Managing the ‘Workplace Rebel’

In your department, you head-up a number of teams of talented employees and everyone works well alongside each other, apart from Maryam and James. These are the two individuals who give you a headache every time you come into the office. James is a high performer but he always has an opinion that is contrary to your own and makes it known regularly. Maryam, on the other hand, irritates her team by constantly criticising everyone on not only what they do but in the way that they do it!

You have tried to ignore the situation but it has now got to the stage where it is necessary to intervene in order that productivity is not affected. These two, Maryam and James, are what I would call ‘workplace rebels’, who can damage their teams by electing to question every decision.

Rebellious or innovative?
Rebels like to challenge the status quo – sometimes for the sake of it and sometimes because they genuinely believe that they are right and others are wrong. In the workplace, that means that they can tend to question authority, policies, procedures and the opinions and ideas of team members.

The challenge for you, as departmental head, is to manage their dissenting views in a way that works for the team and not against it. Rebels can be a valuable asset by bringing about positive change through the identification of working practices that could be improved and, provided that is the case, then this could be a benefit for the company. The problem is that some of their views may be unnecessary or impractical.

Rebels are usually direct so if you want an honest opinion, the chances are they will give it to you. They will usually stand up and be counted for what they believe in and so can be passionately committed to the company’s vision and what they stand for. They are not necessarily frightened about challenging existing processes and introducing their own creative ideas which they believe can bring about innovative methods of working.

Managing dissent
Of course, the easiest attitude is just to ignore the rebel but, as the manager, it is your responsibility to manage his, or her, behaviour. It is a fine balance between exploiting their potential for the eventual benefit of the organisation whilst insisting that you are paid, and are qualified, to manage the department in the best way that you think fit and in-line with company policy.

So what can you do to work alongside the rebel?

First of all, try to understand what underlies the rebel’s behaviour. Is it that they feel isolated or frustrated because they are unable to bring the benefits of their proposals to the attention of the company and feel that, as a result, the company is denied the advantage of their claimed creativity. Is it that they feel ignored – and we all know what it is like to feel ignored! It just makes us angry.

Secondly, open up a conversation with the individual to explain in detail that the company as a whole, including your department, works to accepted practices that have been discussed and implemented by order of senior management. That does not mean that suggestions for improvement are not welcome but that existing methods of working and company policy must be adhered to in detail. Every army has to have a commander and every organisation must implement company policy as laid down.

Thirdly, try to channel their energies into a specific project that will stimulate them and give them an opportunity to prove some of their proposals within existing work parameters and the status quo. From that experience, they can learn from the results.

Finally, spend time coaching them to be indispensable members of the team. They need to understand that they need to work as a team alongside others who have different strengths from themselves and that only by working together, as team members, can a desired result be obtained for the benefit of the organisation.

Rebels can be valuable assets who can bring a wealth of innovative ideas to the table. However, just as an engine needs, oil, gas, a gearbox, wheels and brakes in order to move forward safely, so does an organisation need teams, and teams members, all working together, to be successful.

  • Key Points
    The power of a company is its people
    Don’t discourage debate, but encourage innovation
    Organisational success is through team effort



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