Is hiring and promoting ‘rebels’ the way out for changing our NGO cultures? A skeptical view

Should NGOs hire and promote more ‘rebels’ – i.e. unlike minded characters – if they want to ensure enough adaptive capacity to weather the changes in the external environment? Will that make us better at seizing opportunities?

The case for rebels

Years ago I was part of a Task Force on Culture Change, hosted by the International Civil Society Center. Some participant supported the view that hiring and promoting ‘rebels’ or ‘strange bedfellows’ was the way to culture change. By ‘strange bedfellows’ I mean people who are squarely dissimilar from many NGOs types in background, social identity, cognitive outlook, skill set, industries etc. This approach has been recognized in the academic literature such as that of the organizational culture ‘guru’ Edgar Schein as one avenue indeed. And we know from the innovation literature and practice that when people from very different disciplines and backgrounds are exposed to each other, this can lead to creativity and innovation. See for instance my short interview with Aleem Walji, head of Aga Khan Foundation USA, who himself drove innovation in Google and the World Bank before coming to Aga Khan, in which he describes aspects of this process. Leandro Herrero, of the book ‘Viral Change’ about change management and a frequent, I might say caustic commentator on organizational dynamics, highlights the role of organizational dissenters, such as in this recent blog post. And the recent surge of attention paid to organizational diversity strategies in the private and public sectors also points to benefits in terms of creativity and innovation. In fact, the NeuroLeadership Institute argues that our brains must work harder and consider a broader set of ideas when we are surrounded by people who are different, i.e. ‘rebels’ within our workplace – and thus we do better work.

My skepticism

While I see the point of ‘rebels’ entirely, I am somewhat skeptical of how much space they are typically given in NGOs . In my observation, many NGOs I interact with have a limited ability to work with ‘strange bedfellows’; in fact, they form strong ‘antibodies’ against incoming ‘rebels’ who have been hired to change the culture. We tend to primarily be open to information that originates within our own sector. I wrote about this in a 2018 essay for CIVICUS’s Annual State of Civil Society report. In fact, the view that ‘radical, new leadership’ is critical and the only thing that is going to make culture change happen causes me to be skeptic in two ways. One, can leaders with formal positional power really drive transformational change in our rather leadership-averse, consultative cultures? And two, do our civil society organizations truly accept ‘radical leaders’? Or are we in fact quite good at spitting them out soon after they have entered?

So what to do?

What is your experience with this? And how can we be more open and inviting to rebels, once hired? Have them be sponsored as well as mentored more effectively (by people who already have much informal capital in the organization)? Have important meetings facilitated by outside facilitators so that rebels’ ideas and suggestions are given enough airtime? Let me know!

2 thoughts on “Is hiring and promoting ‘rebels’ the way out for changing our NGO cultures? A skeptical view”

  1. Velina Petrova

    Hi Tosca, thank you for the succinct but hard-hitting description of what many of us experience at (most) INGOs. I do understand and accept the “it is useless to buy the medicine if you then refuse to swallow it” logic of your skepticism. And I do agree that having some careful and concerted efforts – such as mentorship and facilitation – would be more fruitful than simply dropping such people into INGO structures. However, I also think we might be missing a step in-between: do we understand why INGOs are so allergic, or so immune, to the change rebels or strange bedfellows would bring? Can we think up effective ways of enabling this change before we know why INGOs feel compelled to speak about it, extol it, even seek it on some level, then resist it with everything they’ve got? I am unconvinced by the argument comparing them to private companies: change happens when your business model gets outdated and starts affecting your financial bottom line. This has been happening, at least to some extent, to INGOs as well. Do you have any thoughts on the why of this conflicted attitude to change, before we think about the now-what? Keen to learn from your experience and reflections!

    1. Velina, thank you for such a thoughtful response. I have a gut feeling – and that means not enough data to back it up – that it may have something to do with the amount of ego and identity NGO staff sometimes have hung up with their jobs in NGOs. Because of this, they easily become defensive to the idea that they might have to adopt entirely different frames of thinking as introduced by ‘rebels’. The book chapter on ‘Virtue and the organizational shadow’ by O’Hara and Omber, that was shared with me by one of your Oxfam colleagues and that you probably have read too really hit home with me. The strong ingroup versus outgroup mentality that I find prevalent in the NGOs I am familiar with gets further reinforced when the possibility is raised that we may not be doing that much good (or sometimes doing things plainly badly – either unprofessional/below quality or behavior that goes against our espoused values). The fact that there has not been that much rigorous performance management at the individual or team/unit level until recently in quite a few NGOs, or that more rigorous attempts at program evaluation are relatively recent in quite a few cases has further reinforced our potential for thin skins and perhaps reinforced an inability to let in unkindred-spirits. It is a bit difficult to discuss this complex stuff in a short response though… I would love to hear your take on it!

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