Tempered Radicals: Rocking the Boat

Feeling confined and restricted at work isn’t just a problem for millennials who typically seek greater flexibility than other sectors of the workforce. Everyone can be adversely affected by an abundance of unnecessary rules and over the top hierarchy. Some structure is good, of course; properly defined and communicated organizational guidelines can give all levels of staff the framework for appropriate behavior.

What about when the rules feel a little too constricting? There are moments when people feel like policies and procedures not only hamper individuality and expression, but ultimately stunt creativity, happiness, and productivity. If a person spends a significant portion of the day mumbling under their breath due to frustration towards a rule regarding food storage in the break room fridge, they’re probably not getting as much work done as they could. It’s even possible some of that lost work time is spent browsing job postings while dreaming of an office with no fridge restrictions.

Usually though, it takes too much effort to chase after grass-is-greener job opportunities and people tend to stick around while finding ways to push back against confining rules and cultural norms. When this sort of resistance is done with enough subtlety to not incur any major backlash it is called being a tempered radical. Being a tempered radical means rocking the boat enough to make waves, but not enough to tip the boat over. In the workplace, it gives employees a way to express their individuality, and to some degree, a means of protest. For example, if an office had a policy banning traditional ethnic clothing, an employee may act as a tempered radical by wearing just a scarf or headband that technically breaks the rule, but doesn’t draw enough attention to warrant punishment.

When carried out appropriately, acting as a tempered radical has its benefits:

  • It allows employees to feel like they are autonomous and have free will in the workplace, which leads to satisfaction and retention.

  • It usually doesn’t cause enough disruption to negatively affect the productivity of the workplace. If the action isn’t seen as an issue, there is no time wasted on meetings, discipline, and new policies.

  • It can create community among staff who share in an action or issue.

  • Most importantly, it can lead to long term changes in the workplace. As organizations become increasingly used to a number of small deviances from the norm, policies and cultural practices will likely be adjusted to accommodate the behavior. Big changes can occur over time from small steps!

Rather than create some made up examples for this post, I polled my social network for ways they have been tempered radicals in a work environment. I received a slew of responses from millennials, baby-boomers, and those in between. You will see that sometimes a tempered radical will act for their own personal health and well-being, while other times it actually creates positive and productive change in the workplace.

Wearing a unique ear piercing at a large and traditional company.

Breaking a culture of silent acceptance by posing questions to management about organizational decisions that affect staff.

Altering the company dress code by advocating against business casual.

Changing the culture of meetings by being early, standing, checking email at appropriate times, requesting agendas, and advocating for fewer meetings comprised of only the necessary attendees.

Pushing the boundaries of meeting procedures by eating during meetings and breaking hierarchy by sitting at the table with senior staff.

Addressing physicians by their first name.

Promoting calm environments by hosting tea parties.

Countering traditional business appearance through casual clothes, an alternative hairstyle, and tattoos.

Wearing a unique hair color to a professional conference.

Keeping a nontraditional hairstyle among a group of more traditional employees.

Addressing board members by first name.

Jump starting an ongoing staff potluck event in an office typically lacking in socialization.

Promoting work/life balance by requesting and receiving sabbaticals and remote work arrangements.

Wearing bright colors in a space where grey, blue, and black are the norm.

Levi Baer

Chicago, IL