Our systems — be they companies, government agencies, schools, churches or healthcare organizations — become brittle, rigid, bureaucratic, and sometimes even dangerous when there are no rebels or change makers who have the courage to say, “This isn’t the right way.” Look no further than General Motors’ recent debacle. This inspirational post reflects on what might happen in a world without rebels.
“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.
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.