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.
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.
People who change the world in small and big ways, rebel FOR change they believe will make a difference. They are also keen observers and want to work with others to make the possible real. Over the holidays I had the luxurious pleasure of re-reading author and leadership activist Margaret Wheatley’s book Turning To One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future.
Here’s an excerpt that captures the behaviors of those with a desire to lead.
Turning to one another
Ask “what’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?” Keep asking. Notice what you care about. Assume that many others share your dreams.
Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.
- Talk to people you know.
- Talk to people you don’t know.
- Talk to people you never talk to.
Be intrigued by the differences you hear.
- Expect to be surprised.
- Treasure curiosity more than certainty.
Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.
- Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.
- Know that creative solutions come from new connections.
Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know. Real listening always brings people closer together.
Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.
Rely on human goodness. Stay together.
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.
A physician friend recently told me that she was depressed about her work. It wasn’t just that her hospital was focused more on financials than healing, it was something much, much more serious to her.
Hospital executives no longer valued the physicians’ opinions. In fact, a passionate and respected department head had just been fired because of remarks made during Grand Rounds in the presence of an executive from another hospital.
“So if we speak the truth to try to improve medicine and our medical institution, we get axed,” she said. “How are we ever going to change health care if we can’t talk about the real issues? How are we going to be able to care for patients when we feel under-appreciated and demoralized? I’ve given my professional life to this institution, but seeing how we get treated for our commitment makes me think it might be time to leave.”
Today when I saw this photo from a Wall St. protester, I realized how dangerous it is for well-meaning people to speak the truth. And yet, how will we improve and grow without new ideas and the benevolent rebels with the courage to challenge assumptions and the status quo? You can’t just keep firing the rebels who speak up and expect that the rest of the organization won’t be deeply affected, which in turn affects business outcomes.
Do executives even realize that their companies have turned into fearful corporate cultures? If not, why? If they do, how are they stepping up to lead in ways that acknowledge fear and uncertainty — while recognizing bravery and truth telling in service to the organization’s vision?
In the coming months I’ll be talking with executives about leading in an age of disruption and uncertainty, as well as with benevolent rebels who have walked out of corporate positions to walk on to new organizations where their questions, opinions and passions are valued.
Is there someone you think I should interview? Suggestions gratefully welcomed!
Yes, the times are a changin. We need great leaders and truth tellers now more than ever.
Does your organization support a culture of change and innovation?
While most leaders want to be more innovative, often their cultures, business practices and management values don’t support such an environment. Foghound’s study on corporate rebels found that just 34% are very satisfied with rebels ability to provide value in their organizations.
Here are six questions for leaders to consider as they assess how “change and innovation-friendly” their companies really are.
- When you look in the corporate mirror do you see a culture open to new perspectives?
“Rebels often butt heads with their supervisors who want helpers not idea people. Rebels don’t want to hear, “That’s not the way we do things around here.” Foghound Corporate Rebel survey respondent
- How do you lead management discussions so that people learn how to make decisions within a paradox of innovation?
How do you balance getting work done – with finding new ways to work? With adhering to standards – with taking risks? With rewarding employee cooperation – with recognizing employees for challenging the status quo?
- Does your culture create obstacles or opportunities for people with the courage to challenge assumptions and ask new questions?
- If people are your most valuable resource, how are you creating ways to tap into their collective brilliance? How do you make diverse perspectives heard?
- Who and what filters new ideas? Are they helpful filters — or blinders?
- Do your corporate values and beliefs encourage behaviors needed to innovate? (Or are your values rather bland and safe?)
Foghound Corporate Rebel Study: Value Rebels Provide to Companies
To develop more innovative ideas, we have to stop using conventional right brain/left brain brainstorming techniques.
The reason? Nobel-prize winning neuroscientists have found that the big “ahas” come from a model of the brain called “intelligent memory.” When we learn something new our brains connect it with what’s already in our memory bank. When different pieces combine into a new pattern we have an “aha” insight flash.
This scientific finding means that we need to develop alternative ways to traditional brainstorming.
Just as the intelligent memory concept has replaced the old two-sided brain theory in neuroscience, companies need to replace brainstorming with methods that reflect more accurately how creative ideas actually form in the mind,” writes Columbia Business School professor William Duggan in “How Aha! Really Happens” in the winter issue of Strategy and Business.
Over the past 18 months I’ve been using several new strategic ideation and problem-solving approaches based on intelligent memory with much success. Although I must confess corporate clients initially feel uncomfortable and wary with these new approaches because they are so different from traditional “brainstorming sessions.”
Some of the elements that I find very effective in helping clients find the “aha insights”:
- Reflecting on previous experiences and why they worked. This relaxes people, gets them off of focusing on the problem at hand. During a one or two-day session I ask people to look at these patterns of past success and what they might mean. Inevitably helpful connections are made.
- Forgoing a logical order: I use exercises and conversations that seem to wander in order to help people wander through possibilities and previous experiences. Wandering results in far more significant outcomes than a straight path. Often someone will ask, “where is this going? Are we going to be able to come up with ideas to our situation today.” About half-way through the day, they begin to see the magic of taking a non-linear route.
- The art of good questions: being asked provocative, unusual questions is one of the best ways to trigger thinking and conversations that lead somewhere. I joke, though seriously, with friends that my questions are my art. The most challenging part of guiding people to “aha’ insights is asking questions that open, deepen, and often explode thinking. Questions that tap into what they know in unusual ways, breaking lose new patterns and connections.
- Photos, superpowers and metaphors: other techniques that tap into the intelligent memory is the use of photos, superhero superpowers, and metaphors to see, frame and understand situations in unusual new ways — ways needed to connect new dots. Again, people often wonder what the heck I’m doing to their heads using these approaches.
- Avoid conference rooms! Working in conference rooms is an energy killer, especially if sitting at a conference room table. It’s so stultifying that I no longer will do collaborative workshops in this format. Far better to have a big room, some chairs you can move around, lots of wall space for sticking up ideas.
- Do we really need to spend all day?: People spend so much time doing strategic analysis and developing strategic plans and allot so little for thinking. Yet if you don’t have the strategic ideas, the planning is for naught. There’s some weird feeling that spending a day thinking is wasting time. Clients often ask, “Do we really need to spend five hours? Couldn’t we do it in two?” Well, no. The way the brain works it takes at least two hours to mentally get into a place where your brain is relaxed enough to actually think creatively and begin to make the types of new connections that give you that brilliant flash of insight. If you really want to tap into collective brilliance. If you really want ideas that will make a difference, chunk out some time and chill. I like to use the advice from a consultant who helps high-powered attorneys improve their performance: “don’t just do something, sit there.”
So as you look at innovation and problem solving, look for new ways that tap into the true science of the brain and say goodbye to traditional brainstorming. It just won’t get you where you want to go fast enough because of the way our brains are wired.
As William Duggan writes:
“Eventually, we can expect more techniques based on the new science of intelligent memory to replace methods from the previous paradigm. Companies that get there first will have a distinct advantage. What innovation does your company use, and in which paradigm do they fit, the old view of the mind or the new?