Diversity of Thought: Be a Smart Rebel


A few weeks ago I posted on the concept of diversity of thought, and the importance of allowing for conflict and disagreement in the workplace.  One concept that is critical to diversity of thought is the ability of bringing your ‘whole self’ to work every day. This means that regardless of who you are or what identities are part of that, you do not have to feel that you need to account for any aspect of yourself in work.

It also means having the ability to speak your mind at work, regardless of your position, and be a willing part of any conversation. This idea, naturally, can lead to some conflict in the workplace, and the instigator labelled a rebel. But being a rebel in the workplace is not, in my mind, a bad thing at all, but rather a badge of honor. There is even a whole book (and website) devoted to this idea. Carmen Medina, formerly of the CIA, co-wrote a book on what it means to be a rebel in the workplace, and how you can bring yourself to work and infuse diversity of thought in organizations and be successful.

A key point of hers is that rebels need to be smart about the way in which they voice their opinions. We all have been in those positions where bosses say they want honest feedback, or opinions, but then when such feedback is given… you get the look. We all know the look – that silent glare that says we have gone too far, stepped on someones toes, and even if we have a genius idea, it is dead.

Suffice it to say, not everyone will like new ideas or thoughts you may have, so you need to be smart about when, where and how to voice those new thoughts. Medina very succinctly puts down on paper what does it mean to be a good rebel (i.e. one who is successful) versus a bad one – and I include it here:

Bad Rebels Good Rebels
Complain Create
Me-focused Mission-focused
Pessimist Optimist
Break Rules Change Rules
Alienate Attract
Problems Possibilities
Doubt Believe
Energy-Sapping Energy-Generating
Pirates Navy Seals
Obsessed Reluctant
Anger Passion

You can see that the good rebels encompass traits that I would argue constitute a natural leader – or someone who others want to be around. This little table has been a good reminder for me to look at from time to time. There have been times in every job where I have wanted to enact change – and this table helps me to see whether or not that desire for change is coming from the right place. If I notice that I am embodying those traits on the left side of the table, I tend to take a step back and re-evaluate my position.

What also helps me to be a smart rebel is to also know my own limits – or to know what items are those things that I think are worth standing up for. An example would be that, regardless of the cost, you would never do something your boss wants you to do if it is illegal. But outside of black and white situations, I would also suggest thinking of Polonius’ advice, “To thine own self be true.” And what I mean by that is to know your own lines in the sand and, alternately, how much you are willing to sacrifice in order to make change in an organization. There are times in our lives where we may not like the direction an organization is going, or taking, and we need to be prepared to make difficult decisions if they are required.

For more information on how to be a smart rebel, be sure to check out: *http://www.rebelsatwork.com/blog/

Beth Schill is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Danielle Metzinger

I love this post, Beth! I’m really intrigued by what you’ve presented here. Thanks for writing!

Beth Schill

Thanks, Danielle! I would love to hear more about your thoughts and how they can be acted upon in the day-to-day workplace.

richard regan

What Great Disruptors Have In Common

If you are a woman or a person of color in the federal sector, you most likely work in workplaces that are dominated by folks who do not look like you, talk like you or act like you. You learn quickly that if you are going to survive in work spaces where you are not part of the dominate group, you must learn the skill of disruption.

Disruptors go by many names. Jerks, positive deviants, bomb throwers or rebel rousers are a few terms that come to mind. Regardless of what they are called, these nonconformists live by the slogan of asking for forgiveness instead of permission. If there were no disruptors in the workplace, our organizations would crumble under the weight of conformity and the status quo.

With that being said, there is an art to being a disruptor. David Clarke, a global chief experience officer with PricewaterhouseCoopers, a professional services network suggests there are three distinct skills that disruptors who reside in subordinate groups must master:

It Is All About the Performance
If you are going to raise a little hell in the workplace, you better be a high performer with the best interests of the organization at heart. No one and I mean no one will take you seriously as a change agent if you cannot deliver the bacon on your end. If you are breaking things up you better have the talent and skills to put things back together again. High potential and high performance translates into people taking you seriously as a disruptor.

It is About the Organization and Not You
Disruption is not about hearing yourself talk but making the organization better. Allow confirmation bias to work for you as you attach your ideas and suggestions to things that are in the best interest of your trade. Highlight how your plans advance the aspirations of those you seek to influence.

It is About Staying Positive
Remember that a little bit of sugar makes the medicine go down. Disruptors bite on people and then they blow on the wounds. Remind yourself that everyone is prone to negativity bias so they will hear your disruption initially in a negative way. Frame your change message in a way that avoids emotional overreactions in the people you seek to persuade to your cause. Your byline should be nothing personal, this is about the business.

If you want to be a disruptor, bring you’re A-game to work every day, think we not me and do the devil’s work in the Lord’s name. You may never win the Miss Congeniality award but you may in up in the long run as your team’s most valuable player.

Beth Schill

I think you make some very good points – and I read the same article by the partner at PWC. It is true that you have to be an excellent performer to be taken seriously. And that is where some of Medina’s ideas come into play. If you just complain all the time, and don’t take initiative, people are just going to think you are a sulky person. Yet, if you can work proactively to make the change you would like to see – others will be much more likely to support you in your quest.

Lucy Sears

This is fascinating. It also led me to consider what happens when an individual treads the line, where he or she can possess traits of both a bad rebel and good rebel. If you notice a co-worker beginning to display traits of a bad rebel, how would you go about gently pointing this out to him or her in a constructive manner? Thanks!

Beth Schill

I think this is a great question. From my perspective giving a ‘rebel’ the space to explore and innovate is key to helping them remain on the positive side of the spectrum. As a boss, give them some top-cover in case their idea fails, but encourage them to run with it. I think that having ideas shut down just because they are different or “aren’t the way we do things” is what leads them down the negative side


Hi Beth– this is great! To be sure, are obsessive and reluctant flipped? If not, how can practicing reluctance be used? Curious! Thanks much!

Beth Schill

Hi there – I checked and they are not flipped. I think what the authors were trying to say is that a negative rebel becomes obsessed with getting their way. Think of your typical “my way, or the highway” manager who has to control everything. Whereas a good rebel is reluctant to push an agenda, and takes time to question their own motivations before making a move. I hope that helps clarify.

Anne D.

One person’s passion is another person’s anger. And this is a particularly problematic area for women who are often told when we are putting our position forth using language similar to our male counterparts that we’re “too angry.”