Life Cliff Notes: Let Your Workers Rebel (HBR)

Ryan Maliszewski
6 min readJun 20, 2017


Not writing about a book this time, but rather highlighting an intriguing article I read from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) from the October 2016 issue re: rebels within the organization. Not too long ago, I blogged about Rebels at Work (Kelly & Medina). Very often I am asked to “conjure up magic” out of thin air devising solutions to solve the most complex and strategic organizational problems or challenges without the opportunity to fully immerse myself into the necessary processes, platforms, meetings, and/or forums (most of the time along those a couple levels above my pay grade) so I can talk to people — understand their challenges or even successes as well as requirements, identify potential chokepoints, obtain valuable face time with organization influencers to perform a successful root cause analysis and understanding what their goals or priorities are. Even the gurus over at McKinsey or Boston Consulting or my old boys at Booz Allen wouldn’t be able to provide a true strategic assessment without fully understanding what’s “under the hood” and being able to participate in the necessary activities (i.e., recurring integrated project management team meetings, interviews, and related initiative studies) that pertain to the task at hand. Organizational rebels can identify these so-called missing puzzle pieces and actually help connect the dots in solving these complex challenges, but they need the full support and constant visibility across organizational leadership who understand that sometimes it takes a special mechanic to help dig in a little deeper (here’s a shout out to all those Porsche mechanics out there who work for almost nothing and out of pure love).

There is a fun term I recently coined called, Mechanical Rebels, who are tasked, or better yet, self-motivated to really understand “what is under the hood” (i.e., identifying the ‘nuts n bolts’ of what drives a program such as assets or resources) by attempting to break through cultural barriers across complex organizational machines with those reluctant to give out information out of fear that their resources might be snatched away in the upcoming fiscal year budget planning stage or accessing multiple data sets to find that proverbial needle in a haystack. I truly believe that one cannot advance a mission of any kind without fully understanding the problem set and, at times, ruffling ones feathers. Most of the time, if played out carefully and strategically, one can be a very successful rebel — it might take a well-intended non-conformist or one who has that innate ability to recognize that it takes one to find out what makes a very complex engine run. We can always get to the oil part later… ;)

Without further ado, here are my life cliff notes on this interesting world of rebel-dom as highlighted in this fine HBR piece:

· Constructive nonconformity: behavior that deviates from organizational norms, others’ actions, or common expectations, to the benefits of the organization

· Conforming makes us feel accepted and part of the majority.

· Conformity at work takes many forms: modeling the behavior of others in similar roles, expressing appropriate emotions, wearing proper attire, routinely agreeing with the opinions of managers, acquiescing to a team’s poor decisions and so on.

· Sticking with the status quo can lead to boredom, which in turn can fuel complacency and stagnation. Being overly comfortable with the status quo, leaders can fall back on tradition and avoid the type of nonconformist behavior that could have spurred continued success.

· We tend to prioritize information that supports our existing believes and to ignore information that challenges them, so we overlook thing that could spur positive change.

· People tend to view unexpected or unpleasant information as a threat and to shun it — a phenomenon psychologists call motivated skepticism.

· By uncritically accepting information when it is consistent with what we believe and insisting on more when it isn’t, we subtly stack the deck against good decisions.

· Nonconformity promotes innovation, improves performance, can enhance a person’s standing more than conformity can.

· Going against the crowd gives us confidence in our actions which makes us feel unique and engaged and translates to higher performance and greater creativity.

· Give employees opportunities to be themselves:

o Encourage employees to reflect on what makes them feel authentic (give them half hour to think about what was unique about them, what made them authentic, how they could bring out their authentic selves at work).

o Tell employee what job needs to be done rather than how to do it.

o Let employees solve problems on their own.

o Let employees define their missions.

· Encourage employees to bring out their signature strengths.

o Give employees opportunities to identify their strengths.

o Tailor jobs to employees’ strengths (discovering their strengths takes time and effort).

· Question the status quo and encourage employees to do the same.

· Maximize variety — this makes it less likely that employees will go on autopilot and more likely that they will come up with innovative ways to improve what they’re doing.

· Improving engagement, job rotation broadens individuals’ skill set, creating a more flexible workforce.

· Continually inject novelty into work — when something new happens at work, we pay attention, engage, and tend to remember it. We are less likely to take our work for granted when it continues to generate strong feelings. Novelty in one’s job is more satisfying than stability. Leaders can also introduce novelty by making sure that projects include a few people who are somewhat out of their comfort zone or by periodically giving teams new challenges.

· Identify opportunities for personal learning and growth.

· Give employees responsibility and accountability.

· Create opportunities for employees to view problems from multiple angles. We all tend to be self-serving in terms of how we process information and generate (or fail to generate) alternatives to the status quo. Leaders can help employees overcome this tendency by encouraging them to view problems from different perspectives.

o “Be dragonflies, not flatfish.” Dragonflies have compound eyes that can take in multiple perspectives at once, flatfish have both eyes on the same side of the head and can see in only one direction at a time.

o Being exposed to different perspectives increases engagement and innovative behaviors.

· Hire people with diverse perspectives. See whether people come up with many possible solutions or get stuck on a single one. To promote innovation and new approaches, hire outsiders and give them important roles versus hiring people whose thinking mirrors that of the current management team.

· Use tactics to push employees out of their comfort zone:

o Look for disconfirming evidence: “what information suggests this not be the right path to take?” ask open-ended interview questions, not to answer why or why not they agree with you.

· Strike the right balance by stating employee’s goals and their responsibility to deliver on the organization’s purpose, but leave it up to individual workers to decide how to achieve those goals.

· Be transparent!

· Complacency often sets in because of too much conformity — stemming from peer pressure, acceptance of the status quo, and the interpretation of information in self-serving ways. The result is a workforce of people who feel they can’t be themselves on the job, are bored, and don’t consider others’ point of view.

· Constructive nonconformity can help companies avoid these problems. If leaders were to put just half the time they spend ensuring conformity into designing and installing mechanisms to encourage constructive deviance, employee engagement, productivity, and innovation would soar.



Ryan Maliszewski

Thought Leader, Strategist and Experimental Innovator Amateur Blogger of Life Cliff Notes