What’s beneath what’s going on here?” Questions open you back up to possibilities and restore optimism. Don’t stay parked in dead ends.
Two weeks ago I was leading an American Marketing Association workshop about how to gain approval and adoption of new ideas. We covered the first four items on the following list through a series exercises and then I asked everyone which of #5 – 10 they most wanted to spend time on.
1. What’s at stake?
2. Make the status quo unappealing
3. Use the SCARF model
4. Uncover the hidden motives
5. It’s an experiment
6. What’s the real issue?
7. Move away from drama
8. Befriend the Bureaucratic Black Belts
9. Stay under the radar
10. Know when to quit
People loved #10. I have to confess I was surprised and perhaps not prepared enough. How do you know when it’s time to let an idea go? Or stop trying to get a project funded? Or get people interested in adopting a new way? Or even leave a job?
Here’s what I suggested:
- Rate importance: Ask your boss or client how important a particular project is to them on a scale of 1 – 10. If it’s below six, it’s just not that important. At this point you’ll probably have a hard time getting it to 9 or 10. If they say 7 or 8, ask them what it what would make it a 9 or 10. Then listen very carefully.
- Just ask: “We’ve been talking about this idea for a while, but it doesn’t seem to be moving ahead. I think it helps us (insert important organizational goal). What do you think is holding it back? What advice can you give me?”
- Is the energy waning? Do fewer people show up for meetings about the idea? Is the idea put early on the agenda (probably still interested) or last (if we don’t get to it, no big deal.)? Is it even on management meeting agendas?
- Not performance objective worthy: If you set your annual performance objectives and your boss doesn’t view your big idea as an important for your objectives, he or she doesn’t think the idea is important.
- How much are your colleagues willing to help? If your work friends just aren’t into helping you with the idea, it may signal that they don’t see the value of it. Another sign that it may be time to quit the idea.
- Are you becoming not yourself? If you’re starting to be angry, judgmental or righteous, this might be a sign that it’s time to let go.
Yogi Berra allegedly once said, “If the people don’t want to come, there’s nothing we can do to stop them.”
Sometimes the time isn’t right for an idea. We rebel thinkers work ahead of most people, and it takes a while for them to catch up with our ideas. Sometimes you just need to wait a while and reintroduce the idea.
Sometimes you may need to more clearly communicate the value and relevance of the idea. It’s easy after a while to get so down into the weeds of how a project or idea will work that people have forgotten why it’s such a good idea in the first place. (Go to #1 on the list: show them what’s at stake, what the idea makes possible and how that’s so much better than what exists today.)
Don’t beat yourself up or take on all that failure language or people will begin to see you as a problem person vs. the creative person who knows how to come up with great ideas.
Even if this was the greatest idea you think you’ve ever developed, know that there will be more great ideas. Creativity doesn’t stop.
Unless, of course, you spend all your energy hanging on too long to an idea no one cares about.
When your horse dies, get off.
This meant I had to maneuver around Bureaucratic Black Belts (BBBs) and move people off assumptions that they were willing to fight (me) for. All very congenial, but intense nevertheless.
It also meant that I had to find ways to help people see a better way, be confident while also being honest about the uncertainties, and remain steadfast and open-minded.
Talk about paradox. Can I also say once again how exhausted I was?
Two themes I find about change: there can be no progress without paradox, and leading change is often exhausting. Not always. But often.
On Friday afternoon a good friend was kind enough to listen to me talk about what had happened, and ask good questions to help me clarify the best next steps. She also said, “You know, being a rebel is a lot like what Terry Pearce said in his book Leading Out Loud.”
“There are many people who think they want to be matadors, only to find themselves in the ring with two thousand pounds of bull bearing down on them, and then discover that what they really wanted was to wear tight pants and hear the crowd roar.”
Real rebels are not afraid stay in the ring.
Many of us also take long naps on the weekend.
Many people think disagreeing means that we’re being unkind and insensitive. Or impolite. (Egads!) “Let’s take this off line,” they say.
What’s unkind to me is pretending an uncomfortable issue doesn’t exist when everyone knows it does. There’s a tension at work when this happens. Nothing is moving forward, corporate inertia is draining us, and we’re becoming ever more skeptical about the cry for greater collaboration.
Furthermore, the longer an issue is ignored, the more frustrated and demoralized people become. Even worse, trust and respect among people erode. And when that’s gone, the organization gets crippled.
“When someone comes to a meeting and states an opinion or makes a suggestion that his teammates don’t agree with, those teammates have a choice: they can explain their disagreement and work through it, or they can withhold their opinion and allow themselves to quietly lose respect for their colleague,” says organizational health consultant Patrick Lencioni in his excellent book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.
“When team members get to choose the latter option — withholding their opinions — frustration inevitably sets in. Essentially, they’re deciding to tolerate their colleague rather than trust him.”
More than most, we rebels see healthy dissent as a team sport, where everyone with something to contribute is expected to contribute. If you don’t speak up your silence can be interpreted to mean that you agree and have nothing to add.
We view dissent as a way of together getting stronger, like a team preparing to hike Mt. Everest. All the potential issues are honestly discussed and worked through to increase the likelihood of a successful expedition where no one gets hurt. We’re fed by the positive energy around these conversations. We appreciate and value what our colleagues have to say.
We also listen fiercely and ask frank questions. It’s about inquiry vs. preaching. But most organizations practice advocacy instead of inquiry in their conversations, say Sue Annis Hammond and Andrea Mayfield in The Thin Book of Naming Elephants.
“Advocacy is a win-lose form of communication…each person is trying to convince the other that he or she is right and there is only one right answer. Dialogue assumes people see the world differently…each person assumes he or she can learn something new from others.”
Practices for inviting healthy conflict
So what can you do to move from advocacy to inquiry? To help foster healthy dissent vs. angry debates? Here are some suggestions.
- Establish agreements: set some guiding principles at the start of a meeting and keep them posted on the wall as a reminder. If someone starts to violate an agreement, bring everyone’s attention back to the list on the wall. Here are some guiding principles that I have found helpful:
- Judge ideas, not people.
- Focus on solutions and ways forward; stay away from drama and problems.
- Observations are more useful than opinions.
- Let each person complete their thought; avoid interrupting.
- Ask questions that illuminate, not interrogate.
- Ask questions that are brief and to the point without adding background considerations and rationale, which make the question into a speech
- Respect other people’s truths.
- If you want your views to be heard speak now. Not later in backroom side conversations.
- Set the tone: Open the meeting by going around the room and asking everyone to respond to a soft but relevant question where there is no right or wrong answer. No one comments on what a person says, just respectfully listens. This helps to put people at ease, build personal connections, make sure everyone’s voice is heard, and get comfortable with listening. I recently asked a group about the most creative thing they had done outside of work in the past month. The answers were hilarious, and that laughter set a relaxing, collegial tone to dig into important issues.
- Set up what’s at risk: Frame the conversation by succinctly stating what’s at risk and why it’s so important to debate the issue and get everyone’s views. This focuses the conversation and reminds people why it’s worth their time and honest input.
- Make sure you have enough time. Issues worthy of inquiry and debate usually require more than the typical one hour time allotment. One hour meetings are good for updates and touching base. Strategic conversations where we value everyone’s involvement need more like three hours, maybe a even a day or more.
- Facilitate or use a facilitator. Effective facilitators carefully listen, guide, inject good questions to open up new conversation veins, move people off dead horses, prevent any one person from hogging the conversation, help the group to recover if someone has said something hurtful, and adhere to the meeting agreements. If you are facilitating, know that it will be difficult to participate. As a participant you’re focused on the ideas not the meta conversation. Understand what role you’ll be playing, participant or facilitator.
- Ask the wind-down question. It usually gets to the real issues: About 30 minutes before the meeting is to end ask, “What hasn’t been said that should? Is there something you feel we’ve been avoiding? If we never talked about this issue again, would you feel satisfied that we honestly examined all the important aspects of it? If not, what needs to be said?” Inevitably someone speaks up and speaks the truth and the real conversation starts.
- Close with insights: After summarizing highlights and next steps, ask everyone to briefly respond to a closing question, which further respects views and makes sure voices are heard. Possible closers might be:
- How did your thinking on this issue shift?
- What one thing did you find most useful from the discussion?
- What was the high point of this discussion for you?
For more helpful ideas on facilitating healthy dissent, read Carmen’s post, “Advice for Managers: Do You Make It Easy for People to Disagree with You?”
“Find the disruptive people in your organization. They have the ideas that will drive change,” said Nancy Schlichting, CEO of the Henry Ford Health System, a $4 billion healthcare organization with 23,000 employees.
Speaking at the BIF8 innovation conference last week in Providence, RI, Nancy shared what has helped her transform an ailing health care system and create innovations in health care such as a new $360 million health and wellness facility that feels more like a luxury hotel than a hospital.
Transforming healthcare is all about leadership, she said. Her leadership approach focuses on creating an “incredible” environment for every person to reach their full potential. How she has created such an environment:
- Making a large organization feel small. When the board approached her about being CEO of the health care system she was reluctant to take it because she likes being involved with people and creating working environments that are positive, personal and open-minded. The board assured her that being CEO of a health care would not preclude how she like to lead.
- Saying yes to unusual ideas, like an employee who wanted to be able to creating fun drawings on the disposable gowns worn by the kidney dialysis staff. “This woman creates this amazing designs on her own time on the weekends. On Monday mornings the staff can’t wait to see what she has that week for them.”
- Helping people who are disruptors. These, she says, are the people with the ideas that can help you change and transform. One example she shared: a surgeon who wanted to put health kiosks in churches in the Detroit community. Doing so has been a hugely successful way to help people learn about health and wellness.
- Hiring people in with non-traditional backgrounds to help you see things in new and different ways. “This is essential,” Nancy stressed. One example: she hired Gerard van Grinsven, a long time Ritz Carlton executive to be CEO of the new Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, even though Bernard had no health care experience. His “otherness” has been a significant reason the new hospital has been so successful in its ambitious goals. (Here’s a link to a video of Gerard sharing his story about going from high-end hotels to opening a hospital.
- Bringing together different thinkers. Creative ideas happen at the intersections, said Nancy. Bringing different thinkers together across silos creates better ideas faster.
Hearing her talk I was reminding of the wonderful poem by Kaylin Haught, “God Says Yes To Me.” Imagine if CEOs said yes, yes, yes to more of their employees, especially the disruptive corporate rebels?
Not only would organizations be able to innovate and change more quickly, a wonderful sense of joy would permeate the workplace — even in high-stress environments in struggling urban areas, like the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.
Carmen Medina and I are on a mission to help rebels in the workforce be more successful. We believe these outsider thinkers inside big organizations have the answers leaders need to adapt, grow, thrive, even survive. As part of our journey into helping rebels we’ve been asking ourselves all kinds of questions to understand why leaders don’t listen more to rebels. Yesterday Carmen posted about her recent epiphany on Rebels at Work. Here’s her “aha” about diversity initiatives and rebels.
As most of you know, I served for 32 years at the Central Intelligence Agency. During my last ten years there, I would attend recruiting and outreach events where I would answer questions about my career at the Agency. Given who I am, I was often asked this question: “Could you talk about what it was like being a woman and a minority at the Agency?” And I always gave the same answer: “Actually, neither of those was as much of an issue for me as just being a different thinker. Somehow I often saw things differently from everyone else.”
I was recalling this last week when I was thinking about what I might say at a couple of events I’ve been invited to speak at associated with Hispanic Heritage Month, which starts this coming week. (It’s actually not a month, but a 30-day period from 15 September to 15 October.) And as I said out loud the previous paragraph, it came to me like the most gigantic “DUH” moment you can imagine. POW! A giant fist bopped me on the head.
I had gotten it exactly backwards. It wasn’t that being a different thinker was more of a career issue than being a woman or a minority. I was a different thinker in large part BECAUSE I was a woman and a Latina.
Q. You mean that it took you until one month before your 58th Birthday to figure that out!!
A. Sadly, yes.
Many sincere attempts to diversify organizations fail because the organization’s leadership does not appreciate that any significant diversity effort is in fact an organizational change effort. It could very well end up being transformational for the company.
When different types of people enter the workforce–women, minorities–many actually become default Rebels at Work, although they often are not aware of their dual identities. People with different backgrounds should bring different perspectives and ideas with them. (Although truth be told, many learn as early as high school to stop volunteering their different ideas when they realize they are not welcomed.) And yet you often hear leaders say: “It’s a shame about so-and-so. Some interesting ideas but he doesn’t quite know how to fit in.” or “You have great potential but you need to learn to be more corporate.”
And that’s how diversity initiatives degrade and become more about the Appearance of Diversity than about the Impact of Diversity.
The organization has made space for people who are different but no space for their different ideas. Helping Rebels be more effective at work is in fact a diversity initiative. And increasing the Impact of Diversity on an organization is in fact a Rebel initiative.
I knew little about coaching and was curious. This Ivy League university conference seemed like a good place to learn.
The guru started interrogating the woman on the stage with him, cutting her off before she could fully answer his questions, barking that she wasn’t answering his questions, and flippantly responding, “Really? Really?” when she tried to answer the questions.
I couldn’t believe the meanness of it all. So I raised my hand.
Mr. Guru took questions from two people before acknowledging me, both people praising his technique and asking softball questions like, “Do you use the same approach in phone sessions as in-person sessions?”
I stood up and simply said, “ How was that helpful? It seemed intimidating and mean to me.”
Silence grabbed the giant hotel ballroom. Even Mr. Guru was at a loss for words.
He glared at me and gave some innocuous response, adding that he’d be happy to speak to me privately later. He then turned to the sea of people and said that this woman, meaning me, was in error. Because we were so far from the stage we couldn’t observe his body language correctly. If we could see better, we would know that the “young lady’s” comments were off base. (Calling a middle-aged woman a young lady also made my skin crawl; it seemed so condescending.)
There was a break after the role-modeling session. As I made my way to the snacks table people came up to me and said, “Thanks for saying what you did. I felt the same way.” Conversations ensued and I would guess that’s where some real learning happened.
It’s hard to speak up, especially in a huge crowd, especially when you’re not a “subject matter expert” or you’re early in your career or new with an organization.
What if my questions are dumb, we think.
What if they’re not? What if no one speaks up challenging people who treat others meanly, who use professional practices that seem ill founded, who closes down learning and thinking by being smug and sure?
Being an effective maverick and rebel in the workplace doesn’t mean that you need to reinvent your company, create new business models or solve other major challenges.
Sometimes we just need to be the people who are willing to raise our hands and put words to what we and others are feeling.
If not we, who?
Thousands of people have read my original post, “Better Techniques for Throwing Employees Under the Bus.” When I look at my blog’s analytics on any given day I can tell what companies are firing people or acting in ways that cause people to feel betrayed. While the tone of that post was a tad tongue in cheek, I wanted to share some thoughts on what to do if you have been thrown under the proverbial bus.
When you’ve been thrown under the bus
What happens when you get thrown under the bus? In other words, your boss or a colleague turns on you, usually unexpectedly, and fires you, blames you, or betrays you in some way?
First, is try not do anything dumb that will further exacerbate the situation and harm your reputation. When we’re feeling betrayed, our emotions run wild and dangerous. Here are some ideas to consider:
Go under the radar for a while: Just as highly public figures like politicians or entertainers often do after a humiliating experience, go quiet for a while. (If you are still with the organization; obviously this doesn’t apply if you’ve been fired.) Do work that rebuilds your credibility and doesn’t make waves. Learn how to better navigate the organizational politics.
Remember that this is work, not your life. People are taking their work more personally than ever, and when work gets too personal people fall apart when something goes wrong. While passion for our work motivates us, we can’t let it consume our whole lives. Work is not family, religion or our identity. It is a job. Benjamin Hunnicutt, an historian and professor at the University of Iowa at Iowa City who specializes in the history of work, worries that work is fast replacing religion in providing meaning in people’s lives.
“Work has become how we define ourselves,” he says. “It is now answering the traditional religious questions: Who am I? How do I find meaning and purpose? Work is no longer just about economics; it’s about identity,” he says.
“Job-satisfaction studies over the past 20 years indicate that people are looking for identity, purpose, and meaning in their work, but very few are finding those things. That’s why people are job-hopping, desperately trying to find the work equivalent of the Holy Grail. They aren’t finding it because what they’re looking for — salvation from a meaningless life and a senseless world — simply can’t be found at work.”
In other words, love your work, but always maintain a life outside work that provides meaning and contributes to your identity. Should you get thrown under the bus, you will have better coping skills to bounce back. You are not defined by your job.
Think of the betrayal as a divorce: It’s natural to rehash what went wrong and get angry about it. But at some point you begin to get mired in those feelings and get trapped, acting as victim. The other route is to acknowledge the hurt, free yourself of anger and resentment, figure out what you can do to put the issue to rest and move on. Not easy.
Put on an anthropologist hat: Try to look at the situation like a scientist to more objectively understand what happened, and what you can learn from the situation. Eruptions, though painful, can be tremendous learning experiences. We get much smarter from our missteps.
Avoid failure language: Calling yourself a “failure” is an unhelpful label that may blind you from learning and recovering from the situation. We creative, innovative types tend to accomplish much, but not without missteps. It may be that your ideas were threatening or you didn’t understand the environment well enough before stepping on a landmine. This happens. Your actions or behavior erred. But you as a person are not a failure.
Find a new boss: whether inside the same organization, or in a position with a new company. Sometimes you’re never going to succeed with a particular boss. You can’t change him or her; only find canny ways to maneuver. Is the energy spent on maneuvering a good use of your energy? It might be depending on the opportunities and the organization. Or maybe not. See my previous post on how to find the right boss for questions to ask in an interview.
Getting thrown under the bus is a terrible experience. You will recover. It may be painful, but next time you’ll be so much more prepared.
“Everyone suffers at least one bad betrayal in their lifetime. It’s what unites us. The trick is not to let it destroy your trust in others when that happens. Don’t let them take that from you.”
Anger is powerful in a good and bad way. It can motivate us to act and it can derail our good intentions and credibility.
Carne Ross, former British diplomat and founder of the Independent Diplomat, quit the British Foreign Service due to his anger over how issues in Iraq and Kosovo were handled by official powers.
The Museum of Modern Art’’s Paola Antonelli nailed an interview that led to her position as senior curator at MOMA by angrily addressing an interviewer’s dismissive statement on design. “Anger can make you do interesting things. Beneficial good can come from positive anger,” she has said
Jay Rogers, CEO of Local Motors, started an open source automotive company based partly on his anger with America’s dependence on foreign oil – and his tour of duty as an elite Marine sniper in the Middle East.
Anger helps us see what we deeply care about, and it pushes us to act on those beliefs.
How anger derails, hurts our credibility
Anger can also trigger us to say and do things that make us say and do stupid things.
Frustrations can grow so acute that we lash out when we and our bosses, colleagues and/or task forces least expect it, surprising everyone, especially ourselves. We feel momentarily victorious finally saying what needed to be said. The outburst relieves pent-up stress. Then we realize that we have damaged ourselves. People have paid attention to our anger, but not necessarily our point.
When someone or something sets us off our heart starts racing, our jaw clenches, we sweat, our mouths go dry, and the voice in our head barks at us like a drill sergeant, “Set the record straight right this minute, damn it. Don’t be a sissy. Give it to them.”
In a rage we say things that attack. We come across as judgmental and hot headed. When we spew our anger, people usually run for cover or shut down as they wait for us to finish our rant.
Nothing good comes from these outbursts. Most damaging is that our anger gives others the ammunition to discredit us, labeling us as loose cannons, blowhards, short fuses, temperamental, overly emotional, hot headed, immature, unstable, lacking judgment, and maybe even an ass. It is all code for implying not so subtly that we are not a person the organization can, or should, trust.
What a mess.
When you feel you’re about to erupt, call on behaviors that help you cool down before spouting off. This requires enormous discipline and much practice. While I’ve gotten better at doing this through years of experience, there are times I err.
Techniques for managing anger
Here are some techniques to consier. See what works for you, and practice, practice, practice. By controlling your anger while also finding motivation from it, you’ll be able to act with more credibility, calm and effectiveness. You’ll also be more receptive to understanding the real obstacles you need to deal with.
- No personal attacks. Never, ever attack the person and use hurtful, rude, derogatory language towards them. Personal attacks cut the deepest and are the hardest to recover from. Go after the issue, but not people.
- What’s it like to be them? Try to understand what it’s like to be the person (or group) you’re angry with. What are they trying to protect? What makes them uncomfortable? What are they afraid of? How people talk about something conveys more information than the words themselves. Listen for the emotion beneath the words. This empathy will help neutralize some of your anger and help you see things more clearly.
- Find the data: Related to the above point, consider the upsetting idea, opinion, decision or person as a piece of data to be examined. Even if it makes your bile rise, there’s something to be understood in why the view is making you angry. Put on your anthropologist hat and try to observe what the real issues are. This calms down the negative anger and prevents you from lashing out. You’ll glean valuable insights by taking this approach, and you’ll earn credibility by showing people that they can express ideas without someone dismissing them or biting their heads off.
- Everyone is right: When angry we often believe we’re right, the other side is wrong. No helpful conversations can happen when we hold this belief. Everyone’s views (and underlying emotions and threat triggers) are valid. (Unless there is some excellent research proves otherwise. If that’s the case, show them the data and get onto objective territory as fast as you can.) If you acknowledge that the other side’s view is valid, they are more likely to appreciate that your views may be valid. “Your views on this topic are valid. It is risky to change a process that’s been in place for years. Similarly, my views are valid too. There are other types of risks if we don’t begin to change this process.” This sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t especially with the Bureaucratic Black Belts. But it’s a practice worth practicing.
- Acknowledge the tension and disagreement: Disarm yourself and the situation by acknowledging that tensions are high and disagreements are real.
- “We’re all feeling frustrated and on edge abut this. How about we go around the room and everyone shares what they’re feeling in a sentence or a couple of words? No interrupting, just everyone calmly telling us his or her position.”
- Or, acknowledge that you’re at an impasse and suggest, “We’re not making progress because emotions are running high, even those that are unstated but bubbling under the surface. Should we adjourn so we can all cool off?
- “Are there any data or research or subject matter experts we could bring into the conversation to help us see more clearly?”
- “Should we get an objective outsider to help facilitate our conversations so that we can resolve this situation?
- These questions recognize the tension and take an active approach to finding ways to address them. Often people suppress their anger, going passive while the frustration continues to build, increasing the chances of a harmful emotional outburst when you least expect it.
- Quarantine your email and your mouth: Impose a 24-hour no-email, no furious phone call quarantine on yourself. Take a walk, get out of the office. If pressed by the other person to respond, say “I have to reflect on this before being able to respond in a helpful way.” In other words, quarantine your mouth.
- Make a list: Go someplace away from people and write fast channeling your emotion and trying to find answers about what to do next that would help you move forward. Writing while angry cools you down, while also capturing potentially valuable ideas. (My best ideas come when I’m angry or feeling vulnerable. The head turns off, the smart heart kicks in.) Some prompts that have been helpful to us:
- What 10 things worry people most about this idea?
- What 10 pieces of objective data or credible anecdotes would help people open up their thinking around this?
- What are 10 things I can do to move the idea ahead that don’t require approvals and meetings with people who oppose the idea?
- What 10 people could I talk to who could help me see a way to move ahead?
- What are the 10 worst things that will happen if I abandon this idea?
The paradox of anger
Lastly, accept that some anger will always be present and powerful for rebels, change agents and innovators. . The secret is being aware of the paradox of anger. It can power and it can derail. Use the power, and find ways to stop yourself from doing and saying stupid things when angry.
Never, ever publicly embarrass, threaten or upstage a Bureaucratic Black Belt (BBB), those protectors of the status quo, upholders of processes and procedures, fighters for following the rules without exceptions, righteous minimizers of risk.
Similarly never start a fight with them. You will lose.
BBB’s can be formidable foes. You may never win them over or convince them to approve your idea. The best case is to neutralize them so that they don’t fight you and your rebel ideas. By neutralizing you’ll have a better chance of finding a way to work around them.
This is an important lesson for rebels, mavericks, change agents and innovators. The BBB’s are often our greatest obstacles. Not necessarily the official decision makers, but the people who can drain our energy and derail our plans. Selectively involving these gatekeepers is a necessary step in removing obstacles.
BBB’s hold all kinds of positions, though you will find more in Legal, Finance, and Human Resources, Customer Service, IT, Quality Management, and Environmental departments. If a person’s job involves any sort of regulations, compliance, product quality or public reputation risks, they are more likely to be a BBB of some degree. They have to, really. Don’t blame them for doing their jobs.
Which brings us to the first technique for neutralizing BBB’s.
Understand what it’s like to be them.
Put yourself in their position. What are they held accountable for? What happens if they make a mistake? Don’t properly enforce a government regulation? Not follow a standard procedure and get audited? They succeed by being fearful of what could go wrong. If they mess up, public humiliation for the entire organization is at risk.
If they’re not born that way, they become wired to say “No” to anything even slightly out of the norm.
We rebels see opportunities, they see danger.
So empathize with them. Feel their pain. (We know this can be challenging especially if you’ve been foiled continually by BBB’s, which is likely.)
Bring this empathy to your conversations with them, letting them know that you get how difficult it must be to be them. “It must get frustrating and lonely being the person who has to always remind people of the risks,” you might say. All people want to be seen, to know that people understand what it’s like to be them. Especially BBBs, who may have an even more difficult role at work than rebels.
This empathy is likely to ease the tension, perhaps put them at slightly more ease with you.
Who is The Person Most Revered?
Also helpful is to understand who in the organization the BBB respects, fears, wants to please. There is always someone. Find out who that person is, what’s important to him or her, and who or what influences him or her.
Then invoke the name of the Person Who Is Revered when dealing with the BBB. Better yet, figure out how to get support from the Person Who Is Revered, and tell the BBB that so and so supports your idea. The tiger is likely to back down a bit. Not entirely, but enough that you’ll find more space to navigate.
Ask questions vs. sell your ideas
BBB’s, like most of us, like to be recognized as smart and influential, so do feed this need by asking the BBB for advice. (This also helps you figure out what this person most wants or fears, more data points to factor into your neutralizing strategy.) You might say, “Diane (The Revered One) is interested in seeing how we might be able to make this idea work. If you were in my shoes, what would you do? What advice can you give me that might be helpful?”
If the BBB says something annoying and unhelpful like, “Diane should know better. That idea will never work here,” The next question to ask, “What would have to be in place for the idea to have any outside chance of working?” This data will help inform what you need to do, or how to position the idea. Questions are your friends in dealing with BBBs, as is listening.
Selective disclosure and conversation goals
Know, too, that you have won some points by involving the BBB. These people get angry and become stronger foes when you ignore them. Which is what we’d like to do because they can be so unpleasant and FRUSTRATING. Understand when and how to keep them in the loop. Disclose what you must, but not everything.
It’s also important to not wing it when going into meetings: Have a goal in mind whenever you have a conversation with a BBB. What do you want them to do, or not to do, after the conversation happens? The more clear and precise your goal, the more likely you’ll achieve it.
Free flowing, unstructured conversations with BBBs can be dangerous because we rebels tend to get passionate and excited about what’s possible. Passionate possibilities send warning signals to the BBB. “Danger! Danger! This person is not staying inside the lines; they are even talking about painting the lines orange instead of regulation blue. Beware of what she is saying. Stop thinking about what she is saying and launch into why this is not possible. Shut her down. Now.”
Lastly, thank BBBs when they are helpful. Public recognition for their efforts, especially with The Person Most Revered, will go a long way in making sure that they leave you alone.
Remember, BBB’s are unlikely to EVER fully support you. You just don’t want them to stop you.
You cannot win over Bureaucratic Black Belts.
Your job is to neutralize them so they don’t try to kill your idea.
Thanks to Michael H. Samuelson, author and founding CEO of The Health & Wellness Institute, for allowing us to share his 5th observation from his eBook, ” Wellness in the Workplace 2.0: 10 Key Observations from 35 Years in the Field.” His current title is one we love, “Chief Irritant.”
Let’s be honest. It’s much easier—and certainly safer—to sit back, complain, and wait for others to take action than it is to do something. That is, of course, unless you have passion, commitment, laser determination and God on your side.
Well, actually, skip that last one. She’ is on everyone’s side. At least that’s the pitch that supports the military-industrial complex (we should have listened to Ike) and looks nice on all of the banners.
Let’s just stick with passion, commitment and laser determination. When these three driving forces are present you can’t sit still, you can’t wait for someone else, and you can’t shut up. You stir and spit, shout and stomp your feet. You seize the torch that has been passed to you and your generation. You are Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. You take the crown out of the Pope’s hands and you crown yourself. Time is fleeting, daylight is burning, there are causes to advance and worlds to conquer!
“Emperor” too much? Okay. How about CI? Chief Irritant. You are the sand that produces the nacre that builds the pearl. So, let someone else sit back, complain, and wait for others to take action…just below the surface there are pearls in-waiting and you are the irritant that makes it all happen.
Let the spitting begin! Caution:
Sophocles was right, “No one loves the messenger who brings bad news.” As I have stated before, there are times when the boon, the prize, the newly found wisdom you bring to “fix things” is rejected. No matter the treasure, it is still disruptive in a world that knows not, or little, of its existence or value. What you may view as “The Answer” may well be viewed by others — particularly those in control — as the newest problem (read: YOU) to be dealt with, swiftly.
It’s no fun being spat upon. Trust me, on this one. I’ve been there. I’ve stimulated copious amount of spray, toweled off, and lived to irritate again. Being a CI is not always an easy ride but I like to modestly think—modestly—that along with picking up a few dents in my armor, I’ve also triggered the formation of a few pearls here and there…
10 Ways to Succeed as a Chief Irritant…Without Really Trying
1. Fasten Your Armor (you’re going to need it)
2. Pursue Your Need for Popularity Elsewhere
3. If You’re Not the Boss, Find a Champion in the “C” Suite
4. Practice “No-Oblique-Speak”
5. Compromise on Tactics…Not Ethics or Integrity
6. Irritate Without Judgment or Arrogance
7. Beware the Ides of March (et tu ______ )
8. Have a “No Jerks Allowed” Rule…Embrace the Spirituality of Imperfection
9. If you think everyone around you is a jerk…Look in the Mirror
10. Repeat after me, “Spit is Good”
Why do rebel thinkers so often feel miserable inside of their organizations?
Three overwhelming reasons. Restlessness, loneliness, and self-doubt.
We’re a restless bunch, always seeing new ways to do things better, easier, faster, better. Yes, I say better twice because we’re wired to keep raising the bar on excellence. Needless to say our ideas and relentless energy often exhaust or threaten our colleagues and bosses. So people often keep us at arm’s length, even those who appreciate the value we bring. This can feel lonely and lead to self-doubt, “Why aren’t they moving now on this idea? Am I off base? Am I not communicating the value well enough? Is it me or is it the idea? Why can’t I just slow down and take it more slowly like everyone else? Do I belong in this organization?”
What value do most rebel thinkers bring to the table?
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. My research has found that rebels 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.
The other overlooked value rebels bring is devotion to duty. Rebels care more about their organizations than most people. That’s why we ask the difficult questions that most people feel more comfortable avoiding, and risk being snubbed for suggesting unpopular ideas. We want our organizations to be the very best and we believe that our colleagues and we have what it takes to achieve more than our competitors.
(see the following chart for more)
We tend to trigger three threats that are wired into every person’s pre-frontal cortex, including those of our bosses. Our ideas often threaten managers’ sense of status, certainty and autonomy.
An overwhelming number of managers believe that they are supposed to create the strategy and have the answers — and employees are meant to execute on those ideas. Not question them. I’m the boss. I’ve got the senior vice president title. Hence, I know more and you should respect me for it. It sounds silly in this day and age of empowerment and collaboration, but protecting our status can lead all of us to act in illogical ways.
We humans are also wired to crave certainty. So when we rebels present innovative ideas that have no best practice precedents or haven’t been Six Sigma’d we trigger fears about certainty. Managers worry, “How will we know this will work? What if we make a mistake?” You get the picture.
The last threat is autonomy. Our managers like doing things their way. To suggest something different is to violate their sense of control and autonomy over what they know and like.
What are the consequences of not engaging with the rebel thinker?
Missed opportunities, a complacent corporate culture, and a talent deficit.
Rebel thinkers see risks and opportunities earlier than most people. This is a tremendously valuable competence in age of such rapid change and smaller windows to seize and capitalize on opportunities. One way to look at rebels is as your “intrapreneurs” bringing entrepreneurial thinking, speed, and competitive instincts inside the organization. They spot ideas and see ways to make them real.
The other consequences are that shutting out rebel thinking sends a signal to the organization that creativity, diversity of thinking and change are not welcome. When that happens, your best talent usually leaves, and the culture becomes complacent. Not rocking the boat. Accepting good enough as good enough. In today’s hyper competitive world, few organizations can survive with a “good enough” approach.
What is most surprising about corporate rebels?
Rebels are not motivated by formal recognition or financial incentives, nor are they “troublemakers.” They’re self-motivated to want to make a difference to their organization and to solve things that are not working as well as they could. My 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 teams to solve specific issues. They don’t want to just talk about ideas, opportunities and problems, the want to make things happen.
The second surprising thing is how many closeted rebel thinkers there are in companies. People are yearning to do more – and they know more about what to do than most executive teams realize.