The Untapped Potential of Rebels

November 20, 2019 Lynne Levy

4-minute read

purple flowers in field of yellow flowers

Do you have rebels in your organization or on your team? Are rebels embraced or do they sit on the outskirts, where they are seen as troublemakers? Are rebels asked to stay quiet or are they invited to key innovation teams?

Rebels like to challenge the status quo – and in an organizational context, this includes management, business practices, product innovations, and other people's ideas. Rebels have ideas on improving how work gets done, but don't have permission to offer these ideas up to leadership

And yet rebels can be significant assets to your organization. Rebels make things happen, encourage others to look at issues from all angles, and are effective at bringing about change. Rebels may step on toes, but it's often in service of getting the job done.

Many have described me as a rebel. I am curious, love to ask questions, and have an absolute passion for the work I do. The leaders who embraced the rebel in me had a product manager who was innovative, insightful, and built world-class products.

How can you effectively leverage the rebels on your team?

Understand their “why.”

Some rebels are motivated by frustration and some by the greater good of the organization.

Most rebels are positive and take risks because they are passionate about a project and organizational goals. They may push back on ideas – even those from senior leadership – because they genuinely believe in looking at issues from all angles.

Rebels are committed to the organization and their team; they cannot stay silent when they disagree with a direction. Leadership must uncover the motivations of a rebel so they can effectively determine the best way to leverage their insights.

In the book “Rebels at Work,” by Carmen Medina and Lois Kelly, a clear distinction is made between rebels who are angry and frustrated versus those who are committed to the organization and pushing for change. For example:

Bad rebels

Good rebels

















Vocalize problems

Socialize opportunities

Worry that …

Wonder if …

Point fingers

Pinpoint causes





Note: I am a “good” rebel!

Refocus their energy.

Rebels may require ongoing reminders of when to work with the status quo and when to question and push toward change. I had a leader, Jim Mitchell, who had to remind me of this early in my career.

Assign projects where they can make a difference.

Most rebels are motivated by the ability to make a difference in the organization. They are also highly motivated by recognition from managers and leaders. Assign them projects where out-of-the-box thinking is required and new ideas are welcome and appreciated.

Help them become team players.

Many rebels become frustrated with people who don’t listen or appreciate their questions and curiosity. Managers play a key role in coaching rebels on how to get buy-in on their ideas and use their curiosity to inspire others to be curious.

Make them feel valued.

Everyone has different motivations and working styles. Managers need to ensure that everyone feels valued, seen, and like they are a part of the collective community at work. Team connection and trust are critical to bringing out the best in each employee

Embrace rebels as change agents.

Rebels can be a positive force within your organization to continuously enact change. At one of my previous jobs, I had an HR VP who I partnered with to become a change ambassador. Although I worked in the product organization, the HR VP became my advocate and saw the passion for change within me.

Rebels are the innovators, thought leaders, and change agents. They are also the ones to step on toes and break a bit of glass in the china shop. Who are the rebels in your organization? What are you doing to bring out the best in these individuals and encourage innovation?


The dangers of herd thinking (and how to avoid it)

A call for autonomy this Fourth of July

Let freedom reign: the employee manifesto

About the Author

Lynne Levy

Lynne Levy is a Workhuman evangelist who lives and breathes helping organizations build cultures that bring out the best in the employees. Her mantra is “do what you love, love what you do.”

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