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Value the Rebel

She walked into her office, shut the door, slumped into her chair and took a deep breath. It had been a difficult meeting, more difficult than she expected. How could outlining her new initiative have gained this reaction. Most had sat there, to be honest with a slightly glazed look. It was the outburst from Edward, in front of everybody that she had just not expected. Edward was one of her most effective members of staff. A sharp shooter in his field. She liked what Edward did, but this was just one of a number of times he had come back at her ideas. She felt she had dealt with it well in the meeting, “I appreciate your feedback and I will take time to reflect on it, but maybe we need to have a one to one about this as you seem so angry about it.” It seemed to calm things, but she could now feel the tension rising in her. Was Edward a rebel seeking to bring down the plans that were so needed?

So many leaders come across this. But are they the rebels you think they are?

When working with people, various thinkers have categorised staff into staff types. You may have come across terms such as :

  • Champion – High in motivation and high in energy for the vision & values of the company. They don’t challenge you but will influence others in encouraging them to follow the vision, values and performance. So easy to work with.

  • Walking Wounded – Low motivation and Low energy for the vision & values of the company. They don’t challenge, have little influence and work rate.

  • Foot Soldiers – High motivation but low energy. They just get on with things but won’t extend themselves. They don’t challenge you either.

  • Well Poisoner – High energy but low motivation. They have energy for things that are destructive but not motivated for company values. They have their own agenda and it is not healthy

  • Rebels – high on motivation but also high on challenge. They question and challenge.

So, what to do about Edward? Edward had challenged her in the meeting. Was he really for what we are trying to do here? She was due to meet him tomorrow. Was this the time to consider his position on the team? Fortunately, there was more wisdom in her than a knee-jerk reaction and more to Edward too.

“Hello Edward, shall we chat about our interaction yesterday? Although I didn’t appreciate the ferocity in which you spoke to me in the meeting, I would like to first understand what are the issues for you.” The conversation that followed enabled her to understand the issues. Edward was not against the vision, values and purpose. He was a strong advocate for it. He was just exhausted from change fatigue. As she delved deeper she gained an understanding that this was wider than him. The glazed looks on the other faces in the meeting was that they were zombified with change. Edward was not a rebel and was not trying to bring her down. Edward didn’t want to stop things, he actually wanted them to succeed, and recognised everyone’s fatigue would bring it down. As a leader, she needed to adjust her plan to account for this. Edward was passionate for the same values, he just looked at things differently. As a leader, she just had to learn how to use Edward properly.

Tanmay Vora has a brilliant diagram to explain how to best work with ‘Rebels’. It centres around listen, get to know them, challenge them with involvement and appreciate them. We must never confuse rebels with troublemakers or well poisoners. Their motivation is completely different.

We need to understand the difference between a trouble maker and a rebel. Troublemakers will just complain, get angry, sap energy and cause problems. Rebels are mission focused, creative, passionate and want to find possibilities. They are not 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. Manage rebels well and they can be a valuable asset. They can make things happen.

Working with people is immensely challenging at times. People are all wired differently and we have different passions and perspectives. But we need to see the diversity of thinking and perspective, not as an enemy to vision and purpose, but as an asset that can help us shape thinking.

Matthew Syed in his latest book, Rebel Ideas, encourages us to use diversity and diverse thinkers to help us solve complex problems. I highly recommend forming a thinking group around you. Don’t just pick your leadership team, pick those who think differently to you have a different perspective or experience to you. Pick the person from the shop floor, involve them and it helps you to understand a wider perspective and avoid errors.

Leaders can sometimes see any questioning of their idea as a criticism of them and their leadership. As leaders, we need to see challenge not as a threat but as a useful tool. You see questions and challenge can help to

  • Give us opportunity to share the thinking

  • Test the thinking

  • Shape the thinking

  • Enlist an advocate for the thinking

If our plans and thinking is robust, we will be able to explain it. A robust plan and idea can cope with it being tested and questioned. If things about it are not quite right, that questioning allows us to shape our thinking to make it more robust before it ‘gets released into the wild’. It makes the idea stronger. The conversation also allows us to enlist not just a follower but an advocate as they see how they have helped you shape the thinking. The idea belongs to them too.

Where I have seen leaders who see questioning as a threat and either ignore it or even worse remove the people, it often results in difficulties. The leader’s idea often then continues with its flaws and fails later on, sometimes spectacularly. The leaders become known as someone who responds to challenge with removing people, creating a very fragile staff culture with people unwilling to raise ideas. As a leader, you are also in danger of reducing your checks and balances for ideas and for yourself.

It is far too easy to see people as ‘staff types’ as we lead them and questioning as challenge to you as a leader. We need to treat everyone as individuals with a contribution. One of the most valuable to us can be the ‘Rebel’ as we need the questioning, we need the challenge. We need to value and engage the rebel.

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