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How I learned to manage rebel employees (without upsetting everyone else)

You won’t get great work out of them if you make them follow stringent processes.

How I learned to manage rebel employees (without upsetting everyone else)
[Photo: kieferpix/iStock]

Rebel employees can bring a lot of value to an organization. Sure, they hate following rules, but they tend to be creative about finding new ways to optimize productivity and increase revenue. The thing is, rebels challenge organizational norms, values, and policies. They flout convention. And when they get results, they want special treatment.

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But most companies also need soldiers–productive people who follow the rules. They make organizations predictable and manageable. They thrive on consistency. Soldiers don’t expect special treatment, and rebels who do make soldiers feel uncomfortable. They upset the chain of command, and to soldiers, it doesn’t feel fair.

It’s not easy to square rebels and soldiers without turning off one or the other.

A rebel’s story

Years ago, I was the general manager of a luxury hotel. My sales director came to me and said that one of his salespeople (let’s call him Tom) was not hitting the marks the hotel used to measure performance. He wasn’t making his assigned number of cold calls–he said they took time away from building relationships with guests. He wasn’t filling in the fields in the hotel’s customer relationship management (CRM) system. He said that didn’t help him make sales, develop new clients, or take care of old ones.

On top of that, Tom was often away from his desk (without asking permission). The sales director wanted to fire Tom. I told him I needed to think about it.

I was at a crossroads. All the evidence was on the side of Tom’s manager. But at the same time, I had an instinct that Tom was (appropriately) focusing on the customer. And my intuition was right. When I looked deeper into the numbers, I saw he sold more high-value rooms and more expensive events than any other salesperson and received more positive reviews from guests. I also discovered Tom had personal relationships with several of the hotel’s high-net-worth guests, who referred their friends to the hotel through Tom. Tom was single-handedly building a new client pipeline, and I had not been aware of it.

Firing him didn’t make sense. Rebels may step on toes, but it’s often in the service of getting the job done. I knew that I needed to act fast to stop the situation from escalating further. Here’s the three-step process I followed.

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1. I gathered intelligence

I knew that the first thing I need to do was talk to everyone to find out what’s going on. It turns out that the sales director was not a popular guy. The salespeople called him “the Warden.” His top priority was getting everyone to follow the rules. Make X number of calls, show up at a particular time, and take no more than take 45 minutes for lunch. That might work for some soldier employees, but it definitely didn’t work with Tom. I also found out that the department’s churn was higher than it should have been. Sure, they were meeting their goals, but they didn’t exceed them. And Tom was a significant contributor to those goals.

2. I had to be intentional about making employees feel valued

Here’s the thing–great employees don’t fit into one personality. They have different motivations and working styles, which allows them to make unique contributions to the organization’s goals. As a manager, I knew I needed to communicate that to my team members–so that they feel valued and seen, irrespective of their personality.

I met with each salesperson and explained Tom’s value to the soldiers, and his coworkers’ strengths to Tom. I had to become an umpire, calling them as I saw them. I found that the key was to honor everyone’s contributions, and express how important it was to the hotel’s mission and its guests. I also explained how their combined efforts affected everyone’s compensation, which is an essential motivator for salespeople.

3. I partnered with HR to craft a win-win solution

After talking to everyone, I knew that this was a case where I needed to meet with our HR director and craft a solution that addressed his concerns while creating space for rebels like Tom. We decided to implement a flexible work schedule policy, which the sales team embraced and never abused. By working with HR, I was also able to help transform the sales department into a peer-friendly environment where everyone pursued common goals while leveraging their individual talents and strengths.

But not everyone will be on board with that “win-win” solution

I didn’t end up firing Tom, and that made the sales director unhappy. Even though I sought his input, he wasn’t interested in having someone question his authority. When he saw he wasn’t going to get his way, he resigned. So I promoted his No. 2 and advised her to manage by outcome, not process.

Then I met with the new director and Tom together to explain to Tom the importance of filling in the CRM system’s fields. Without up-to-date, detailed data about guest preferences, the hotel couldn’t offer the luxury, high-touch service for which guests came to us. Not all guests, I reminded Tom, came to us through him. I also mentioned that if Tom didn’t fill in the CRM fields, he could kiss his bonus goodbye. I gave the same talk to the soldiers in the sales department, with Tom present, and they appreciated the fact that I was treating everyone equally. The department’s annual revenue grew by 9%. The sales team was inspired to step up when they saw how committed Tom was to his job.

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Managing rebel employees isn’t easy–but I can assure you that they provide tremendous value to an organization. They might just not show it in the same way, and it’s on you, as the manager, to create an environment that lets them thrive.


Edward Mady serves as general manager of The Beverly Hills Hotel and West Coast regional director, USA for the Dorchester Collection, which includes Southern California’s Hotel Bel-Air.

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