Skip to content

A Spotter’s Guide to Rebels and Cynics

To the untrained, distracted, or overworked observer, rebels and cynics can easily be confused at first glance. This is particularly true in a habitat populated by otherwise homogeneous fauna. Their non-standard vocalizations and often contradictory postures might result in confusion unless further observation is undertaken.

Before you get out your binoculars, and this metaphor grows unwieldy,  can I suggest taking a moment to reflect on the image that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘rebel’.

Did you think about James Dean? William Wallace? Poncho Villa? Rebel Wilson?

Whoever you thought of, I’d wager my binoculars that you didn’t immediately think of someone in your organization.

We tend to mythologize rebels in pop culture, but of course this happens in hindsight. In  the moment, those rebelling against the establishment we are part of are frequently seen as troublemakers, ‘resistors’, problems, obstacles.

In organizations, I think this perspective gets additional validation from our traditional approach to change  – it’s something we (HR or leaders) do to others. Change is driven top down, not bottom up. Rebels threaten this paradigm.

For HR in particular, with our drive to standardize, to avoid setting precedent, to treat people equally, to systematize, it’s easy to overlook bright spots and positive deviance: examples of outliers who are thriving in the face of challenges.  In operational HR roles, too often our days are bogged down with fighting fires, navigating challenging interpersonal situations, and reacting to employer relations matters. Given this unfortunate reality, it’s no surprise that anyone who differs from the norm can quickly be labelled a ‘problem’.  If they present a challenge to us, then they must be the source of the challenge, right?

But the potential impact of these two archetypes, rebels and cynics, could not be more different. Your organization needs rebels. All of ours do. While in many cases, cynics cost more than they offer.

Whats the Difference?

Rebels care. Make no mistake, they’re frustrated as hell with the status quo. They see the inefficiencies, the legacy process, the turf wars, the silos, the dysfunction…and it annoys and dismays them, in large part because they also see the potential. These constraints seem surmountable to them, at least theoretically, and their frustration fuels action.

Adam Grant’s ‘disagreeable givers’ parallel rebels:

“Disagreeable givers are the most undervalued people in our organisations, because they’re the ones who give the critical feedback that no one wants to hear but everyone needs to hear,”

Cynics, on the other hand, rarely feel compelled to take action. In fact, much of their behaviour seems intended to discourage the action of others. They see inefficiencies and dysfunction too, and to them it’s a signal that trying to change things is a lost cause. However, this doesn’tt prevent them from sharing their views on all the ways that the organization’s shortcomings.

Dr Kristyn Scott of Ryerson University says that cynicism in organizations can be broken down into ‘negative affect, behaviour and cognition (beliefs)’. Her research has shown that some people are predisposed to become organizational cynics; they typically have a negative self-perception, and an external locus of control (meaning a belief that they have little control over the outcome of external events and conditions). This often stems from past negative experiences in the workplace, such as layoffs or an event involving a breach of trust. Her data show that cynical behaviour at work is correlated with dissatisfaction, turnover, and low productivity.

The Tremendous Value of Rebels

Rebels can push us places we wouldn’t otherwise go, because it’s hard, uncomfortable, or we’re simply too invested in things as they are. In a world that is changing fast and filled with a tremendous amount of noise, rebels can show us another way forward that we may not have contemplated.

Their energy for action can be a powerful force for change, but how it is acknowledged, engaged with and channeled by those around them will make all the difference. Absent this acknowledgement rebels will eventually grow tired, give up hope, and move on (this is what we often mean when we talk about people choosing to try to change ‘the system’ from the outside versus the inside). They may join a more receptive organization or environment, or start their own venture. When that happens, our organizations lose rebels’ committed energy and insight, and they could even end up as a competitor. We must find ways to make them feel heard and valued, even if their alternate vision isn’t one we can or will adopt.

Impact of Cynics

We’ve all probably encountered a cynic. They suck the energy from the room, and suggest that those of us engaged in working within the system are foolish; ‘what’s the point?’, they might ask. While they might frame their predictions of failure as helpful warnings based on past experience, they’re not actually interested in helping. Of course, we all know that complaining is a lot easier than actually fixinAddressing cynicism head-on is extremely difficult, and can be made harder by the fact that cynics often think they’re rebels.

Dr Scott’s research sheds some interesting light on how the relationship between cynics and their managers can contribute to this behaviour. She found that cynical employees perceive themselves as receiving less support from the organization, and their response (in the form of increased cynicism) results in them actually receiving less support, contributing to a feedback loop in which their cynicism increases over time as managerial support continues to drop.

(HR people – these are those employees who managers seem to have given up on).

What about cynical managers? (yep, they definitely exist and are a doozy of an HR problem, in my humble opinion). Scott’s research found that supervisors high in cynicism rate people lower, and their staff in turn view their abilities more negatively.


How Do we Make Space for Rebels in our Organizations?

  • Recognize our own biases – Is life easier if everyone just goes along with existing conditions? Sure, but then you stay stuck in current conditions…

    Remember: You can’t be a rebel (or a disruptor, or a market leader, or an innovator, or a creative, or a thought leader, or an icon, or trailblazer, or an original) if you simply want to do the same thing everyone else is doing!

  • Listen, and reflect – it’s easy to dismiss ideas or observations about shortcomings because they don’t fully align with our own views. What can we learn from rebels? Where are they right? Where else?
  • Focus on their ideas – seek real clarity and engage in a dialogue to test your understanding. Don’t make assumptions based on their experience, level, or profession. And don’t misinterpret passion and energy as a lack of clarity.
  • Don’t interpret an attack on the status quo as an attack on the organization (or you) – take responsibility for your own emotional reaction. Acknowledge and trust their positive intent.
  • Invite ownership – rebels are already invested in finding a solution. Giving them credit and the opportunity to lead or co-lead the implementation of changes or a solution makes sense and is the right thing to do.
  • Don’t isolate them. If they are not in positions of power, then help them become influencers. If they lead change efforts, then ensure they are appropriately and publicly supported.

And How do we Filter out Cynics?

First, should we? I have to admit I have a real soft-spot for organizational curmudgeons. They often have good reasons for feeling mistreated or unheard in the past, and there is frequently valuable institutional knowledge and wisdom buried underneath their cynicism. And yet, the cost to turn around a cynic is substantial, and the impact they can have in the meantime is significant.

If Scott’s research can be a guide, then we’re better served by avoiding cynics in the first place. But how?

Grant gives us some guidance, in his suggestions for discerning disagreeable givers from takers

“To identify ‘disagreeable givers’ during the recruitment process, Grant recommends asking this interview question: “Can you give me the names of four people whose careers you have fundamentally improved?”

“Takers will list four people who are above them in the professional hierarchy. Givers will list people below them in the professional hierarchy,” he said.

Takers are looking to impress their superiors while givers will seek out ways to help others, regardless of what that other person can do for them.

Personally, cynic flags are raised for me in interviews if a candidate’s examples of past work challenges and successes are tinged with hints that failures were caused by others, and successes were achieved despite others’ interference or incompetence. Also, the questions a candidate asks can reveal their assumptions about the employee-employer relationship.

Finally, if we’re stuck with a cynic, empathy is the way to go. Of critical importance for HR and managers will be stopping the feedback loop Scott’s research describes. Supervisors will need to harness their patience and look past cynicism to provide support. This may arrest the downward spiral, and possibly reverse it…us non-cynics can hope, anyway.

Have you encountered cynics at work? How have you handled this? What about rebels?

Read (and Viewed) This Week:


Earlier this week the awesome DisruptHRTO team posted the videos from their June event (at which I was a speaker). It’s pretty cringey to watch oneself on video, but I was reminded of how fun this event was – the audience was awesome and my fellow speakers were great. I’ve linked to a couple of my very favorites below, and you can find my talk ‘Scandals & Sociopaths: Is HR the Answer?’ here

  • Georgia Curtis – Pay Transparency
    • This is an informative, passionate, and entertaining talk on why pay transparency’s time has come.

Team Building Rituals Companies Love Can Actually Tear Workers Apart – Nick Hobson, Quartz

Fascinating article about research on team rituals and their potential downside: creating in-group/out-group biases that can weaken ties between teams”

“Anthropological research, which typically looks at religious and cultural practices, shows that rituals lead to a host of positive social outcomes for groups. They help to rally people around a shared value, unify their experience, and forge stronger individual relationships. We’re now beginning to understand that the power of ritual also helps bond sports fans, college students, and coworkers.

But there’s a catch. In organizations, as well as in society, there are in-groups and out-groups.

“Existing conflicts between two teams could be made worse by designing team-specific rituals. For instance, a happy hour tradition that involves only the sales team could weaken ties between this group and the IT team.”

The High Price of Overly Prescriptive HR Policies – Sue Bingham, HBR

This is a topic that never fails to grab my attention, and I enjoyed this article’s practical advice on how to avoid the all-too-common proliferation of policies in place of good judgment.

“Strict policies are often excuses to not think.”

“Too many companies’ HR policies are overly restrictive. Such policies are often convoluted and overly paternal, and attempt to control the behavior of regular people through rules designed to rein in the “bad apples.”

Image credit: Heng Films via Unsplash

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Another good post and two points occur to me

    Firstly, that the dividing line between rebels and cynics can be fine – if rebels are those who recognise things are ‘wrong” and want to change it, if at a certain point they feel that they are not listened to or that the change never happens, they will become your organisation’s cynics.

    And secondly, we need to look out for rebels who are just ‘change for change sake’ – is there a real problem that needs to be addressed, or is the issue just something that they don’t like or is inconvenient to them personally?

    September 25, 2017

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Understanding HR’s Role in Our Digital Future | Talent Vanguard

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: