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We all have one. The brash, high-performer with the big mouth. A fountain of radical ideas, constantly pushing back against the status quo. He bends the rules, ignores advice and does things his own way. Emotional, intense and stubborn, he takes your time and upsets others. You secretly wish he would just quit. But Creative Rebels bring something special to the workplace and are a fountain of energy, ideas and passion that can be positively channeled into your most loyal supporter. Eight ways to unlock the value in your Rebel.

Thank you, Dr. Marcus Raitner, for the inspiration.

The Rebel

We all know them. The brash, high-performer with the big mouth. A fountain of radical ideas, constantly pushing back against your direction. It seems like whatever you say, he counters with a different vision. He bends the rules, ignores your well-meaning advice and does things his way. He can be emotional, intense and stubborn. He might upset the rest of your team, your stakeholders, and maybe even your own manager. He takes more time to manage than any of your other team members combined.

You secretly wish he would just quit.

Creative Rebels are all around us, and they cause headaches for managers everywhere in the world, in every sector and industry, and at every level.

But Creative Rebels bring something special to the workplace. When the culture is dead-set on conformity, they are the ones with passion and ideas and a unique point of view. They are natural innovators, seeing solutions to the problems that no one else can wrap their heads around.

On fire with a vision, they push through obstacles and make things happen. They bring about change, planting the seeds to transform entire organizations. They are unafraid of risk, speaking truth when no one else dares open their mouths. They work hard, putting everything they have into a goal they believe in.

Rebels and creativity

When managed correctly, the Creative Rebel can be a star. In a safe space, he is a true team player, a convincing communicator and inspiration to others. He can be deeply loyal and will work tirelessly to realize your goals.

We all intuitively know and understand that creativity and innovative thinking drive strategy, profitability and growth. Risk-taking is essential for surviving in today’s business climate. We need to try and fail, to test radical ideas and pull in other points of view. This drives performance and company longevity[i]. But not everyone has the appetite or energy for this approach.

How to manage your Rebel

The Creative Rebel will start their new job full of enthusiasm and willingness to play ball. But without your protection, the corporate structure will slowly grind him down. He will begin to wilt; his great energy evaporates and he will become disengaged and despondent. He makes mistakes, stops caring and looks around for a fresh start at a different organization. He is at risk of burnout.

What’s the key to unlocking his value? Five tips to harness the Creative Rebel’s power.

1. Understand your Rebel Type
Some dissenters and challengers are just that. They pick on everyone’s ideas to mask their own underperformance. They push back out of frustration, a bruised ego or to settle a score. They de-motivate others. This isn’t a Creative Rebel, but just a colleague who’s a pain in the ass’ every organization has some of these, too.

The best way to find out what you have is simply to listen. What is he saying, and not saying? Is he offering a positive new approach or just lashing out? Is his dissent driven by a consistent set of core values? Watch his body language, and that of others. See whether he takes up challenges and does the work. Ask his team members what they think of him and how he acts when you’re not around.

2. Show him the effects of his actions.
If your Rebel is causing negativity in the team, make sure he sees what he’s doing. Passion and commitment are great, but accepting other opinions, fostering good relationships and helping and supporting others is what will make his – or any vision – a reality. Remind him where his role starts and stops. if your Rebel is negative about a colleague’s work, make sure he knows not to say this publicly but rather with you privately.

3. Give him a big challenge
Your Rebel will light up like a Christmas tree if he can sink his teeth into something big. Give him an ambitious project with sharp deadlines and clear objectives, what’s on and off the table. Ask for frequent status updates at regular intervals, and make sure he signals immediately when he gets stuck. He will need to ask for help rather than struggle alone.

4. Be his client, not his boss

Creative Rebels are born entrepreneurs. They want to share their vision and bring you over to their side. Make him pitch his workplan and help him refine it. Make sure the project is realistic and well-documented so the path he’s creating is a guide for others in the future. Give him regular delivery deadlines and make sure everything is in writing; he may not be paying attention to the details when caught up in the energy. He will do the work and clear the way for others.

5. Be honest and clear

When he’s pitching his plan, don’t agree unless you really agree. Make sure his ideas are attainable and thought-through, and form a tight business case. Don’t be nice and fill his sails with false praise. Don’t be vague or non-committal. A Creative Rebel is so consumed with his vision that he might not accurately read the room, pick up on subtle clues or read wishy-washy feedback. Be straight to the point and abundantly clear. Get out a pen and paper and draw it for him; visuals help map the way forward. He can use the diagram to refer to later.

6. Coach Rebels on office politics
Rebels can get frustrated with the mundanity of office politics, the whims of big egos or the many points of view that water down bold ideas. The vision he once pitched to you will undoubtedly get mauled along the way to execution, dumbed-down and weakened. But this is a win; make sure he understands this.

Spend some time stakeholder mapping. This may seem obvious and tiresome if you’re a seasoned corporate, but is a valuable part of your role. Include what each stakeholder wants and needs, what they are passionate about and what their agendas might be. Give him a clear list of whose ideas matter, whose don’t, and why.

7. Give them space

Trust that he is doing his best, working hard to deliver. He will find the way that no one else thought of and is shooting for the stars. With a regular set of benchmarks and a schedule of incremental deliverables, he has the freedom and space to work his magic. He will draw inspiration from other environments, working off-site. He will work his own hours, sometimes during regular office times and sometimes wildly outside them. He will need plenty of focus, built-in “flow” time to be undisturbed; distractions break his creative process and require him to start from scratch. He will need brainstorming sessions with other team members to bring his ideas further, and your support at key moments.

8. Praise him
Your Rebel is dying to be your First Knight, to make you shine. He thrives on positive feedback.Building his confidence is key to his engagement.Show him that you value his ideas, his passion and perspective. Then encourage him to seek specific advice from key individuals to further shape his plans in a positive way.

Negative feedback must always be delivered in a “sandwich” format; two positive statements (the bread) encasing bad news (the meat), delivered in a constructive, impersonal way. Be real and be clear. Avoid doing this in front of others. Your Creative Rebel will generally take all criticism personally since so much of his work comes from deep within.

Building a rebel-friendly workplace

In the end, your Creative Rebel can positively infect others around him by raising the team tolerance for risk and shape the environment for speaking up. Show that all ideas are welcome here; innovative organizations often include risk-taking in performance evaluations[ii]. Asking all employees what things they might want to change, or what new ideas they want to see implemented, sets the standard for everyone and shows the Rebel that he is in a safe, supportive space.

Are you a Rebel?

Your life is not easy, and your approach can threaten others without your even being aware of it. You may often feel misunderstood and out of place. But be your authentic self even if you’re in hostile territory. Be brave and let your inner radical voice guide you. You cannot pretend to be someone you’re not; the cognitive load you spend faking it will make you dumber and exhaust you. Rather, choose your battles. Some of your ideas are worth rocking the boat for, and some are not; in the end, you are the one with the most to lose.

Find some allies, build a network. Be hyper aware of the feelings of others, and the threat you inadvertently pose. Visibly, actively and authentically listen to those around you. Always try to work other ideas into your process, whether you agree with them or not. Praise your colleagues excessively and thank them for their help. Share credit with your team even when you feel you did all the work.

In certain cases, bypassing rules and regulations is the only way to get the job done. But use this superpower sparingly. Always try doing things the “right way” first or it will all blow up in your face. Work quietly, using a low profile. Too much visibility awakens the organization’s natural immune system[iii]. Make sure you work for the organization and its customers, and not for yourself.

Finally, make your manager work for you; her job is to support you and remove the obstacles in your path that are unsolvable at your level. She should have your back, protect you and help you grow into your best version of yourself; be clear about what you need and what she can do to support you.

[i] Wucker (2021) “The surprising link between creativity and risk The squeaky wheels in your organization may also be important sources of innovation.” Strategy+business from pwc. Accessed on March 8, 2023. https://www.strategy-business.com/blog/The-surprising-link-between-creativity-and-risk

[ii] MCTC (2022) “Managing “Rebels”; How to Guide Independent Thinkers” Mind Tools Content Team https://www.mindtools.com/arwbjr1/managing-rebels

[iii] Raitner (2017) “10 Principles for Corporate Rebels” Medium. Accessed on March 10, 2023. https://marcusraitner.medium.com/10-principles-for-corporate-rebels-84f279e3d3ed