Vanessa Fudge, Founder and CEO, Leading Well
Many leaders who front up for leadership and executive coaching inevitably spend at least some of their time discussing that person who pushes their buttons and regularly sends them into an emotional tailspin. These are the staff who most likely are operating as their “nemesis”. Rumination over this person (or people) can chew up hours of valuable time yet the question remains, what could be the possible yield from this angst?
It is important to draw a few distinctions when it comes to reflecting on your nemesis or nemeses.
Is this person deliberately undermining you as an ego or a power play with no regard for the health and sustainability of the organisation?
If this is the case and the person is a low performer then they are no doubt a nuisance when it comes to delivering your message and simply getting the work done. If this person is, however, a high performer and in parallel to that a cultural underminer then they are more likely to be functioning as a form of organisational cancer. In both contexts, there is a strong case for facilitating an exit as soon as possible.
Much has been written on various psychological conditions that can wreak havoc in relationships throughout organisational life. From the psychopath (typified by antisocial, deviant behaviours, and poor self control) to the more subversive sociopath (who attempts to control others and may use intelligence or charm to do so while having a lack of empathy and compassion), and of course, the narcissist (typified by an inflated sense of self-importance yet often dismissive of others) and still this is a gross oversimplification of more detailed underlying conditions and tendencies. All of these contribute complexity in workplace contexts (all the more so when they go unidentified) and if ignored can undermine cultural trust and cohesion. Yet this article is about another entirely different source of conflict-based leadership angst – one that if harnessed can produce extraordinarily high yields.
As we know conflict is often for a vital purpose in a workplace context. It can shine light on blind spots, challenge limited thought patterns, and prompt innovation and necessary change. The way leaders respond to conflict will send significant signals as to how safe the organisation is for authentic self-expression.
One of the most important sources of conflict to seek out and embrace is the contribution from your rebels.
A rebel is someone more concerned with the soundness of the ecosystem than their own need to comply and belong. A rebel is an archetype. Think legendary heroic outlaw Robin Hood, one of the best-known figures in English folklore. His mission was to expose corruption. He worked to restore the balance of giving and taking by taking from the rich and giving to the poor. The rebel serves a purpose beyond their own ambitions. They expose truth and uphold justice for the masses. We could say in modern society our celebrated rebels are sadly lacking or worse still imprisoned or black-banned in various countries for threatening the mainstream narrative. In organisations, the extreme expression of a rebel is the whistleblower. You, however, can easily avoid such an extreme by regularly engaging in key steps to remove your own blind spots as a leader.
In organisations, rebels are those who are willing to risk their own belonging to shed light on the dynamics in the system. The behaviour of the rebel is to question what many consider the unquestionable to ensure that mistakes are not being repeated, that strategies are vetted, and that the voice of dissent can play its role in de-risking the organisation as a whole. Rebels play a vital role in the system by effectively erasing blind spots.
Rebels are not sycophants. They tell it like it is and do not strive to preserve their career trajectory and personal brand in the process. They are often rejected as “difficult” or “disharmonious” and yet they carry the often-heavy weight of the unspoken. They are the best guide for any leader to ascertain the critical gap between your spoken belonging rules and your enacted belonging experience.
The best way to engage with your rebels is to detach from any preconceived ideas about how your leadership is landing in the organisation and agree with open-minded and open-hearted curiosity. Place assumptions to one side. Rebels provide an unprecedented opportunity to hear it how it is and not receive feedback couched in political correctness.
When meeting with rebels it is still important to be present to your role and its responsibilities of leadership. This is best done by holding onto your intentions as a leader rather than perceptions of your own success and remembering there is always more to learn about the companies that we are leading. Specifically asking rebels what is needed at different places in the company and what is in the way of success can be illuminating.
It may take time to discern this difference, however the effort required will not be wasted. The key difference is that a rebel can demonstrate active care for the future success of the organisation. Unlike underminers, they do not simply point out flaws, they also envisage solutions. Their strong sense of urgency may irritate yet listening to ensure that this is merely energy pointed in a purposeful direction will clarify whether you are indeed the beneficiary of the necessary insights that a rebel can access and which perhaps you in your leadership role cannot.
By regularly engaging with and openly listening to your rebels you can send a vital signal to the remainder of your organisation. In Robert Keegan’s work on the stages of adult and leadership development, an integral leader is one who “searches for their own shadow”. It takes courage to open up to what we do not necessarily want to hear. Yet this courage can be remarkably contagious when it comes from the top of the organisation, sending an undeniable message that learning is highly valued and is indeed for everyone.