A meeting with a CEO who dislikes rebels and change agents reminds me of a most important lesson: the need to be prepared before pronouncing big ideas.
A meeting with a CEO who dislikes rebels and change agents reminds me of a most important lesson: the need to be prepared before pronouncing big ideas.
You may have heard the self-help gurus talk about how paralyzed people have become by all their stuff, jammed into their houses, garages, storage units. It’s overrunning people’s lives and making them miserable.
The same thing is happening at work. We have so many programs, processes, special initiatives, goals, strategic mandates, task forces, and focus areas that people are overwhelmed. I recently met with a company task force that was trying to figure out a way to communicate the brand messages, corporate vision, company purpose, employee values, and four new “pathway to success” programs, all with their own titles and acronyms.
There is one week every September where I fully immerse myself in ideas, possibilities and new people. Last week I attended the Business Innovation Factory’s annual innovation conference. Here’s what I learned and was reminded of:
When we lay bare our vulnerabilities and dreams, we connect with people in rich ways. As author and venture capitalist Whitney Johnson said, “There are no regrets when you show up, and when you show up your dreams can find you. Dreaming is at the heart of disruptive innovation.”
I’ve attended every BIF conference and have noticed that innovators ask good questions, and those questions get people thinking in new ways. One of my favorites this year were what educator Angela Maiers uses to challenge high school students as part of the Choose2Matter movement: What breaks your heart about the world? What can you do about that? What do you need?
Food geek Scott Heimendinger kept his day job in technology and on weekends and nights wrote a food blog and started experimenting with sous vide cooking. Acknowledging that it’s OK to be risk averse, which he is, Scott just kept working away on his love for molecular gastronomy as a side project. Eventually, he found his new path as director of applied research at The Cooking Lab. Innovators just start without knowing what the outcomes should or will be.
Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, has created a new higher ed approach, aimed particularly for disadvantaged, often marginalized adults who want to get ahead at work. For just $1,250 people can earn an associate’s degree and learn the competencies they need to get a promotion and access the social mobility needed to have a better life. Rather than tweaking the traditional higher ed model or continuing to engage in side issues like student loan rates, SNHU created a new model that goes to the root issues: people want to learn competencies in new, affordable ways so that they can get better jobs FYI: Fast Company has named SNHU one of the worlds’ 50 most innovative companies.
Speaking of not being too big to change. Just as Pope Francis’ stunning interview urging The Catholic Cburch to preach more about mercy and less about dogma was published last week (Hallelujah!), Rabbi Irwin Kula was speaking on stage about the urgent need to un-bundle wisdom and practices from the people who own them, and to make sure that our moral enhancements keep pace with technological enhancements. “Religion is just a tool box,” he said. “It’s time to consider blending practices from all religions and make love and empathy the source of what we are designing for the world.” Amen.
The wise and generous innovation adviser Deb Mills-Scofield reminded people that it matters not how large or extensive your network is if you do not use it for good, sharing it with others to open up possibilities for them.
The easiest and fastest way to create more innovation in an organization is to accelerate generation change, said Bruce Nussbaum, former Business Week editor and now professor of Innovation and Design at Parsons The New School of Design. My thought: how do we help Baby Boomers share their wisdom and transition to new roles so that younger people can step in and create more of the change that is so needed?
Towards the end of the week after many consecutive 16-hour days of intense listening and provocative conversations, I was reminded of how much I value sleep and quiet think time.
The huge value of empowering the rebels inside organizations seemed to resonate with many, as did Carmen Medina‘s belief that optimism is the greatest form of rebellion and positive change. Rebels at Work see possibilities, not insolvable problems.
Playfulness, joy and unexpected silliness are essential to our humanity. Erminio Pinque, founder Big Nazo Lab, creates big, funky, life-sized foam creatures for parades and for their own special Big Nazo Shows. Erminio told me that the surprise of the creatures and costumes opens people up to being people. While going through airport security recently, the TSA screeners pulled the foam creature masks out of the suitcase and yelled across to their colleagues, “Hey Joe. Check this out.” Everyone in line forgot their frustrations and frantic schedules and laughed together. Like children in awe of the world’s wondrous surprises.
Tim McDonald, director of communities for the HuffingtonPost, and I sat together during the conference. As we said our goodbyes he gave me a big bear hug and explained that he sees meeting people via social media as “the real world,” and when he gets to meet them physically he likes to give big hugs. I love his approach to digital handshake, in-person hug. Talk about connecting.
The life of Carl Stormer‘s wife was upended when she had a massive stroke at age 43, and they learned to keep going and find meaning in a life that is not what one would choose. Carl’s wife believes that control is for beginners. And that, dear friends, was my greatest takeaway of an intense week of learning.
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:
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.
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.”
So what can you do to move from advocacy to inquiry? To help foster healthy dissent vs. angry debates? Here are some suggestions.
- 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?”
“Mum, if you’re so interested in this folk metal band, why don’t you come to the concert with me on Friday night,” my 17-year-old son asked as we watched the band’s YouTube videos.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “All that screaming and headbanging and moshing. Do you know how old I am?”
Later that night I thought, why not? What might I learn if I went? Who might I meet and what kind of story might emerge?
The next morning I read a post by Seth Godin, “Ridiculous is the New Remarkable,” in which he wrote:
We can view the term ridiculous as an insult from the keeper of normal, a put-down from the person who seeks to maintain the status quo and avoid even the contemplation of failure.
Or we embrace ridiculous as the sign that maybe, just maybe, we’re being generous, daring, creative and silly. You know, remarkable.
Generous, daring, creative and silly? Mmmmm.
Then yesterday a big city mayor’s chief of staff called and asked if I could lead a retreat the Saturday after Christmas for front-line city managers who are burned out and frustrated. “Their jobs are never going to get easier, but maybe you could help them get re-energized and see that they’re part of something bigger.”
Again, my first thought was, “That’s ridiculous. I planned on taking a week off. I have no time to get my head around this. I don’t know any of these people, and I’d be giving my time away.”
So I agreed to do it.
This afternoon I have a call with a former editor at Random House about editing a book that I’ve been too afraid to push out into the world, and yet feel needs to get into the world. I’ve decided to self-publish the book, which seems ridiculous. Will anyone take it seriously if I self-publish? With Guy Kawasaki’s new book as my guide, I’m going to do it. (The books is APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur: How To Publish Your Book.)
You see, I’ve decided to make “ridiculous” a strategy for 2013.
When presented with situations that my gut screams “RIDICULOUS!” I am going to say yes. Ridiculous will be a filter for making decisions on how I spend my time, how I learn, and how I challenge my own assumptions.
Since I made this strategic decision yesterday, the year ahead feels quite exciting. Perhaps even liberating.
People often ask me how I make decisions about my business and my own professional development. In fact, last week someone asked about how I make decisions to support my “personal brand.” I hope I didn’t offend the woman when I burst out laughing and then told her why I think obsessions around personal branding are self-limiting. Perhaps I should write to her with a more considered response, “My strategic filter for my career development in 2013 is ridiculousness.”
I don’t know where this adventure will take me, but I am confident I will learn much, laugh much, and become a more creative and empathetic person.
Warmest wishes for a holiday season that’s ridiculously happy and rich in possibilities.
The two-hour session devolved into conversations about personalities, systems limitations, approval hold-ups by the legal department, problems uncovered by market research, frustrations with the sales strategy, and a concluding “why do we keep talking about the same problems over and over?”
People left frustrated, exhausted and angry. Not much of significance had been accomplished. Such a waste of time.
And no wonder. When conversations get pulled into the emotion of drama and problems our primitive brain takes over and shuts off our higher order intelligence, says Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence. In other words, drama begets drama instead of any useful ideas on how to accomplish what’s at stake.
Interestingly I was in a recent academic meeting focused on innovation and creativity that also fell into the rat hole of drama, problems, details, and more drama. Guess how creative and innovative that two hours turned out to be?
Quiet Leadership author David Rock suggests two practices that I find helpful. Agree in meetings on where to focus the conversation: vision, planning, detail, problem and drama. Wherever possible, keep all conversations focused on vision and planning. In this positive, low-anxiety mental state we’re better able to think fully and creatively
When you have to discuss detail, focus on one detail in a 10 minute chunk. After 10 minutes, we lose our ability to concentrate on that topic, says John Medina, author of Brain Rules. “You’ve got seconds to grab someone’s attention and only 10 minutes to keep it. At 9 minutes and 59 seconds, something must be done to regain attention and restart the clock.”
I see another opportunity in staying focused on the bigger picture: it is in this positive frame of mind that we’re more able to disagree in productive, creative ways. Because our minds are calmer and we’re focused on shared goals in this mindset, we’re able to intellectually consider and discuss alternatives. There’s a higher order of thinking that’s possible during this mental state, say the neuroscientists.
Once we get into drama and pointing fingers at people and problems, dissent becomes dangerous and unhelpful.
Not to mention that there’s no emotional energy left for compassion or creativity.
I’ve taken a new professional vow: keep the meetings I’m in focused on solutions, and out of drama and problems. Want to join me?
“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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
One factor distinguishes corporate cultures where creativity, trust, progress and and expedient problem solving abound. It’s safe to think differently, voice ideas that challenge the status quo, bring up the elephants hanging around the conference rooms.
If the environment doesn’t feel safe to employees, no amount of team-building exercises, awards for creativity, financial incentives for “employee suggestions,” or expensive organizational culture and/or innovation consultants will make a difference.
As humans our brains are wired to perceive threats faster than our logical minds work. When we perceive these threats we retreat, just as we would run if someone were physically threatening us. (For more on this topic, check out David Rock’s excellent book “Your Brain At Work.“)
People are afraid to speak up at work. They’re afraid they’ll sound dumb, make someone upset, get in trouble with their boss, maybe even get fired. This fear not only stymies good ideas it can cause tragedy.
The story of NASA’s Challenger space shuttle is legendary. People were afraid to speak the truth. And those brave engineers who did were eventually over-ruled by senior executives whose emotions were tied up around fears about “looking bad.” There were no ill intentions on anyone’s part. But clearly people didn’t feel safe dissenting forcefully enough to stop the shuttle, and the leaders were listening to logic and not hearing in-between the lines. They didn’t sense the engineers’ fears and concerns. Listening to someone’s words but not the feelings expressed in those words is half-listening.
The challenge — dare I say leadership 101 requirement — is for leaders is to create the conditions for safety, model that behavior, and require all leaders to do so as well. Easier said than done. We’ll dive into this in more detail in future posts, but here are 11 pragmatic ways to create safety in everyday work meetings and conversations.
More creative people is the largest factor in spurring innovation, according to this insightful GE Innovation Barometer 2012 infographic. Play with the chart and see what most spurs innovation in different global regions and countries. Yup. Creative people is almost twice as more important than any other dimension.
Where do you find more creative people to help your company grow? You most likely have the people, but you probably need to adjust your corporate culture and processes to allow them to be much more creative. Some ideas to consider. None require big budgets, just slightly different ways to work.
There’s much more to share. But for now know that you have incredible potential in your organization. I see untapped magic and talent all the time. People are waiting to be invited to do more in more new ways. As leaders, help your repressed creative souls break free. It’s the only way to innovate all the time, in small ways and big.
What one thing could you do next week to make your organization a more welcoming creative place?
Agnes DeMille was talking to fellow dancer and choreographer Martha Graham in 1943, worrying that her recent success with Oklahoma! was unwarranted. DeMille wanted her work to be great, but questioned whether she could live up to her hopes.
The story goes that the generous and genius Martha Graham turned quietly to DeMille gave her this advice. Advice that perhaps all we innovators, rebels and passionate professionals should take to heart.
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.
And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.
You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you.
Keep the channel open.
When our brain senses that our status is being threatened, our thinking shuts down. We avoid the person or situation making us feel so uncomfortable, and we often stay away from any activity or idea about which we’re not confident. Worse, we label the other person as “wrong” so we can be “right.”
We don’t necessarily do this consciously. It’s just our brains’ natural response when our status is under attack, say the neuroscientists.
So when corporate rebels and mavericks challenge an organization’s status quo and executive decisions, leaders’ brains go on high-alert. Their decisions, their plans, their position feel threatened and under attack. The neuroscience research says this threat to status activates the same brain regions as physical pain.
The leaders’ knee-jerk reaction is often to label the people with the fresh new ideas as troublemakers. Or not having enough experience to really know what they’re talking about. And jeez, that kid isn’t even a manager, what could she know? (See how put downs can make you feel better and restore your status?)
Guess what this reaction does to people with the fresh ideas that you need to lead? They run for the hills. Maybe they try to approach you or another executive again, but you’re likely not to welcome what they have to say. Through words, tone or body language you broadcast the message throughout your organization: your ideas are NOT WELCOME.
And then you wonder why the culture isn’t more innovative and creative. Why too few people speak up with substantive comments at meetings. Why it seems like you’re the only one with the answers.
Time to get your brain in line and recognize your “threat” triggers so that you can control them — instead of them controlling you.
Some executives have told me that “rebels and change agents need to learn how business works. You can’t just disrupt things and expect everyone to change.”
But should the corporate rebels be the ones to have to adapt their style? Or should leaders find ways to better understand how to control their threat triggers so that they can create a safe, welcoming climate for new ideas?
To me, this is the responsibility of the leader. All people can benefit from understanding and managing what trips them up. But with the prestige and financial compensation of being a leader comes the responsibility for first and foremost managing oneself. So your head is ready to be in the game of leading.
This is why so many great leaders are humble. Humility reduces the status threat. It puts people at ease talking with you. It clears the leader’s mind of emotion so that he or she can really understand what people are saying.
Another way to manage the brain is to reappraise situations that start to trigger your emotions. What’s the other person’s perspective? What does he want me to understand? What does she want me to do and why? Look at what’s being said as data and nothing more.
Economic and competitive threats are relentless, causing their own set of threats and associated behavioral responses. But to succeed companies need new ideas and the best ideas are likely to come from the rebels and mavericks inside your own organization.
As a leader, help those people who can most help you succeed. Even if they make you uncomfortable. Maybe especially because they make you uncomfortable.
Help yourself by seeing challenges to the status quo as possibilities not attacks on your position.
Last week my husband told me there is another woman.
My reaction was denial. After all these years, how could there be another?
Flash back 14 years ago to a fundraising auction at our son’s preschool. Greg and I were like over-excited kindergarteners trying to win the bid for this painting by Ron Ehrlich, an extraordinarily talented artist whose children also attend the school.
Win we did, putting the large painting in the living room.
My family and friends tease me about how much I love this painting. Every time a new child comes to our house I ask him or her to look closely to see how many women they can find in the painting. I love watching them concentrate on trying to see what ‘s not apparent. When they excitedly point at the painting and say, “There she is!” We talk about her. Is she an African woman wearing a basket on her head? How long are her legs? Is she part of the horse? When they don’t think there are any more women I point out all my girls.
Up until last week I thought I had seen them all.
But sitting at the far end of the living room while the dim December sun lit the painting, my husband saw another woman. She’s been in our living room for 14 years, but neither of us had ever seen her. Now that we are aware of her big silhouette we wonder how we ever missed her.
As the year ends and we enter the dark season, I’m wishing that you, too, can see more in what already exists – find fresh opportunities in your work by thinking more about possibilities than problems, recognize qualities in your family and friends that have been overlooked, challenge your own certainty to let in new views, new people, and new courage to help you achieve what you really care about.
That other woman is waiting to welcome us.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.