Managing Partner Sandbox Studios
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Why HR should cultivate rebellious employees, not control them

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The traditional, hierarchical ‘command and control’ cultures of the last century are no longer useful in today’s work environment. For organisations to succeed today, a more open, rebellious culture – where people are encouraged to be curious and innovative – is needed.

13th May 2021
Managing Partner Sandbox Studios
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We are undergoing radical change and, so far, that change has been towards a more positive outcome. From Black Lives Matter to #MeToo and climate change walkouts the world, it seems, is ready to take on some of the longstanding challenges head on. Despite this, we have been here before. The punk and hippie movement personified the force for good we are all now accustomed to facing. Sadly, many would argue that true change did not materialise, which begs the question – what makes this time any different?

It takes a rebellious individual to spot opportunity amidst the disruption... someone who questions the way things have always been and looks for new, better, alternatives.

The answer is rule breaking, on a scale never seen before – from business, to politics, to local communities – more people are rousing their inner rebel and winning.

Isn’t rule breaking bad?

Rule breaking is often discussed in a negative context, but when the rules being broken are for the benefit of the many, we need to shift our mindset and see rule breaking as a means to achieving better outcomes.

Let us consider rules in the first place. Many workplace rules were built from the foundations of the industrial revolution when humans were chained to machines with a focus on tangible output. The skill to manage and work the machines in question was only obtainable through experience; therefore, the key to success was to climb the ladder through hard work and time commitment.

The focus for managers at the time was to ensure that those at the bottom felt like they were part of a team and that their long hours spent would eventually prove fruitful. This work scenario has held true for over two centuries – the lessons passed down from generation to generation. Almost all leadership books you read are written with this context in mind – the importance of managing people.

Culture Pioneers

Why rule breaking matters now

The world is different now. People are no longer chained to machines or desks to produce. Their ability to learn new skills is not restricted to those they learn on the job or at school. The internet has revolutionised and democratised our access. Instead, we can learn just about anything from the comfort of our laptops. We can make anything without having to step outside our front door. Our inspiration is no longer restricted to those we know, instead we can be inspired by people we have never met who are living a thousand miles away.

It takes a rebellious individual to spot opportunity amidst the disruption, however; someone who questions the way things have always been and looks for new, better, alternatives. With hundreds of years enforcing a command-and-control style workplace, it is not surprising that these rebellious traits are incredibly difficult to find, nurture, and cultivate. It’s difficult because of fear. People have opinions, but it’s rare that they feel comfortable voicing them in an office setting.

To truly make rebelliousness part of your corporate culture, you need to create an environment that supports an open dialogue and a means to engage people beyond the typical tasks.

Top tips for creating a rebellious corporate culture

  • Job swap: to bring different insight into stagnant roles, let employees shadow others or even swap jobs for the day and share their experiences throughout the company on an internal blog post. This encourages greater flexibility among the entire organisation by proving that everyone’s opinions matter, as well as the potential to find greater synergies amongst departments.
     
  • Two-way annual reviews: make this dreaded task work better for your organisation by instilling a safe opportunity where your employees can question authority. Rather than just have reviews based on your employees’ performances, provide them with templates that allow them to rate their own managers, or even the CEO. What you do with these reviews is up to you, but the point is that you can start encouraging feedback, which should reduce fears about speaking up in the future.
     
  • Work collaboratively: create opportunities for people to be part of the culture and feel part of an organisation. Get them to constructively come up with ways to impart their views on the company. This can be done in small ways like organising the summer social, or larger ways like inputting on strategic guidance, or even parts of the annual review. Regardless of the angle, rule breakers want to enact change, so provide them the space to do so within your organisation.
     
  • Reward rule breakers: if someone does not agree with a direction you plan to take, rather than shut them down in a meeting, provide them an opportunity to present other ways of thinking to the entire group. By showing you take feedback well, it should encourage more people to speak out.
     
  • Subtle hints: there are tons of podcasts, blogs, and books (mine included!) that encourage professional rebelliousness. Ensure these are on hand in waiting rooms or the office canteen for people to pick up.
     
  • Not so subtle hints: bring in successful rule breaking business people to talk about their journey at your next corporate event in the aim to inspire your workforce towards thinking and doing things differently.

Encouraging rebelliousness is not only fun to do, but also an incredibly effective tool in future-proofing your organisation. You must, however, be active in encouraging it because you are also breaking a long-standing rule of hierarchy where employees are meant to behave. Therefore, go out, break some rules, and see what happens when you encourage your entire workforce to strive for better.

Interested in this topic? Read The future of work: how Covid-19 will change working culture for good.

cover art for Jackie Fast's Rule Breaker bookJackie Fast is an award-winning entrepreneur and author of new book, Rule Breaker: Rebellious Leadership for the Future of Work, published by Kogan Page.
 

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