5 Mistakes Employees Make When Challenging the Status Quo
It's time for companies to embrace their rebel talent as a way to foster innovation, employee engagement, and change from within.
But what happens when a brave employee decides to challenge organizational conformity and offer new ideas that she sincerely believes would improve operations, before the company has embraced the idea of rebel talent? She's often on her own, making it up as she goes along, often tripping over organizational potholes and stepping on cultural landmines.
In our book, Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within, we offer suggestions for how employees can more effectively advance their good ideas, even in organizations resistant to constructive nonconformists. Over the last three years, we've validated our suggestions in meetings with thousands of employees in large corporations, non-profits, academic institutions, and government departments at every level. We've found that no matter the organization, rebels are susceptible to making several common errors. Here are the top pitfalls for you to avoid if you're a rebel at work trying to break through.
You fail to prioritize your ideas. If you feel like a constructive nonconformist you probably have more than one controversial idea for improving performance and maybe even your company's bottom line. But when you constantly suggest ideas, you risk diluting your impact, particularly if you never engage in the hard work of implementation. Leaders may tune you out as someone who continuously feeds them new ideas. Go forward with the one or two suggestions you have that are most relevant for the organization and stand the best chance for implementation.
You go solo. We've found that those who want to buck the pressures for conformity in a large organizations tend to have healthy egos. It's important to recognize that and to not let that sense of being the rebel lead you to try to go it alone. Temper that ego by working with others to advance your ideas for change. You may even need to be prepared to relinquish ownership of your idea so that a broader group can implement the change. Making the idea community property will improve it as more people will be bringing fresh perspectives to it, and you can avoid the backlash that can sometimes occur when you challenge management orthodoxy.
You flunk the pitch meeting. We've see rebels who feel as if the meeting at which they pitch their idea is their One Shot. So they stuff every research point, potential benefit, and details of implementation into an obese presentation that overwhelms and confuses listeners and leaves them no time for thoughtful discussion and feedback. You only need to pitch three things: What's at stake – the "so what" factor; what will be different if the idea is adopted; and assurance that the proposed idea is likely to work. Rather than spending 45 minutes presenting and leaving 15 minutes for Q&A, flip it. Give a tight, 15 minute presentation and then discuss the idea for 45 minutes. During the conversation ask people what they liked about the idea, how it could be made stronger, and how they would advise proceeding. Engagement is the start of buy-in.
You give up too soon. In a recent research study among self-identified rebels at work, we found that among their strengths were — not surprisingly — honesty, creativity, curiosity, and fairness. But self-regulation, perseverance, and prudence were among their weaker points. Setting small goals and appreciating the small wins along the way will help you strengthen those weaker traits and help prevent you from giving up too soon because you're frustrated that things aren't happening the way you want them to and you decide not to persevere. It will help you, too, to find a mentor from whom you can get frank guidance on how to navigate tricky organizational politics. Rebels can especially benefit from Wharton Professor Adam Grant's psychology research findings: a sense of appreciation is the single most sustainable motivator at work. Regularly expressing specific gratitude to your work mates for their contributions will renew your energy and help you keep going.
You ignore personal danger signals. In the pursuit of big goals, you may find times when you're exhausted, single-minded, bitter, or angry. You turn pessimistic about success and may want to give up. This is why increasing your capacity for resiliency may be the most important thing for you to do to succeed. Be attuned to the signs you're feeling negative and turn it around: Appreciate what is working, spend time with good friends, become more mindful, journal. Eat well. It may sound unlikely but these practices will help you see the good in your organization even on days that can feel like you're lost in a bureaucratic nightmare.
Lastly, please don't make the mistake of despairing that your career or reputation hinges on one particular idea or cause. From our secondary research it is clear that creativity is a renewable source of energy for rebels.
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