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Fostering Rebel Talent

In the last couple of weeks I have been exploring topics directly related to my role as manager of the Oakland Civic Design Lab. Past topics have included vulnerabilityleadershiptrusting the processfailing safely, using data in decisionshow to discover untapped expertise on your team, and radical ambition.

Collectively, these blog posts have been my attempts to, in real time, process how to navigate, survive, thrive and ultimately change the bureaucratic ecosystem. Recently, I read some articles and listened to a podcast that give insight into the difficulties of innovating. This made me question what ingredients need to be present for innovation to happen and for innovators (rebel talent) to have enough staying power to actually see change come to fruition.

The first article, titled New in government? Here’s how to succeed and make an impact provides “Three tips to turbocharge your career – and avoid government burnout.” For purposes of this piece, I’ll just focus on the first tip (though you should definitely read the whole thing), which essentially says that as a new employee, you shouldn’t be too quick to share your ideas because government like all social institutions is cliquish and therefore you will not be successful unless or until you are accepted into the clique.

“It takes time to get to know people and to be accepted. It also takes a little humility, because no one wants to feel like you arrived already certain you were better than them and their work.

That means you need to wait to share all your good ideas, even if they are what the organisation needs, until you know you’re in the tribe.

There are teams and offices with a terrible culture where you may not be willing to take the time or make the sacrifices it would take to get into the tribe so you can start to improve things. In that case, you may want to move on.”

As a newcomer, this tip both resonates with me and makes me wonder, why should the labor of being accepted be on the person coming into the organization? Doesn’t the organization also share some responsibility in setting the newcomer up for success by helping to steward this acceptance?

This dovetails with the second article I read this week, titled When to Take Initiative at Work, and When Not To (again, I recommend that people read the entire piece). In this article, the authors focus on the delicate balance that must be struck when attempting to be proactive:

But proactivity can go wrong. Emerging evidence suggests that, if proactivity is not channeled in the right way, it can backfire and have unintended negative consequences for organizations, leaders, team members, and individuals. This dynamic has been labeled the “proactivity paradox”: Proactivity is desired, but only if it conforms exactly to the expectations of the person in charge (emphasis mine). For instance, people may initiate the wrong type of change and end up costing their organizations money, or they may have the drive to negotiate a better workload for themselves, but as a result offload tasks onto others. Such proactive “surprises” can upset peers and leaders, and the resulting backlash often harms the initiator.

All this to say, there is a right and a wrong way to be proactive.

What I enjoyed about this article is that it put the onus on both management and employees to engage in wise proactivity. After all, how can an employee succeed at wise proactivity if there is no organizational investment?

Organizations can help by coaching their employees in how to practice the three elements of wise proactivity in a balanced way. Managers in particular should be trained to model these behaviors and teach their staff to do the same. Recruiters and human resource professionals can help by considering job applicants’ ability to balance these three aspects of wisdom when considering candidates. Behavioral interview questions should focus not merely on understanding if a job candidate is proactive, but also on how wise this person’s proactive actions are. By facilitating wise proactivity, organizations can foster employees who make the right things happen in the right ways.

Navigating these cultural phenomena are of particular importance, if, like me, the entirety of your job is built around innovation. As a practical matter, innovation and change are often constructed around the idea of “asking for forgiveness rather than for permission,” however, as the above articles demonstrate, doing so can potentially be perilous for an individual and an organization.

The third piece, I would like to discuss is the Hidden Brain Episode, titled, Rebel with a cause. In this episode, the host speaks with social scientist Francesca Gino how her book Rebel Talent: Why It Pays To Break The Rules At Work And In Life. A couple of excerpts of note are below (again, I encourage everyone to listen to the podcast in its entirety):

When I think about the various businesses and organizations that I studied as I was working on the book, I’ve noticed a couple of things that seems to be really important when we think about this thin line. First is the fact that in businesses where people are encouraged to break the rules, the leaders are very clear on the rules that should not be broken, context in which you absolutely need to follow the guidelines or the rules…

And second – and other things that I noticed in businesses that encourage rebelliousness – is the fact that once you trust people to break rules, they seem to have very good judgment. They sort of decide on their feet the situations where you really should be putting your head down and follow the script, rather than using your mind in a creative way to come up with a different solution. So that type of good judgment is something that I’ve seen in so many different rebels and in so many organizations where people are encouraged to be rebellious.

What I found fascinating about this podcast is everyone profiled could either be construed as a “good” rule-breaker or a troublemaker depending upon perspective. The quotes above demonstrate that to some extent, that perspective will be informed by the culture of the organization.

Most importantly for me, though, was that organizations who have supportive ecosystems also have bright-line rules, so that employees can feel confident in what they are attempting to change or what rules they are breaking.

Taken together, these articles and the podcast posit intriguing questions about managing change and the dual responsibilities of employees and leadership.

Are there policies or practices that you put into place to foster an environment conducive to change? How do you help employees become integrated into to your tribe? Do you have well-defined areas or topics that allow for rule breaking and those that do not?

I would love to hear how others are navigating these complex questions.

 Brandon L. Greene is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. He is the Manager of the Civic Design Lab in Oakland. Brandon is a graduate of Boston University Law School where he was a Public Interest Scholar and Martin Luther King Social Justice Fellow. Previously, Brandon was an Attorney and Clinical Supervisor at the East Bay Community Law Center where he created and lead the decriminalization of poverty clinic. Brandon’s article Depraved Necessities: Prison Privatization, Educational Attainment and the Path to Profit was published in 2013 by SRBLSA Law Journal. His forthcoming articles will be published in the Harvard Blackletter Law Journal and the Berkeley Criminal Law Journal. Twitter: @brandonlgreene. You can read his posts here.


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