Revolutionaries at the Workplace
How'd they get in here?
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I’ve always been drawn to work with Revolutionary teammates. You know the ones I’m talking about. The ones unafraid to throw out crazy sounding ideas regardless of who is in the room. Who ask the uncomfortable questions that others might be thinking. Who don’t mince words and demand what they need to be successful. Who build conviction around a goal greater than themselves and doggedly, aggressively even, pursue it. Who aren’t afraid of stepping on toes in the pursuit of it, and have no patience when perceived laziness or incompetence of others stands in their way.
What’s most infectious is how deeply they care. Their goal is to get to the right answer, not to look good. And in pursuit of their goals, they push the boundaries of what others thought possible because they are not beholden to how things are done around here. Revolutionary leaders can paradoxically be extremely effective agents of change and, in the midst of chaos, great stabilizing forces: their singleminded purpose inspires their team to look past their own fears, as well as broader industry or economic instability, to focus on a greater goal.
However, characteristics that make one an effective Revolutionary – extreme passion for the mission, a win-at-all-costs mentality, self-confidence bordering on arrogance, strongly held convictions – can easily make them discount the humanity of others around them. They don’t do well with politicking, have little patience for dissent and are less forgiving of mistakes. Diversity and equity are not concepts they bother much about. In other words, Revolutionaries can come across as jerks sometimes.
A team full of Revolutionaries, meanwhile, is a recipe for disaster. Consensus is almost impossible. Disagree and commit is not an option. Passionate, never-ending debates rage in lieu of stuff getting done. So they must be balanced with Evolutionaries.
Evolutionaries rely on small, incremental bricks to assemble the lego house of their dreams. They build alliances, are flexible on the how and the what, show up with humility, and understand that their advantage comes from patience — a willingness to play the long game. This also means they are more realistic about what’s required to undertake massive and sustainable change. They are meticulous in their planning but expect things to go wrong. They understand humans make mistakes and that a little bit of soft power and positive reinforcement goes a long way. They tend to be easier to get along with.
All teams need both. But the ratio matters. As a general rule, more mature organizations have a higher ratio of evolutionary employees: people who can build consensus, not step on too many toes or pursue their ideas too ardently. That’s because organizations tend to become more bureaucratic, political and consensus-driven as they grow. The existential angst and underdog narratives that characterize the early days are replaced by a need for stability and predictability – both in the performance of the company and the daily lives of its employees.
The ratio is skewed toward Revolutionaries in younger organizations. Revolutionary employees have the appetite to take risk, think outside the box and aren’t afraid to come across as annoying or stubborn to others in pursuit of what they believe is right. When there’s a ton of blank space, opportunity to define a vision de novo and execute against it, Revolutionaries thrive — and get rewarded with promotions and credibility. But at bigger, more bureaucratic organizations, they burn out quicker absent an intentional approach that enables Revolutionaries to do their best work. It helps when they have managers who recognize them for what they are and who prioritize the right answer > ego.
So what’s the implication for leaders and managers?
Consider the ratio of R to E on the team when hiring. A team full of Revolutionaries can be difficult to manage, especially at a more mature company. At the same time, a team full of Evolutionaries can be slow-going and risks becoming complacent. Ask: how does my team today shake out along this axis? And, recognizing that balance matters, what are we missing?
Take stock of your internal balance of R to E. For me, I’d like to assess how I show up at work along two axes: Revolutionary vs. Evolutionary, and helpful vs. hurtful in the context of my current environment. Do I come up with radical ideas but don’t have the passion to see them through? Am I too confrontational (Revolutionary) at a place ruled by consensus-building (Evolutionary)? Where do I lean in and where do I step back?
Assess the broader context. Here live the hardest questions. Am I working at a place that has the right leadership and team for the stage we’re in? Maybe the leadership team is risk averse (Evolutionary) at a time when the industry is being disrupted. And even harder: is my unique balance of Revolutionary/Evolutionary traits the right one for the company given its current goals and DNA? Although one can certainly lean into one part of the continuum more than the other, it’s a waste to try to change wholesale to fit in at a place that doesn’t allow you to capitalize on your strengths.
In a world where there are as many hiring and skill-building frameworks as there are consultants on LinkedIn, I am reluctant to advocate for a new one. But frameworks are only as good as one’s willingness to consistently apply them, and this one is a fun one. So I’ll try it on for size.