Who has not had a sudden urge to shout “To hell with this!” and rebel? This kind of impulse is natural in humans and occurs when a feeling of indignation is felt when facing a situation. Whether it is a refusal to obey, opposition to a rule, revolt is not necessarily an act of chaos. It can be an act of creation.
This is essentially the message of Sam Conniff Allende in his book Be More Pirate. It tells how modern-day “pirates”, people like you and me, reject some rules and create new ones, and can really make a difference. He explains everything by drawing parallels with what the real pirates did during the golden age of piracy in the Caribbean between 1650 and 1730. I invite you to watch one of his very relevant speeches in the following video.
To rebel is first and foremost to offer alternatives. By refusing a situation, one questions its relevance, its raison d’être. One wonders or realizes who benefits from the situation. And one finds ways to make the system serve us, people, better.
Now, probably very few of you have dropped everything by mere rebelliousness. However, I know of several people who have built their careers on a simple feeling of revolt against a problem or situation that they thought was unacceptable, and they made it their main battle. I’m one of them.
But in this article, I’d like to talk about small revolts. Those we can do every day. Those that allow us to move forward or free us a little more when the structures in places won’t allow it. Small rebellions that push causes one step at a time.
What does it have to do with the world of work?
Why talk about this here? Because the workplace is an ideal battlefield for small, more or less harmless, but important, and meaningful acts of rebellion.
A lecturer, whose name I do not remember, once said that 100% of absurd regulations exist because of 4% of people who abuse the system. Difficult to check this statistic. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to believe that a majority of unnecessary corporate rules exist because of a history of a few dissidents who once crossed the line, tried to cheat, tried to manipulate the system to their advantage.
The rather sad result of all this is that 100% of employees must comply with these rules that were created because of a few negative troublemakers, who sometimes have left organizations years ago.
What I suggest is to become positive troublemakers to rebalance everything and change things for the common good.
Stirring up good trouble
The idea is obviously to get things to go forward. To create a reflection, to generate a discussion, to help highlight what is intolerable, what hinders us, what infantilizes us, and to question its relevance. And even better, to offer alternatives and new options better adapted to our realities. But often, it must be done quickly, because organizations tend to stifle popular initiatives. As my partner would say, you need to act faster than the immune system of your organization.
Acts of rebellion with the sole purpose of creating problems are not constructive. It’s all about stirring up good trouble. Let’s be idealistic and constructive rebels, not for the sole purpose of derailing the status quo, but for the realistic and reasonable purpose of taking ownership our work environment for the good of the company (and, of course, ours).
To inspire you, I found many examples of small acts of rebellion. I was able to identify patterns in the different ways that people did it. Here are 4 rebellious strategies I could find in these multiple examples:
- Highlighting the ridiculousness of a situation
- Turning the arms against the system
- Creating a situation that inspires reflection
- Realigning with your own values
11 stories of positive rebellions
These stories are not necessarily related to life at work, but they are all examples where people have created small rebellions that have allowed instigators to inspire rapid change, create important reflection opportunities, or to realign with their values.
Strategy 1 – Highlighting the ridiculousness of a situation
I often say that few organizations make the effort to looking at themselves in a mirror. It is easy to ignore situations when you have developed the reflex of looking the other way. Some people, however, take pleasure in putting a huge mirror in front of the eyes of organizations, often accompanied by a big neon sign that says “HEY EVERYONE, LOOK HERE”.
In short, highlighting the ridiculous removes any possibility of ignoring the situation for very long. As all eyes are turned towards the organization that faces ridicule, it must act quickly to save face.
1. Flowers in potholes
A resident of Brussels was fed up with the number of potholes he found in his town, which grew faster than they were repaired. The 29-year-old Anton Schuurmans, equipped with flowers, soil and a bottle of water, started planting flowers in potholes.
This act did not go unnoticed, as he explains that at least 1 of the potholes was repaired 2 days after planting a flower.
Mr. Schuurmans was not the only one to have had this idea, or he may have inspired others. This is a trend that has been picked up around the world since.
2. Phallic potholes
A joker who calls himself Wanksy, in honor of the British street artist Banksy, has decided to push the ridicule even further. Rather than planting flowers in potholes, Wanksy, armed with a can of washable paint, draws phallic forms around the potholes of his city, to highlight the ridiculousness of the situation.
Although a representative of the city of Manchester stated that obscene drawings would not speed up the repair of potholes, the majority of those that received the phallic treatment were repaired in less than two days!
3. Secret ninja exit
To my dismay, I do not remember where I had heard this anecdote. I once read the story of an office where a huge hole remained unrepaired on the ceiling somewhere in a hallway.
An employee who was tired of seeing that this damage was not enough to make the building management company react simply decided to print a poster saying “Secret ninjas exit” and install it next to the hole.
The following week, the hole was repaired. And while I searched for photos, I saw that he was not the only one to make this little joke!
Strategy 2 – Turning the arms against the system
It is sometimes effective, sometimes not, very often satisfying. Organizations that are so rigid in the respect of their rules can sometimes get beaten at their own game. These small rebellions make it possible to feel that we are doing our part to change things. Sometimes a person is not enough, but a mass movement can make a huge difference.
4. The high price of unsolicited advertising
We all receive advertising by regular mail. Often these unsolicited advertisements include a pre-stamped return envelope. It is no longer a secret that it is possible to use these envelopes to return the advertisement to the company. The pre-stamped envelopes are charged to the companies from the moment they are processed in the mail. Many websites provide ways to return the mail to the sender so that they pay for their own ads.
If a pre-stamped envelope costs $ 1 to a business, and 1 million people send all the ads back to the company, their marketing campaign may cost them more than what been budgeted! That’s the cost of polluting people’s mailboxes!
If 10% of the population began to do this in a systematic way, it is a safe bet that this practice would disappear rather quickly.
Meta-hacking of advertisement in a bus stop
Here I am not talking about computer hacking, but a more interesting form of hacking, which consists of claiming ownership of a system and giving it back to citizens / users.
A citizen of London has simply decided to appropriate a part of his city, more precisely an advertising space located in a bus stop.
In this little “meta” act of rebellion, the person replaced an advertisement with a poster explaining how to hack a bus shelter advertisement. See the result.
This act of piracy seems to be an organized and growing initiative. It is even possible to download the instructions in PDF.
6. The restaurant with 1-star reviews
In 2014, a San Francisco-area restaurant owner named Davide Cerretini decided he was tired of being at the mercy of Yelp reviews. At the opening of his restaurant, he kept receiving calls from Yelp sales representatives, and when he refused to talk to them, he noticed that freshly received 5-star ratings were disappearing from his restaurant’s Yelp profile.
Being of Italian origin, Davide knew this is exactly how the mafia works and simply refused to be a victim of this kind of machination. It should be noted that Yelp categorically denies allegations of removal of good restaurant reviews and points out its algorithm.
Davide realized that Yelp was completely controlling his reputation. To thumb his nose at the situation, he started using Yelp’s data to turn the system against itself.
He created a newsletter in which he compiled the worst messages he received from the Yelp elite (which he called the Village Idiots). He also made a list of the silliest questions received on Yelp.
Eventually, Davide realized that he could very well live by not caring about his reputation on Yelp. “What if I removed their power from me by making the situation worse?”
One day, he put a sign in front of his store: “25% off for all those who give us a 1-star rating on Yelp“. (Later, this discount is raised to 50%).
He knew it was against Yelp’s rules, and that’s exactly what he wanted. And that was fine because at that time the Court of Appeals had just ruled that the manipulation of ratings and reviews by Yelp was a permissible practice and that it was a form of “hard bargaining”, not extortion.
The owners of small businesses being furious with this news, they found in Davide their hero. Davide has been visited by an avalanche of journalists, fellow owners, and supporters. The same day, he did as much business as in a regular month. He even had to ask for help and had to pizza dough in nearby businesses.
Strategy 3 – Creating a situation that inspires reflection
Sometimes, provoking reflection can be enough to become an act of rebellion. Many people, probably all of us, do a lot of things without asking the question, “Why are we doing this, again?” It becomes a reflex, and we quickly stop listening to our original suspicions.
7. The toy that’s neither pink nor blue
When it’s the birthday of my godson or my niece, I still have a lot of trouble being inspired to find a gift. In general, I show up a toy store, and I seek advice from an employee on site.
But as these children grow older, it’s hard to ignore the pattern according to which that girls’ toys are pink and boys’ toys are blue. I know people who are much more militant than me about this. For my part, I wonder: what does it mean, what is being passed on to children by reinforcing these gender patterns, what impact will that have, etc.?
So, to derail this pattern, when I ask for help to find a game, I only specify the age of the child, without saying whether it is a boy or a girl.
The first time it happened, and this surprised me, the employee really wasn’t sure how to approach this. He suddenly had to find a toy which first quality was to be educational. I had feedback, however, that my gifts were much more original and interesting since I was doing this. For this reason, every year, at birthdays and Christmas, I repeat the same thing, and I make an employee suffer a little in a toy store!
8. The right to bare arms
The British Columbia Legislature made headlines last March, since the Sergeant-at-Arms had repeatedly asked women to cover their arms in the corridors of the legislature on the pretext that it was illegal to be bare-armed. He simply affirmed that he was applying the regulation dating from 1980.
This intervention did not fail to create an outcry that found its way into social media, thanks to the hashtag #barearms. And it did not take more for women journalists and other employees to come to work with bare arms.
The initiative failed to get more than a reminder of the dress code, but the reflection went beyond the walls of the legislature and was appropriated by the public.
Do we look unprofessional to you? Women in the @BCLegislature are being told our bare arms are unprofessional, do not constitute proper business attire for the halls of the House #bcpoli pic.twitter.com/1lJSWngP34— Shannon Waters (@sobittersosweet) March 28, 2019
9. Ginette’s dress code
This is the story of a non-rebellion that really, really needed to happen. My partner Maurice was the one to instigate it as he was involved with a client’s business, and it prompted a lot of reflections. He noticed that several people were wearing a funny outfit in the office: pajama bottoms and slippers, jogging pants and running shoes. When he asked around, he was told “Ah! That’s Ginette’s dress code. “
He dug to understand a little better. The dress code was dating back to the 1970s when very short skirts were fashionable. It turns out that an employee named Ginette really loved to wear the shortest skirts she could find and preferred to walk barefoot. It was highly inappropriate in this type of business, so the owner created a dress code ONLY because of Ginette:
- Obligation to wear shoes
- Obligation to have your legs covered
For 30 years, this regulation was in place for ONE SINGLE PERSON, who had not been in office for decades, and this regulation was abused at will, to the point where, instead of using their judgment, employees wore whatever piece of clothing that allowed them to check both of these criteria. Pajamas and slippers. Let’s be honest, they looked even more ridiculous than Ginette at the time.
It will have taken an external consultant to start wondering why they were following this obsolete regulation that wasn’t made for them, and to resume the habit of using their better judgment.
Strategy 4 – Realigning with your own values
Sometimes, our rebellious instinct shows up for no other reason than because our values are constantly trampled by the structures in place. Human beings have a need to feel aligned and in harmony with their values. When this need is constantly denied, it becomes more and more suffocating, like a plant that lacks sunlight.
10. The non-ethical corporation
In doing my research on small acts of rebellion, I found a rather interesting short story. An employee working for a company that once had very ethically questionable behaviors could not agree to pretend that nothing had happened.
Since the company’s lobby had computers with Internet access, this employee made it a habit go on every computer and load an article about the company’s offenses, and the way it tried to hide or smother the scandal.
Now, this employee is probably playing with fire but still continues to work for this company. But he is certainly a little more in tune with his values.
11. A simple denial of the status quo
Again, while doing my research on small rebellions, I found a very refreshing testimony of a person who acts simply according to his values, even though they seem to be contrary to what is socially acceptable or encouraged in his entourage.
His small acts of rebellion consist of trying to look after the interests of others. Whether it is to hold the door for someone or to ensure that their interests are represented in a conversation where they can not be present but that concerns them. He tries to be fair to those around him.
It may not be a rebellion strictly speaking, but in a world (or a country) where it is everyone for himself, this person likes to believe that by showing genuine compassion and empathy towards his peers, he rebels against a cultural movement that encourages self-centeredness, entitlement, and hatred.
What lessons can we learn from all this?
NOBODY IS COMING TO SAVE YOU!
If you want something, in life or at work, you will have to get it yourself. And it is not always effective or possible to do it by conventional means.
Are there small rebellions that would be safer than an overthrow? What can you do to highlight the ridiculousness of a situation? Can you turn the arms against a system that slows you down or infantilizes you? What small gesture can help you generate a reflection or realign with your values?
What unnecessary or outdated regulations could you challenge? How do you and your peers claim ownership of your work environment?
It’s time to put your imagination to good use and to put in check your ability to tolerate what gets in your way.
Owner of Primos Populi, partner and coach at Moabi. As a former manager, I prefer to use a “people first, the rest will follow” kind of approach. My favorite topics are organizational culture, safe work environments, and lowering the center of gravity of the decision making process. I cultivate people’s awesomeness.