THE BLOG
11/07/2014 03:55 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2015

Unleash the Rebels!

"Whatever you do, do not hire that man!"

I had just interviewed a candidate for a job and called his former boss for a reference. He continued:

He is totally out of control; always questioning why we do things the way we do them, coming up with strange and silly ideas of how we could do things differently and showing little respect for authorities and our well-established routines, rules and traditions. On a number of occasions he has even initiated new activities without asking for my permission. Good for you that you called me, so you can avoid a huge hiring mistake.

The man sighed of relief on my behalf.

"Thank you. That is exactly what I suspected," I answered, hung up and then called the candidate and told him that the job was his.

In my eight years as chief culture officer for the global technology company Tandberg, we had a saying that "it is easier to calm down 10 wild horses than to make one dead horse run." We were building a company that we knew would only succeed if we were able to move quickly, take risks, innovate and constantly develop and change in order to keep pace with our rapidly-changing world. In our opinion, it was a much higher risk to have team members who sat still and only followed orders than to have a bunch of lunatics that came up with hopeless and genius ideas about every second time. Every time we hired a new rebel we knew it wouldn't be easy, but that it most probably would be worth it.

Rebel or Complainer?

Sometimes people get the "rebels" and the "complainers" mixed up, but there is a big difference between the two. When rebels criticize, they follow up their criticism with a suggestion for a solution. The complainers, however, they just love complaining and have no intention of contributing to a solution. While the rebels are motivated by improving and developing things, the complainers like to focus on how much better everything used to be. And while the rebels usually go right to the source when there is a problem, the complainer prefers to talk about the problem with like-minded people around the water cooler. Rebels know it is easier to get forgiveness than permission, and they are often recognized for getting stuff done, coming up with original solutions and for creating results. Many leaders think they are immensely annoying, while others see them as totally indispensable for growth and innovation.

Simple or Right?

Many of us who have, or have had, leadership responsibilities, know that it is very tempting to surround ourselves with people who view the world in the same way as we do, who eagerly nod to everything we say and do, and who confirm our brilliance by never questioning our judgment or decisions. When we surround ourselves with people like that, it is "oh, so simple" to arrive at conclusions with full consensus. The question is whether "oh, so simple" necessarily is "oh, so right"?

"The Way We Do Things"

"This is how we do it, and this is how we will continue doing it" is a leadership attitude that dominates at many workplaces. When things are going well, the employees are happy, the customers are satisfied and good results and growth follow as a consequence -- that attitude may make perfect sense. However, when things are not going so well anymore; when employees are disengaged, customers complain and the growth curve is going in the wrong direction -- it may be wise to reconsider that strategy. When the going gets tough, doing more of the same is not always the wisest thing to do. "Everyone needs to work really, really hard" the slightly panicked leader tend to say. But, what if working harder actually will make things worse? What is the point of digging a bigger, deeper tunnel even faster when what you really need is a bridge? Or maybe a hot air balloon?

Kodak Moment

Steven Sasson was a young engineer who worked for Kodak in the mid-1970s. It is said that he came up with the first digital camera. He presented his idea to the top management team at Kodak, but since the company had the majority of their revenue based on film rolls, with an incredible 90 percent market share, the management team decided that the digital camera was a silly idea and sent the young engineer back to the basement to focus on making higher quality film rolls instead. If the management team had chosen to consider the "rebellious" idea of the young engineer, their history would most probably have looked quite different today. In 2012 Kodak had to file for bankruptcy protection and the expression "Kodak moment" have for many changed from capturing memorable moments on film, to describing the moment that later proved to be the beginning of the end.

Corporate Spring

We live in incredibly exciting and rapidly changing times; new technologies, globalization and demographic changes create a work-life where constant innovation, flexibility and the ability to make fast decisions -- and act upon them -- is key. As the world and work-life rapidly changes, so does the role of the leader. To be competitive in the new landscape, many organizations look at new ways of organizing themselves. Complex, hierarchical models are replaced by more flexible organizations where accountability and empowerment are shared by leaders and employees, where initiatives and decisions just as often happen bottom-up as top-down, and where corporate cultures based on trust and employee engagement not only are "nice to have," but a "must have," in order to succeed. Many leaders are already getting this, while others still have a long way to go. All new research on employee engagement show that trust, autonomy, mastery and purpose is what truly motivates people and drive results. An increasing number of business leaders acknowledges the value of highly engaged employees, still, according to Gallup's 2013 engagement survey, 87 percent of the global workforce is disengaged at work, only 13 percent consider themselves engaged.

Some of the explanation for this may be found in the fact that in spite of increased research and general knowledge on what actually makes people tick, most companies continue to stay faithful to the traditional performance management systems that in most cases have been designed with a different aim in mind. Albert Einstein said: "The definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again, and expecting different results". Can it be that we are currently witnessing a stroke of insanity going on in corporate worlds? The good news, however, is that a number of companies are waking up and adapting to the new reality. One of them is Microsoft, they terminated its rigid employee ranking system in 2013 when they realized it was both demotivating for the employees and hindering innovation. Others will follow. The question is; will they follow soon enough? Trust takes time to earn and an effort to keep, but those who have it know that when you do, there is no limit to what you can achieve.

From control to trust

There is no doubt about it; change can be really scary, confusing and uncomfortable. Stepping out of our comfort zones usually are. Many leaders are afraid to take risks, but the biggest irony in a changing world is that those who take no risks are the ones who take the biggest risk of all. An old Indian saying goes like this: "The longest journey any man can take, is that from his head to his heart". The business version of this could be: "The longest journey any leader can take is that from a controlling head to a trusting heart". I'm not saying it's an easy journey, but it will definitely be worth it.