Rebels are the misfits, the crazy ones, the troublemakers. But are they really?

What if rebels are actually your agents of change, the ones who see things differently, bring creative solutions to long-lasting problems, and are brave enough to commit themselves and get things done?

It's about time we acknowledge the power of rebels, and create a supportive environment for them to unleash their talent, suggested Simone van Neerven, now Founder at reBella and Innovation Catalyst, and former innovator at KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, during our recent Innov8rs Unconference 2022.

Here's what that means in practice.

Who’s A Rebel? (And Why We Need More Rebels In Our Companies)

Rebels are non-conformist people who are not scared to go against the flow and be unpopular. In fact, their urge to speak up is stronger than the will to fit in. As human beings, we want to belong to a group. Still, rebels often battle against this DNA trait because they can’t just stay and watch- especially when they think something is going wrong or people are not treated honestly.

“Rebels have a solid moral compass; somehow, they're more in touch with what's right or wrong within the company”.

Rebels want to create something new rather than extend the current perspective. At the same time, both the status quo and essential capabilities that need improvement make rebels feel uncomfortable. That’s why it’s not unusual to see them working on something when they’re troubled about it, most likely without asking for permission.

“It's not rebels that make trouble, but trouble that makes rebels. This is what rebels have in common, and that's why the world needs more rebels: we have lots of problems right now, and we need rebels to work on them”.

Rebels see things with a fresh mindset. Even if they're in their jobs for years and years, they can still do that. They don't blindly follow established wisdom, which can sometimes bring some friction. And rebels are also excellent “friction hunters” and can come up with good solutions to make things better.

Rebels care about work more than anyone else. That’s why they’re even willing to engage in a conflict: they want to improve things, even if that means speaking up. In a nutshell, rebels don't want to rebel for the sake of it, they want to create an impact.

In case you wonder… Spotting rebels in your team is easier than it looks. Three common traits characterize them:

  1. They’re curious. They ask a lot of questions, even to the point of being annoying. But don't be scared! Those questions come from a very good heart. In fact, thanks to their curiosity and willingness to learn new things, rebels are open to more, different perspectives and tend to judge less.
  2. They're creative, can cultivate serendipity, and can easily merge even those dots that look very strange and far away to others. For them, it's pretty logical to connect different ideas, connect ideas with people, and connect people with people. They have the ability to turn problems into opportunities.
  3. They have a lot of courage. They’re brave enough to speak up and dare to be authentic and themselves.

How To Empower The Rebels You Have In Your Team?

Although they’re rebels and don’t need to ask for permission to start working on something, they still need leaders to support them and make things happen. Unfortunately, many organizations overlook the rebels' power and don’t help them properly.

As a leader, you may very well need a rebel in your team if you want to take your innovation to the next level. It’s up to you to foster rebelliousness.

As such, don’t rush into a defensive reflex over rebels. Instead, focus on embracing and using their potential and changing your perspective. Start looking at rebels as people who aren’t out of control or crazy. Their actions don’t aim to undermine the current regime but to improve it. After all, breaking the rules is not something they want to do but something they feel compelled to do.

It is paramount to create a space where it’s safe for them to disagree and challenge the status quo and where they can run experiments. Challenge rebels with your most demanding problems where they can also expect the necessary resistance and let them bring you magical solutions.

Of course, rebels may not be like you, and the same goes for their ideas. And that's a good thing because it brings in diversity and inclusion. You can’t do anything but accept and appreciate their differences and quirks.

“One of the hardest lessons to accept is that people who don't agree with you are not flaming idiots” – Daniel Dennett, an American philosopher and author.

As soon as you begin to value them and their ideas, and as soon as you find a good way to treat and appreciate them, rebels will move mountains for you. “Leaders, if you treat your people well, they will probably give you back more”, says Simone. But don’t ever give rebels lipservice. Instead, be transparent and tell them as it is. They can handle that, really.

"The opposite of a good idea can also be a good idea" – Rory Sutherland, a British advertising executive.

Ultimately, learning how to co-live with rebels takes much empathy from both parties. People in the teams need to understand and respect that leadership can't move too far away from the specific goals they need to achieve. On their side, leaders need to be ready to be flexible on their goals and find compromises to eventually realize the change anyone in the company is waiting for.

Rebels, You’re Not Alone!

“Coco Chanel, Freddy Mercury, Dirk Fosbury: many things would have been different today if it wasn’t for these (and many, many other) rebels”.

Coco Chanel has always been considered a style icon, but she was a rebel too. At a time when the colour black was associated with servants and mourners, she introduced the "little black dress".

Today all of this may sound obvious – every woman in the world has at least one black dress in her closet – but it was pretty rebellious in those days. Yet she didn’t care and lived differently: she used to wear pants, cut her hair short, didn't get married, never had children, and it was her goal to design clothing that was as comfortable as sportswear while still looking elegant. Coco Chanel made women's clothing easier to wear.

When a record producer first listened to Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen's iconic 1975 song, he thought a six-minute tune would never play on the radio and rejected it. Little did he know that that song was to become the greatest of all time. If today we can listen to Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s only because Freddie Mercury believed in it and didn’t give up.

Dick Fosbury was only 14 years old when he and his little brother were biking and got hit by a drunk driver. His brother died, and Dick found his safety valve in athletics. After many attempts, he started to experiment with different ways of jumping. He figured out that you can jump much higher if you do a backward jump.

Even though everybody tried to stop him, he won the high jump gold medal at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics thanks to this new technique. Eight years later, the Fosbury Flop - the backward high jump - had become the standard way of jumping. And this would never have happened if Dick Fosbury hadn’t worried about the then-standard high jump style.

These stories certainly don’t stand alone, nor do all rebel stories have such great resonance. But do remember that rebels are in every organization- you’re definitely not alone!