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Are You a Rebel At Work? Here’s How To Tell…

Government rebels from all walks of life spanning a range of government agencies united in full force at this year’s NextGenGov’s summit, and it was inspiring. Now, these rebels were not your stereotypical outliers or black sheep; the packed room included a Fellow from the State Department, a Medicaid expert from Wyoming, and a Management Analyst from the Social Security Administration, to name only a few. Although by trade these folks couldn’t be more different, what they did have in common is that they were all change agents — otherwise known as rebels — who shared a deep desire to change things for the better without letting things get in their way and without quitting when told “no.”

How do you know if you’re a rebel at work? It’s easiest to start by defining how to know when you’re nota rebel. You’re not a rebel because you think everyone is dumber than you are or your boss is stupid or you’ve merely suggested an idea for change. You’re a rebel when you’ve suggested an idea and you can tell your boss didn’t like it. When their reaction is “what’s the ROI?” or “What are the best practices?” or “Let’s stand up a working group,” then you know you’re a rebel. When you cross the threshold of not caring and going forward anyway, you’re a rebel. Audience members likened being a rebel to words like “alone,” “fabulous,” “empowered,” “bulldozer,” “precarious,” and “burned out.” Creators of the rebel movement, Lois Kelly and Carmen Medina, added to this with their own feelings of “goat roping” and “being the elephant in the room.”

Some of the biggest challenges and roadblocks rebels face are being afraid to propose new ideas out of fear of hurting their careers and reputation. Some rebels are also hesitant to approach their boss because they feel most new ideas are rejected. Then there are the rebels who simply can’t or won’t deal with conflict and controversy. And, there’s always that pesky approval process and bureaucracy to deal with. For many rebels, they feel the culture is simply working against them. The key factor in succeeding as a rebel is to prepare. However, here’s what usually happens: a rebel spots a need for change and then they face the worries described above. (This is where most people stop.) Then, rebel or not, the preparation phase is skipped (which is key!), which then leads to a mess and the idea or project implodes. Properly planning and enlisting support may be the most important things a rebel can do to succeed; yet, most people usually want to rush the process. A rebel must also be ready and comfortable to engage in conflict. Without proper preparation, a rebel will immediately end up in conflict. It’s very important as a change agent to put things in the right order. Despite all the problems in the world (and there’s lots of them!) rebels must remember that although they likely see lots of ways to improve things, they can’t solve everything.

For an idea to be successful, a rebel needs at least 10% of an organization’s people to support the idea.(Don’t worry, this tidbit is based on extensive research on idea adoption!) 10% is the tipping point. A rebel must look around and determine who that 10% is in their organization. If a rebel can’t get that 10% of support, then perhaps the timing is not right to move forward with their idea. To understand who that 10% is, a rebel must understand the organizational landscape. The following are specific organizational “characters” whom a rebel should enlist the support of:

  • Bureaucratic black belts: These are the people who know all the rules in the organization. They are like the defenders of those rules. They aren’t evil but rather very ‘by the book’ because they are risk averse. They believe the rules are there because they keep us out of trouble. Befriend them. Have lunch with them. Consult them. Let them tell you their stories of getting things done which will help you learn how to do it.
  • Tugboat Captains: These are the organizers in the organization such as the Chief of Staff. They will help you figure out if you need executive support to move your ideas forward. These are essential pieces to the puzzle.
  • Windsurfers: These are the really ambitious people who use the ‘organizational winds’ to get ahead. They have their finger on the pulse of what’s really going on and will jump at the chance to part of new things. Just beware — the moment the wind shifts, windsurfers will jump ship.

Another tip to help rebels get their ideas supported is to pay attention to what things are starting to get funded. What’s popping up on agendas? Like the windsurfer, pay attention to how the winds are shifting in an organization. The ones people are paying attention to are the ones a rebel will have a better chance of success with.  Similarly, take inspiration from the bureaucratic black belt – if you plan to stay in the federal government, consider taking a job where you will get a chance to learn how to navigate the approval process and red tape. Learn to move paper. Once you master that process, you’ll be more powerful later.

If you’re still wondering if you are a rebel of if you’d like to unite with other rebels, check outrebelsatwork.com. It’s chock full of rebel resources like blog posts, videos, quizzes, and more. (Once again, it’s all backed heavily in research, and who doesn’t love research?!)

Just as the preparation phase is the most important part of a rebel’s work, becoming a rebel requires preparation, too. As Carmen eloquently said, “You need to approach organizational change like a cultural anthropologist.”

So what are you waiting for, rebel?

From July 20th – 21st we’ll be blogging from GovLoop and YGL’s Next Generation of Government Training Summit. Follow along @NextGenGov and read more blog posts here.


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Brenda Dennis

I think sometimes being a rebel or engaging in conflict brings negative connotations. Your point about preparing to be a rebel is spot on! I would say though along with preparation, is preparing the people you work with to start thinking differently. Helping your team to learn to engage in healthy discourse and conflict within the team where it’s “safe” can lead to more willingness to accept and participate in differing viewpoints on a much larger scale. Nice article!

Bonnie Charland

Proud to be a Rebel at Work!! I find the lack of discourse in health care in general as a significant barrier to improvement in quality, safety and value. We must change the conversation one team at a time.