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Playbook for Becoming a Rebel


I’m Debra and I’m a rebel. Have I always been one? I’d like to say yes, but what I’ve found when researching and co-writing a book on employee engagement is that, although I’ve taken some rebellious actions in my 20-plus years as a rewards professional, I still have a long way to go to be a true rebel. And, I’m not alone. Too many of us stick with the traditional ways of developing and delivering rewards programs, trying to be innovative but not truly being rebellious.

Why does this matter? Why do we need to be rebels and challenge the status quo in how we think and how we act? To answer these questions, consider two findings in Gallup’s 2017 “State of the American Workplace” report. One shows that only 33% of the American workforce is engaged and, at best, the amount is only increasing about 1% each year. The second shows the impact of having an engaged workforce, with these companies delivering 17% higher productivity, 20% higher sales, and 21% higher profitability. As you can see, becoming a rebel does matter if our businesses are going to succeed and survive in this competitive environment. We all need to deliver the kinds of numbers that correlate with having an engaged workforce.

But how do you make this happen? How can you become a rebel and approach your employees differently so that you outperform and disrupt your competitors? Start with a few valuable tips from a rebel’s playbook.

Stop the lies. Lying to our staff, telling half-truths, withholding information and compulsive under-communication all destroy trust in organizations. It creates an “us and them” culture and sabotages any possibility of employee engagement. If you’re serious about employee engagement, you need to stop the lies and first build trust through open and honest communication.

One way of doing this is with your pay philosophy. What can you do so that your employees understand the strategy and logic behind how you set salaries and how they’re rewarded for their performance? Find ways to remove the veil of secrecy around pay, creating a more transparent and engaging approach to communicating with employees about pay.

Explain, don’t just state your values. Designing values is more than just coming up with a set of words. Dedicated time needs to be spent on explaining what is really meant by those words and why they’re relevant to your company. Rebels do this, and then take it to the next step by explaining their values through actions — actions in how leaders lead and in how HR programs are designed.

One way of doing this is with your benefits programs. How can you use your values to drive your benefits philosophy and ultimately your benefits programs? Use them as your guiding light, helping design benefits that support your company’s mission, purpose and values.

Write policies for the 99.9% of your workforce. Rebels accept that most people are good and trustworthy, and they develop HR policies and practices that are respectful of their people and honor their good intentions. They deal with people who go outside the rules quickly and efficiently, not basing decisions and programs on this small minority.

One way to do this is with the administrative processes behind your benefits programs. How can you remove some of the nonvalue-added processes to drive engagement with the benefit and the company? Question each step of the process, making sure they all are necessary and aren’t blockers to engagement.

Create engaging jobs. If we want engagement in our organizations, we need to first eliminate the disengaging jobs. The attributes of a good job aren’t complex. People need to deploy and develop skills, believe they’re producing something meaningful, have enough challenge and demand to be stimulated over the long term, and have enough freedom and autonomy not to feel part of a machine. We need to overcome our fears of what people will do by making them accountable for clear, visible results. Then give them the freedom to innovate, iterate and pioneer new ways of doing better.

One way to do this is by looking at jobs in a different way: How can you weave engagement into a job and not have it totally driven by operational procedures? Find ways to put purpose and meaning into jobs. Take a chance on autonomy.

Ditch the gold watches. Tenure-based awards don’t result in a culture in which employees feel recognized for what they’ve achieved and contributed, which is why 78% of employees report that they don’t feel recognized by their employers. The awards also do nothing to encourage the behaviors needed to succeed in business.

One way to let employees know that they’re appreciated is to move your recognition budget away from tenure-based awards, and toward values-based recognition programs. These not only drive behaviors that support your business, but are more timely, continuous and meaningful — all keys to an effective recognition program.

Use benefits as a cultural differentiator. Rebels go much further than their peers on core benefits, looking for creative opportunities to show their personalities and how they’re different.

One way to do this is by finding ways to invent or put your own spin on benefits, rather than confining yourself to what’s available in the marketplace. An example of this is from BrewDog, an independent Scottish brewery and pub chain, who created a unique benefit called “pawternity leave.” Aligning with their love of dogs (the company was founded by two men and a dog), they decided to create a benefit not common in the marketplace, which lets employees take a week off to take care of a new puppy or rescue dog.

Rebellious acts can come from rebellious companies big and small, with large or small budgets, and often no budgets. They include companies such as Adobe, BetterCloud, Buffer, Gap Inc., Interface Carpets, Southwest Airlines, SnackNation, Venables Bell & Partners and Zappos.

Although each is different, rebellious companies have these three things in common:

1They strategically innovate. Innovation has become such a buzzword that we often forget what it is and why we’re doing it, and we end up innovating just so we can say we’re being innovative. Rebels go back to the basics, remembering the dictionary definition of innovation as happening when “ideas are applied by the company in order to further satisfy the needs and expectations of the customers.” With employees as our customers, true innovation occurs when we go back to basics and innovate in a strategic manner, linking innovation to the needs of our employees and to our businesses.

2. They’re unique. Rebels know that if you want your employees to engage with you, they need to know who they’re engaging with. For this reason, they don’t take the latest fad off the shelf, but instead innovate in a way that is unique to their company and to their workforce. They aren’t afraid to show their personality, even if that means being different than others.

3. They’re brave. Rebels understand that being brave is about doing things that many often are afraid to do but need to be done to achieve a company’s objectives. They also know that being brave may mean having to go up against opposition and fight for their cause no matter how difficult and challenging it can be. They don’t let this fear get in their way, but use it to fuel their energy and passion to make things happen.

Keep in mind that the only way we are going to improve engagement and, as my company mission says, “Make the world a better place to work,” is to change our mindset and ways of treating people. We need to create the change that our companies need, and our employees deserve. I invite you to join our “rebelution,” and I can’t wait to hear what you do next.

Debra Corey Bio Image

Debra Corey is global head of employee engagement and rewards at Reward Gateway. Connect with her on LinkedIn