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In Practice

What To Do When Rebellion Erupts within Your Organization

Distinguished University Professor at Case Western Reserve University

Dissent and dissatisfaction are in the air these days. One cannot watch the news in any country and not feel dragged down into negative, defensive or even angry feelings. Not only is this bad for a person’s health (i.e., it compromises your immune system), but it is contagious. When you feel agitated and anxious, it spreads from one aspect of your life to all the others and to people in your surroundings. Negative affect and anger respect no boundaries, and there is no wall that you can build high enough or deep enough to block it. The feeling can spread even in some of the most progressive and innovative companies.

Have you ever been blindsided by a shift in a conversation’s emotional tone in a meeting? Your preparation was good. Your objectives were clear. You wanted the staff’s opinion. And WHAM! Someone objects to one of your assumptions about halfway through the meeting, and others seem to get caught in the contagious infection spreading like the Andromeda strain. You try to explain, and no one seems to come to your defense. Others join in, and you feel as if you are the bottom person in a Rugby pile-on. The meeting is almost over, and you are not only without a list of priorities or even a decision, but it seems like chaos and anarchy has occupied your meeting room. What can you do?

The best advice I was ever given as a CEO was from a kindergarten teacher—who also happened to be my wife. She pointed out that when five-year-olds begin to get themselves worked up in a class and others get caught in their emotional frenzy, the only thing to do is to distract them. Telling them to calm down does not work. Asking them to reconsider does not work. But how do you distract them in a way that might be useful, rather than shifting the conversation in a way that reads like a transparent attempt at manipulation? You often do not have the luxury that politicians in a major office do, of bringing another crisis to the press to refocus their angst.

The answer will sound simple, but in the moment, it can be hard to implement: Go back to basics. The vision or purpose of the organization or group you are leading is the rudder for your meetings and process. Shared vision has been promoted by organizational development consultants for decades, but a set of 14 papers in a recent special issue of Frontiers in Psychology shows empirically that shared vision really does play a major role in leadership effectiveness, engagement, innovation and citizenship—and it invokes neural networks and hormonal systems that help us become open to new ideas and others’ opinions.

Establishing or reminding people of their shared vision amplifies the benefits from emotional and social intelligence of the teams and leaders to greater engagement.

A focus on purpose—not tactics—can put people back into an open frame of mind, rather than feeling that you are pushing an agenda.

Specifically, in that moment, pause, take a few deep breaths to settle your own anger, panic or confusion. Then ask the group to pause. Affirm their ideas with some statements such as, “You are raising some important points. Let’s make sure we consider all perspectives and make this a better decision.” But then try to guide the discussion to something bigger than the immediate question. “Before returning to the argument about the tactics and details, could we spend a few minutes refreshing our memories about our vision and purpose—why do we exist? Then let’s ask how what we’re discussing would help us live that vision and pursue that deeper purpose.”

This strategy enables a time shift in perspective, a refocus on the purpose—not the tactics—and can put people back into an open frame of mind, rather than feeling that you are pushing an agenda or trying to manipulate them.   

If the restlessness emerges from deeper issues of perceived unfairness in pay or career opportunities or mistakes in marketing or product placement, then a longer-term approach is needed. The underlying issue may be a loss of meaning, direction and sense of purpose.

In fact, the more millennials there are in the room (i.e., those 35 and younger), the more a sense of purpose is central. Merely goals or making money rings hollow these days. People want to know why the organization exists and is functioning. They want to be reminded of that purpose. They want to see, hear and feel how actions taken today relate to that larger purpose.

Millennials, in contrast to their older cohorts, are repeatedly shown in surveys to want more balance between work and life; to feel more entitled to comforts and social status; to be more team-oriented; and to be more comfortable with media and social media, in particular. From work, they expect a sense of purpose, if not a noble purpose. They expect to be developed at work and to have supportive managers. If they do not have these things and environments, they leave and go elsewhere.

To be clear, even a profound sense of purpose will not compensate for ineffective executives or dissonant leaders. If a person in leadership revels at their task orientation and drive to profits, then they deserve to have a rebellion. If you want compliance to one person’s views and wishes, then hire robots—they don’t need purpose or pay or rewards—just good programming. But with people, you want to access their talent, their motivation, their desire. When you do, good things will happen.

Richard E. Boyatzis

Distinguished University Professor at Case Western Reserve University

Richard E. Boyatzis is a professor in the departments of organizational behavior; psychology; and cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University, as well as the H.R. Horvitz Chair in Family Business.

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