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The Crucial Role Of The Agitator

Are you someone who sees the status quo inside your business and has an overwhelming desire to shake things up? Do you get frustrated by the often glacial pace of change and feel the need to speed it up? Do you exhibit a relentless and courageous ability to point out elephants of all sizes lurking in the room? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you are an Agitator. Don’t worry, that’s a good thing. If anything, organizations should appreciate the true agitators they have in their midst. Not quite sure? Read on…

What is an agitator? When you hear the term agitator get thrown around, it’s usually done in a pejorative sort of way. It gets easily confused with words like rabble-rouser and inciter. But the true agitator has a noble mission. Consider the agitators who fought for independence and equality. Or think of agitation as an act of nature: it’s agitation that creates the rare beauty of a true pearl. Here are some key qualities that define an agitator:

It’s crucial that you agitate with principled purpose. Else you’ll just be a whiner that no one takes seriously or an ornery crank that no one wants around. Remember to keep the ‘why’ behind your agitation firmly in your mind.

Being an agitator is can sometimes be about as comfortable as being dragged by a horse down a gravel road. It takes a steely determination to see the end result, believe it’s worth pursuing, and remain focused on getting there.

But with tenacity comes a somewhat paradoxical commitment to flexibility – it’s a bend, don’t break mentality. I like Bob Sutton’s mantra of “strong opinions held loosely.” Just remember that always being an unyielding jerk will not only cost you allies, but credibility and influence down the road.

So, what are the benefits of agitation? What goodness do agitators bring to an organization? Here are just a couple of the benefits:

The status quo is death to today’s companies. The current level of change isn’t going anywhere…actually disruption is the new norm. Now, most organizations talk a good game about not adhering to the status quo, but often what they say does not match what they do. The agitator rocks the boat (and flips it over when necessary). But an agitator is also emotionally connected with her or his surroundings. They know how to adjust organizational forces to keep the proper level of pressure.

Ever been in a meeting where the communication barely skimmed the surface? The real root issues that needed to be addressed were being ignored? Noticed that a small herd elephants were hanging out in the corner of the room? An agitator calls bullshit on all of this and surfaces the things that need to be dealt with for the good of the organization.

Having an agitator at the senior executive level is fine. But what happens if you’re a manager and have an agitator on your team? Don’t be like 9 out of 10 managers and banish the agitator to the basement. Here are some suggestions:

Bring Them Closer
Integrate these individuals into the organization rather than push them further out. Listen carefully. Agitators are engaged folks who want to make a difference.

Get Okay With Discomfort
One of the complaints I hear most from managers about agitators is that they’re perceived as negative and combative. I always respond, “And what does this say about you?” This complaint usually stems from a manager’s unease with conflict and intense personalities.

Build A Culture Of Agitators
Finally, don’t make agitation a strange behavior, but bake it into your organizational DNA. Make it a prized characteristic and reward it accordingly. Agitators shouldn’t piss you off, it’s the silence, passive acceptance, and blind followership that infiltrates common organizational discussion that should get you hot…and worried. Francois Gossieaux at Emergence Marketing offers a very powerful reminder of the price organizations pay by not honoring agitators. He writes:

Most of us have been in organizations where it is politically unacceptable to speak openly about what is going wrong – only to see projects fail because of weak sponsorship, unreasonable constraints, unmotivated team members, or plain old politics. It is sort of ironic that while not speaking up will eventually kill the organization in which you work and thus your current job prospect – it is job preservation that drives this behavior.

What most organizations do not realize is that this is not based on individual behavior, but rather on social behavior. Fixing this problem will not happen by focusing on changing individual behavior first, but instead by changing the social norms that drive the social behavior – and that is not a trivial task.

So, what is your organization doing to encourage this crucial role of the agitator? Anyone have experiences to add? Or if you’re an agitator, any frustrations to share?