When Survival is on the Line, Can Rebels be the Solution?


By David De Cremer

In times of crisis, companies have no choice other than to face themselves in the mirror and ask what is needed to survive. Such existential questions usually bring about change to ensure that survival on the longer term is achieved. However, too often, under those circumstances, we see organizations retreat and stick to the status quo. Indeed, the default for most organizations is to fall back to what is known and avoid taking risks. In other words, rather than changing one’s ways of acting and working, companies seem to prefer to sit out a crisis. This strategy regretfully hurts too often the resource that companies need the most, which, are its human resources. Rather than investing in people’s resilience, well-being and understanding to deal with crisis events, and as such fostering a work climate where an agile and creative mindset exists, budgets for training, counselling, and coaching are suspended. This is unfortunate, because this way a crisis will not be used as a learning experience for the company and its employees – learning experiences that will be helpful on the short and long term to help a company grow and adjust where needed. Sir Winston Churchill already mentioned in the mid-1940s “never let a good crisis to waste”, and this has since then repeated often by many leaders, most notably by Rahm Emanuel who was advisor to US President Obama and later mayor of Chicago.  

Deciding to play it safe and not having the intention to change anything may at first sight sound comfortable and risk avoiding, but it’s a strategy that may be the riskiest one, especially so on the long term. Crisis situations have in common that once the crisis is over, the business environment will have undergone changes and most likely adopted new ways of working. If one then failed to adopt a mindset to move forward and adapt, companies will find themselves falling behind. Unfortunately, fighting against the human tendency to adhere to the status quo is one of the most difficult things to do for humans (Samuelson & Zeckhauser, 1988). It requires indeed an attitude that allows oneself to leave behind what’s familiar and known and replace those comfortable feelings for uncertain ones. People do not like uncertain situations and will do whatever is needed to keep situations organized, structured and manageable (Epstein, 1999). However, a crisis demands employees willing to challenge traditional ways of looking at your business. People who are willing to break protocol and show nonconformity in their behaviour, with the goal to adapt and bring new perspectives to deal with a changing environment. Recent research has referred to these kind of employees as “rebels.” Those rebels are the ones who are curious and keep asking questions to challenge the status quo to arrive at new strategies and ways of working (Gino, 2018). As such, rebels have become a particular kind of employee to hire if one truly wants to build a work culture where smart ideas are launched to break traditional decision-making and rules that prevent companies from moving forward (Cohan, 2018). It must be noted that not everyone can be a rebel immediately, but most of us do have the potential to be rebels. As such, an important responsibility for organizational leaders in the future may be to support this kind of thinking and actively create a recruitment policy that is on the look-out for those kinds of individuals.  

Crisis situations have in common that once the crisis is over, the business environment will have undergone changes and most likely adopted new ways of working.

Of course, the ability to act and think like a rebel – with the aim to contribute positively to the agility of the company! – requires a mindset that is to some extent culturally determined. In fact, this mindset may be preferred more in Western countries than in Asian ones. In Asia the boundaries between being seen as a rebel or a criminal – in both rule-breaking actions and attitudes – may sometimes seem fuzzy. Indeed, in many Asian countries, traditions matter and the old are respected, so, resistance to change may be relatively high. In line with this observation, in 2021, The Economist noted that a Chinese aphorism teaches that “the young should never go to Sichuan, and the old should never leave.” This rule tries to keep the young away from life’s temptations and instead commit to hard work – without little immediate rewards – to eventually be successful. Today’s younger generation in China, however, is challenging this rule and seems to abandon the expectation to work overtime, deliver the highest quality of work possible and staying focused on and committed to the employer. Instead, they are slacking off from this demanding tradition and have even referred to it as a “silent” form of rebellion (Yan, 2021).   

So, does it seem that rebellious acts may be on the rise in Asia, and if so, will companies in the East see the value of this kind of attitude for their business? One company that – out of necessity – has signalled that they like to see more rebels within their company is Huawei. Huawei is a Chinese telecom giant founded in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei in the city of Shenzhen (Tao, De Cremer, & Chunbo, 2017). The company employs more than 190 000 employees worldwide and has been involved in a tensed relationship with the US especially since the daughter of the founder, Men Wanzhou, who was the company’s CFO, was arrested in Vancouver in December 2018 (on 24 September 2021, prosecutors in the New York federal court communicated that she would be released). An international warrant, issued by the US government, charged Meng and Huawei with bank and wire fraud in violation of American sanctions on Iran. The then-president Donald Trump did not only issue this international warrant, but also dragged especially the Chinese technology company into the trade war that he started with China, making that Huawei became blacklisted by many Western countries (De Cremer, 2020). This has impacted Huawei negatively as can be seen in the revenue of the company of the company in the first quarter of 2021, which dropped with 16.5% compared to their 2020 revenues (Browne, 2021).  

The reason why Ren this time wants the rebel-kind of employee to enter Huawei is that the company pledged to continue to fund research and development programs and therefore they need to create a competitive edge in terms of creativity.

A question that many observers now would also like to see answered is how the Chinese telecom giant will deal with this global set-back. Will the company retreat and leave the global scene? Recently, Ren Zhengfei did provide an answer to question and the answer surprised quite a lot of people. In fact, Ren explained the need for the company to keep expanding outside China because in his view Huawei still has much to learn from the US in terms of science and technology (Yujie, 2021). Therefore, Ren noted explicitly that “We must recruit people who are more capable than us” … “Our compensation packages must align with international talent markets, [be] higher than those offered by local talent markets. This is necessary to attract the best talent.” (Deng, 2021). And this is not where it stops, as Ren has indicated that also “radicals” should be welcomed in the company. Although this sounded rather surprising in the ears of many, it’s not the first time that Ren has made clear that he does appreciate employees not always following the formal directives. To emphasize the customer-centricity of Huawei, Ren has advocated in the past the idea that “everyone in the company must turn their eyes to their customers and their back to their bosses”, basically suggesting that if employees feel constrained by their bosses in providing better service to their customer, then they can rebel (De Cremer, 2017). The reason why Ren this time wants the rebel-kind of employee to enter Huawei is that the company pledged to continue to fund research and development programs and therefore they need to create a competitive edge in terms of creativity. And rebels may be the kind of employees needed to achieve this ambition.   

But, unlike my earlier argument that everyone has the potential to be a rebel and as such companies could build a work climate where everyone is pushing the limits and rules to move the company forward, Ren does think about limiting the number of rebels. Indeed, he has argued that in the battle of Huawei to survive, they do need “to continue climbing the Himalayas, but most of our employees will grow potatoes and graze sheep and cattle at the foot of the mountain to provide a steady flow of food to those who are climbing the mountain.” (Houweling, 2021) The latter can thus be the rebels, whereas the former will have to be the loyal soldiers that do have to adhere to rules and policies to provide a stable foundation for those few rebels to excel.  

Taken together, the rebel mindset is one that has been advocated in the last few years to promote creativity and agility, but at the same time has mainly been seen as a Western phenomenon. We do see, however, that the younger generations in Asia are starting to rebel against certain traditional ways of working and are – in still a hesitant way – looking for alternative approaches to organize their social and work lives. In a rather unexpected turn of events, Huawei seems to have recognized the value of rebels in times of crisis and has advocated their presence in the company. However, they have adopted a rather unique way of using rebels by only allowing a certain number of them in the company, and it still needs to be seen whether this approach will reveal the benefits that so many attribute to rebels. Indeed, rebels need to be seen as a symbolic representative of a work culture that embraces openness and agility and as such are expected to influence each employee at every level of the company. Ren Zhengfei, however, does stick to a hierarchical approach to using rebels to promote innovation where he distinguishes those at the bottom of the mountain and those climbing the mountain. The future will tell whether this distinction will reveal the gains he has in mind. 

About the Author

David De Cremer

David De Cremer is a Provost’s chair and professor in management and organizations at NUS Business School, National University of Singapore. He is the founder and director of the Centre on AI Technology for Humankind at NUS Business school. Before moving to NUS, he was the KPMG endowed chaired professor in management studies and current honorary fellow at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge. He is named one of the World’s top 30 management gurus and speakers in 2020 by the organization GlobalGurus, one of the “2021 Thinkers50 Radar list of 30 next generation business thinkers”, nominated for the Thinkers 50 Digital Thinking Award (a bi-annual event that the Financial Times deemed the “Oscars of Management Thinking”), and included in the World Top 2% of scientists (published in 2020). His latest book is “Leadership by algorithm: Who leads and who follows in the AI era?”