Revolutionaries in the Work Place

While managers may suppress good ideas, so can all the work committees, governance councils, task forces, and peer-to-peer collaborative initiatives that are proliferating as decision making becomes more distributed and less top-down. The desire to incorporate everyone’s views can suck the life out of good ideas. A once strong idea can become so watered down that it’s not particularly valuable by the time it escapes the committee work. Even worse is when valuable ideas aren’t launched in a timely way because the committee meetings stretch on for months and sometimes even years. A good idea whose time has passed is not such a good idea.

If our current workplaces were a novel, we might be tempted to stop reading. “Good grief! People’s souls are being sucked dry, and no one seems to care. I can’t take much more.” As we tried to keep reading, we’d desperately hope someone would help turn things around. “Please, get in there and solve the problems that are staring everyone in the face. Somebody do something.”

Fortunately, we don’t live in a world without revolutionaries. Revolutionaries are in every organization, in all types of jobs, and are learning how to turn things around.

Every day, people at work reach the point where they say, “Enough.” While every revolutionary’s reason for stepping up differs, almost all start with the same uncomfortable realization: “I have to do something about this.” A revolutionary with a cause has an important role at work. The revolutionary is the one who will step in and get the ball rolling, regardless of title, seniority, or experience.

Not everyone in an organization needs to be a revolutionary, nor will every revolutionary continually want to be involved in leading change efforts at work, but all organizations need revolutionaries who have the courage, ideas, and gritty determination to make things better. Many revolutionaries were born that way. Think back to incidents from your childhood and early adult years. Were you a handful even then? We’ve heard hundreds of origin stories from revolutionaries at work, and most — though not all — knew they were different early on in life, strongly suggesting that there is something about being a revolutionary that is born not made.

Being a revolutionary when you’re young does not necessarily mean you will continue being a revolutionary as an adult. Nor does it mean that you won’t emerge as a revolutionary later in life. For some of us, the appetite to question persists or reawakens at some point in our careers.

We found that the majority of revolutionaries are future thinkers. Revolutionaries can’t stop thinking about possibilities and imagining better alternatives. We’re driven to change, look for opportunities, and like working with ideas.

Because revolutionaries think differently from most people at work, we are like any minority group inside a company. Companies often make space for people who are different as part of their diversity efforts, but they don’t make space for their perspectives. In other words, if you were raised in a different culture, say Latin America, and you work in a Scandinavian company, you naturally bring different experiences and cultural perspectives based on your background. If your first career was in the military and you are now teaching in a charter school, you will have a different approach from teachers who never served in the military.

We suspect that many of you with diverse ethnic backgrounds view things differently from the majority culture at your place of work. Hopefully your organizations understand that people with different backgrounds bring different perspectives and ideas, and that this diversity of thinking is extremely valuable.

Sometimes the field you are in asks you to be a revolutionary at work. One example is corporate social responsibility (CSR), which requires organizations to create change and go against the way things have always been done.

Some people in CSR chose to work in the field and anticipated the challenges of getting companies to act with greater and greater commitment to societal needs. However, if you are drafted into a CSR role, you become, in effect, an accidental corporate revolutionary. You are asked to do something that may be foreign or unpopular in many areas of your company. Your job description may label you as the “champion” for CSR in your organization — a telltale sign, we believe, of an accidental revolutionary position. To succeed, you need to be both a good and an effective revolutionary.

Some bosses, entrenched in positions of authority, are suspicious of new ideas because those ideas might undermine their authority or, worse, diminish their relevance. For leaders in this situation, any kind of change proposal is immediately suspect. They are not thinking about whether the idea is good or bad. Their frame of reference centers on themselves. How will this idea affect my job, my status? Will I become less important with this change? Might I even become unnecessary?

Most bosses, however, want their colleagues and departments to be respected, grow in responsibility and resources, and thrive harmoniously. While they may worry about the risks of change on a personal level (“What will happen to my reputation if we take a chance on this new idea and it fails?”), their real concerns tend to relate to risk and uncertainty, concepts that are all too easily confused.