Are You Silencing Your Radicals?

In every company, there are troublemakers.

These are the radicals, those who don’t toe the party line, they use different processes, they don’t go through channels, they might say or do things that cause some discomfort. Some may describe them as “pains in the ass,” rogue elements which create all manner of disruption, and the company would be better served if they either just went away, or just shut themselves up and fell into place along with everyone else. You all know the type.

The question is when you come across this type of person, what do you do? How do you handle this kind of “rogue” individual or team? Do you try to stop them, to turn them into “normal” workers who don’t cause trouble, do you leave them alone, or do you actively work to shut them down and expel those elements from the company?

This being an innovation blog, you probably think that I’d always side with the troublemakers (not always), but how do you know when you should and when you shouldn’t. When you have decided which way to go, how do you act?

I’ll give you an example. A former client has a quarterly meeting where individuals are encouraged to make presentations on innovative new products, technologies, solutions, and trends. An email went out to the company to solicit suggestions for these talks – the talks would be given at the meeting, and anyone was free to suggest any topic. The suggested topics would then be emailed out to the organization for voting, and those who captured the winning votes would later go on to present at the conference. An employee I knew at this firm (let’s call her Jun) was a bit of a futurist and renegade, she was convinced that the entire industry that this company was in was dying, or in some meetings for shock effect, she would pronounce that entire industry already dead, and urge senior management to radically alter their product set and target market immediately so that they would survive this future calamity.

So she submitted a provocative talk for this conference “The Future of [Industry],” and described in the notes her thoughts, how she would justify her thinking and possible routes to avert this, in her mind, a foregone conclusion. She submitted her entry and fully expected it to show up on the list of entries to be voted on, hoping it to be unpopular, but at least her voice would be heard by someone. When the list of talks to be voted on went out, her talk was missing from the list of talks to be voted on. She called up the organizer and asked why her talk was missing – and the organizer, to his credit – honestly told her that the topic was too radical for this conference. Even after some discussion of toning the message down for this audience, the organizer maintained that the matter could not be covered.

Jun was not surprised and left the company soon after. A few years later, the industry was disrupted by faster moving startups and others with a more nimble and lean approach. If Jun had been able to present, would the company have been saved? Was the silencing of the radical viewpoint in this example how the “troublemakers” across the company were treated? Could this have led to the companies demise or its lack of preparation to deal with the changing marketplace?

Maybe not silencing the radical, but letting them speak, would have been the right move.

Thinking about your own company, how do you treat your radicals?