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dr rebel: how can i empower rebels in my team?

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often, rebels are seen as troublemakers, and people tend to go around them. by empowering rebels, they become your most valuable employees. they will be the drivers for innovation and continuous improvement of your organisation.

years ago, when i worked at KLM, i (naively?) took ownership of a complex topic that had been in a deadlock for years. somehow, i managed to turn this into a great success. read more about this story here.

it gave me many valuable life lessons about empowering rebellious talent in an organisation. i came up with six things:

dr rebel ways to empower rebels

here are the six tips on how to deal with rebels in your organisation:

#1: take time and listen to them. rebels can sometimes get frustrated and dig their heels in if their ideas aren’t listened to. because of their ability to look at things differently, they come up with solutions that may seem strange or even idiotic at first. most often, they have given deep thought to the topic. suppress the urge to immediately write off their ideas. instead, engage in conversation to understand where the rebel is coming from. it will lead to surprising and new insights that would otherwise never have emerged.

#2: let rebels work on your biggest challenges. rebels like to be challenged. they get uncomfortable with the status quo and have a natural urge to improve and create new things. their curiosity enables them to get to the heart of the matter. their creativity helps them to find surprising solutions to these long-lasting problems.

#3: bring rebels together and let them collaborate. rebels have a lot of ideas, but often nothing has ever been done with them, mainly because they were too small or too siloed. by bringing all these ideas and solutions together and looking at them more holistically, their true value will be revealed. many small ideas can lead to a big result.

#4: be radically honest to rebels. rebels may talk passionately about their ideas for years without anyone acting upon them. this can be quite frustrating for them as they firmly believe their solutions are good. however, by looking at these ideas from all angles, they can turn out to be not that practical after all. instead of ignoring the rebel’s idea, don’t give them lip service and clearly explain why it’s not a good idea. they can handle that (really!) and they’ll finally put their ideas to rest. this also creates more openness for other, better ideas.

#5: trust your rebels and give them space. make sure to give them room for manoeuvre. don’t make the box too small, they have to be able to use their creativity. but don’t make the box too big either as constraints will stimulate creativity and prevent them from coming up with solutions that will not be implementable, eg for strategic or cost reasons.

#6: coach your rebels. rebels often enthusiastically plunge into new ideas and solutions. they don’t always feel whether the timing is right or not. also, quite often, they will unintentionally bypass colleagues and managers, which can be a very delicate issue in organizations. by coaching them they will learn to better navigate an organization and become more effective. no longer will they be seen as a troublemaker, but rather as an innovator of the organization.

read more about this topic in my column ‘kickstarting innovation? six tips to empower rebels in your team’

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