Managing "Rebels"

How to Guide Independent Thinkers

Managing rebels

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Learn to deal with your independent team members.

You lead a team of talented individuals. Everyone has their quirks, of course, but Jack is the team member who gives you the most problems.

Jack is a star performer and often has great ideas, but he constantly pushes back against your authority. He often offends his teammates, too, by accusing them of not being innovative.

Jack is a "workplace rebel." You sometimes think that he's instinctively contrary – that whatever you do, he'll come up with a different way of doing it.

In this article, we'll look at workplace rebels: who they are, why they can be valuable, and how to manage them – so that they can realize their full potential, positively.

What Is a "Workplace Rebel"?

The Random House Dictionary defines a rebel as "a person who resists any authority, control, or tradition." Rebels like to challenge the status quo – and, in the workplace, that includes management, business practices, and colleagues' ideas.

At first glance, rebels might seem to be nothing but trouble. However, when managed correctly, they can be a valuable asset to both teams and organizations. Rebels can make things happen – they bring about change, and can even transform entire organizations.

For example, rebels aren't afraid to stick their necks out for things they believe in. They often tell the truth, even when it's unpopular. They have innovative ideas because they enjoy challenging existing ones, and they're not afraid to express those ideas, even when they're the only ones to do so.

Rebels tend not to be afraid of risk or hard work either. Colleagues may find their energy disconcerting, but this isn't always a bad thing. After all, innovation can stagnate when people get too comfortable.


It's important to differentiate between team members like Jack, who are disruptive but work hard and have good intentions, and those who cause trouble but also under-perform – for example, by producing low-quality work or ignoring quality processes.

We cover this second group in our article on Managing "Rogues."

Getting the Best From a Workplace Rebel

It's tempting to shy away from tackling the challenges that rebels present for fear of causing more disruption. However, if you don't manage a rebel effectively, you're not only condoning their behavior but you're also failing to give them the chance to change.

Use the strategies below to help rebels live up to their positive potential, and to restore harmony in your team.

1. Understand a Rebel's Motivation

Your first step is to understand what's behind your rebel's behavior. What's really going on? For example, some rebels push against authority and alienate others because they're frustrated. They want to bring about change, but they have hit a brick wall.

Instead of channeling their emotions into positive change, these rebels complain, break rules, and argue with team members. They may also become negative, affecting colleagues' motivation. This type of rebel is described in more detail in our article on Waldroop and Butler's Six Problem Behaviors.

Other rebels are more positive. They may take risks, because they're passionate about a project, or pursue a personal agenda that they believe in, even if it strays from the organization's goals. They may disagree with senior colleagues because they believe that they're standing up for a better idea.

You'll find that many rebels care deeply about the organization and their team. This is why they can't be silent and follow along – not when they believe that something is wrong. They'll pick apart ideas or established processes, and come up with new ones.

Some rebels have more complex motivations for their behavior. They may be unhappy in their job and may be using "rebellion" as a means of expressing this. It's also possible that they lack the emotional maturity or the vocabulary to talk about problems directly.

It's essential that you uncover the motivations behind a rebel's behavior before you decide how to act. The best way to understand this is simply to listen.

Open a conversation by recognizing your rebel's commitment before asking open questions about what's prompting the disruptive behavior. Invite your rebel to tell you, in private, what he wants to say in public.

2. Show Them the Impact of Their Behavior

If your rebel is causing negativity, then you must ensure that she understands the consequences of her behavior. Explain that while it's acceptable to be passionate and committed, it's not OK to cause arguments or drive down team morale.

Remind her of the scope of her role, and of the subjective view of the organization and her colleagues' work that this inevitably presents. Then restate where the boundaries in your organization lie. For example, if your rebel has concerns about a colleague's work, she should raise this with a manager rather than airing her views in a team meeting.

Encourage her to make amends if she needs to, and to reflect on how her behavior affects others.

Note 1:

If your rebel's behavior has more serious implications – for example, if she is taking excess risks or causing damage to the company's reputation – this is a disciplinary matter and you need to take appropriate action.

Note 2:

Rebels may also try to take advantage of your insecurities or gaps in your knowledge. If a conversation with your rebel reveals this, treat it as a wake-up call. How can you address your confidence issues, or update your knowledge?

3. Refocus Energy on Making Change

Your rebel likely wants to change things – so give him a chance to do that. Assign him a project to solve a specific problem.

Encourage your rebel to use the project to find a balance between getting what he wants and working with the status quo. What difficulties did he come up against? What tactics did he use to overcome them?

Ask your rebel to document the project's progress, so that he can use this as a guide for future work.

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4. Encourage Rebels to Make a Difference

Often, financial incentives or public recognition won't motivate rebels. Business strategist Lois Kelly researched corporate rebels in her 2011 study Rebels and Work: Motivated to Make a Difference. According to this research, rebels are most motivated by the ability to make a difference in their organization. They're also highly motivated by encouragement from managers and leaders. [1]

Begin by simply asking your rebel about her ideas more often. Manage expectations carefully, however: ensure that she understands that you're not able to follow up every suggestion, but that you'll look into the ones that you believe could be beneficial.

Encourage your rebel to think her ideas through and to put together business cases before proposing them. For example, she may want to do a cost-benefit analysis to demonstrate the viability of her ideas.

5. Coach Rebels to Be Team Players

Rebels can get frustrated with members of the team who are reluctant to change. This can make them speak harshly to colleagues or drive them to push ahead on initiatives before others – including you – have discussed and accepted their ideas. Over time, rebels can become unpopular in the office. This is why it's important to help them become better team players.

First, let your rebel know how much you appreciate his input – but remind him that no one gets far alone. If he wants to see his ideas make a real difference, he needs to know how to win his team's support, so coach him to practice empathy toward his colleagues.

If your rebel is inspired by a particular business leader, remind him that it probably took this person years – and many setbacks – to achieve his goals. Slow, measured change is still progress, and it's more likely to be successful if it has widespread support.

Finally, encourage your rebel to "be the change he wants to see." How can he find ways to make changes without also making waves? Remind him that the most powerful change of all – and the one that will help him achieve more in the long run – is learning to manage his own behavior.

Key Points

Rebels can present management challenges, but they're often also valuable assets. Unlike rogues, who are disruptive and don't perform well, rebels often have innovative ideas, and they're usually the first to talk about problems that no one else wants to discuss. However, they can also upset colleagues and bend rules to pursue their own goals.

To get the best out of workplace rebels, follow these steps:

  1. Understand their motivation.
  2. Show them the impact of their behavior.
  3. Refocus their energy.
  4. Encourage them.
  5. Coach them to be team players.

Remember that the reasons for rebels' behavior can be complex. But if you're clear that they simply want to make changes, give them the chance to do this. Remind them that while it's great to want to make changes, these won't happen overnight, and that changing their own behavior will pay the most dividends in the long run.

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Comments (5)
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    This is a great and (in my mind) very necessary article.

    I think one of the biggest challenges in managing a rebel, is to accept that they will question you - not necessarily because they doubt you as a person or because they doubt your authority, but because they don't just accept anything and everything. If a manager has low self-esteem or poor self-image, they could find it highly problematic when the 'rebel' asks all sorts of questions.

    For a 'rebel', finding the balance may prove quite difficult. Personally I've had to learn that I don't have to question everything and anything - it has to be productive and with the right motives. I guess that comes with maturity.

    On the other hand, I think that their willingness to question and going against the flow still makes the 'rebel' very valuable. Thinking differently may stimulate creativity in the group and may make others aware that 'the way it's always been done' isn't necessarily the best way any longer. That said...it hardly ever goes without resistance from others.

    So, to the rebels out there: learn to choose your battles with wisdom.

    And to the managers of rebels: they (mostly) mean well, so don't assume the worst.

  • Over a month ago coastonian wrote
    Oh and by the way, I have been following Lois Kelly for some time now. She is amazing!
  • Over a month ago coastonian wrote
    Yes, this rebel will need to share this information with her boss.

    I'm not sure I agree with every suggestion in the article. I think rebels are assets to organizations. From my perspective if they would quit putting those freaking brick walls in front of me I would be far less difficult. If my boss would listen to my ideas, I mean REALLY listen, instead of just nodding in appropriate places, I wouldn't have to repeat myself so much. I don't expect every idea to be acted on, I just expect them to be listened to.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you Mindtools team for getting this information out there for us mis-understood rebels!
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