The classic 1955 movie “Rebel Without a Cause” depicted the aimless rejection of society’s values (however narrow-minded those values may be) and its tragic results.
It reflected an era when rebelliousness was equated with criminality and the way to get ahead in business was to be an organization man (and they were almost always men) and not challenge the status quo.
Today, the middle-manager roles that personified the conformist culture of dark suits and white shirts have largely disappeared, but not the “don’t rock the boat” mentality that pervades many organizations.
For startups in particular, rebellion isn’t a negative, but almost a requirement for success. And it’s something that large organizations should encourage as well.
Nicolas Colin of venture capital firm The Family thinks rebellion is one of three key entrepreneurial characteristics, in addition to capital and know-how. “An entrepreneur always challenges the status quo. If they wanted to play by the book, they would innovate within big, established companies, where they would be better paid and would have access to more resources.”
Rebelliousness is usually called “disruption” when applied to startups such as Uber, Airbnb and Warby Parker, which have successfully challenged the business models of, respectively, the taxi, lodging and optician industries. Steve Jobs is the Silicon Valley archetype of creative rebelliousness.
Conventional wisdom would have it that such rebelliousness is confined to entrepreneurs and other lone-wolf operators that aren’t constricted by bureaucracy. But rebels in any organization are not only a good thing, but often a necessary thing.
First let’s distinguish between rebels who are just against what you might want them to do because it’s too much work, they don’t see the point or it’s just a lot of corporate nonsense. We don’t call those people rebels, we call them bad employees. Rebels in the positive sense of the term are those who are always looking for new ways of doing things, not so much because doing so challenges the status quo, but because it transforms the status quo.
Good Rebels Do Good Work
Here are some examples of what Lois Kelley and Carmen Median call “good rebels” in their book Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change.
- A government manager was frustrated by dealing with layers of bureaucracy when trying to inspire change and improve operating efficiency. The manager sent a tweet to the agency’s 1.35 million employees to submit improvement ideas. This initiated the first annual National Health Service (NHS) Change Day in the United Kingdom, with 189,000 pledges of ways to do work better.
- An engineer presented ideas for an industry-changing wastewater management technology three years in a row. The executive team did not adopt it. So the engineer presented it to the company’s clients, incorporated their suggestions, and then presented it as something clients wanted. The technology went to market, which proved very successful for clients and the company.
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And here are examples of what happens when rebels are ignored and “organizational silence” prevails to avoid embarrassment, negative responses and challenges to competency.
- NASA engineers warned of potential flaws of O-rings in rocketry components that could impair the safety of the space shuttle Challenger. The warnings were ignored. In 1986, the Challenger exploded on lift-off. A subsequent inquiry faulted NASA’s organizational culture and decision-making processes that discouraged dissent.
- Some Eastman Kodak employees foresaw digital photography replacing photographic film long before it became a reality. Yet senior management was content with film profitability and did not support the recommended digital initiatives. In 2012, Eastman Kodak went into bankruptcy and in 2013 sold many of its patents.
- GM engineers failed to disclose safety issues related to a faulty ignition switch. Before the company issued a recall, 54 crashes occurred and some 100 people died in accidents that might have been connected to the problem.
Of course, sometimes rebelliousness is not good for either employee or employers, let alone for customers. The most recent example is VW’s tinkering with the pollution software on its diesel cars to provide false fuel consumption readings. Media and Kelly note that rebels who achieve positive results share the following tactics:
- They think about the future.
- They align their ideas with organizational goals.
- They demonstrate how the benefits of change outweigh the costs and/or discomfort.
- They give people time to absorb new ideas and provide opportunities to reconsider them.
- They respond to conflict creatively with refinements that advance the original idea but in a way that is more responsive to decision-makers.
- They convert other rebels. The more people you can win to your side, the more momentum you build, the greater the likelihood you’ll win over the resistant.
- They don’t give up, but find ways to reintroduce their ideas without being antagonizing.
As the MindTools newsletter points out:
At first glance, rebels might seem to be nothing but trouble. However...rebels can make things happen–they bring about change, and can even transform entire organizations. For example, rebels aren't afraid to stick their necks out for things they believe in. They often tell the truth, even when it's unpopular. They have innovative ideas because they enjoy challenging existing ones, and they're not afraid to express those ideas, even when they're the only ones to do so. Rebels tend not to be afraid of risk or hard work either. Colleagues may find their energy disconcerting, but this isn't always a bad thing. After all, innovation can stagnate when people get too comfortable.
Related Article: Why Company Culture Matters More to Employee Than Pay
Every company needs some “rebels with a cause.” Without them, a business is at the mercy of the forces of change, rather than being the force of change.