QUES­TIONS FOR Francesca Gino

A Har­vard pro­fes­sor ex­plains why it pays to break the rules.

Rotman Management Magazine - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view by Carolyn Dre­bin

How do you de­fine ‘rebel tal­ent’?

Rebels get a bad rap. We mostly think of them as con­trar­i­ans — col­leagues, friends and fam­ily mem­bers who com­pli­cate seem­ingly straight­for­ward de­ci­sions and dis­agree when ev­ery­one else agrees. But rebels also change the world with their un­con­ven­tional out­looks. In an en­vi­ron­ment that is de­mand­ing more and more in­no­va­tion and rein­ven­tion, we can learn a lot from them.

I spent over a decade study­ing rebels at or­ga­ni­za­tions around the world, from high-end bou­tiques in Italy’s fash­ion cap­i­tal, to the world’s best restau­rant, to a thriv­ing fast-food chain, to an award-win­ning com­puter an­i­ma­tion stu­dio. From an early age, we are taught to fol­low the rules, and the pres­sure to fit in only in­creases over time. But when we mindlessly ac­cept norms rather than ques­tion­ing and con­struc­tively re­belling against them, we ul­ti­mately end up stuck and un­ful­filled. Rebels — those who prac­tice ‘pos­i­tive de­viance’ at work and in life — might be harder to man­age, but they are good for the bot­tom line: their pas­sion, drive,

cu­rios­ity, and cre­ativ­ity can raise an en­tire or­ga­ni­za­tion to a new level. En­cour­ag­ing the right kind of rule-break­ing is ex­actly what to­day’s lead­ers need to do to help their or­ga­ni­za­tions adapt and thrive.

You found that rebels come from all walks of life, but they share cer­tain char­ac­ter­is­tics. Please de­scribe them.

I was able to iden­tify five core el­e­ments of rebel tal­ent. The first is em­brac­ing nov­elty — a de­sire to seek out chal­lenge and the New. The sec­ond is cu­rios­ity — the im­pulse we all had as chil­dren to con­stantly ask ‘why?’ The third el­e­ment is per­spec­tive, the abil­ity to con­stantly broaden your view of the world and try to see it as oth­ers do. The fourth is an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for di­ver­sity, a ten­dency to chal­lenge pre­de­ter­mined so­cial roles and reach out to those who may ap­pear dif­fer­ent. And the fifth is au­then­tic­ity, which rebels em­brace in all that they do, re­main­ing open and vul­ner­a­ble in or­der to con­nect with and learn from oth­ers.

Tell us how rebels chal­lenge the ‘sta­tus quo bias’.

Most peo­ple nat­u­rally avoid ten­sion and con­flict, but rebels em­brace it. In­stead of ask­ing ‘what should I do here?’ — based on what they’ve seen oth­ers do or what they’ve done be­fore — they ask, ‘what could I do here?’ The fact is, many of the tra­di­tions and ri­tu­als we en­counter in or­ga­ni­za­tions and in so­ci­ety are a prod­uct of rou­tine rather than thought­ful de­lib­er­a­tion. This pref­er­ence for the sta­tus quo leads us to choose ac­tiv­i­ties we are fa­mil­iar with, miss­ing the op­por­tu­nity that nov­elty presents. In my re­search I have found that the more fre­quently peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enced nov­elty in their work, the more they felt sat­is­fied with and en­er­gized by their job. Sta­bil­ity, by con­trast, did not bring th­ese ben­e­fits.

Are there com­pa­nies that ac­tively chal­lenge the sta­tus quo?

Def­i­nitely — and I wish there were more of them. Pixar is one com­pany that chal­lenges its sta­tus quo by proac­tively draw­ing out ten­sion and con­flict. The com­pany ac­tu­ally has cer­tain days set aside where peo­ple stop do­ing their usual job and in­stead spend an en­tire day think­ing about what is not go­ing well at the com­pany — on their team, in their job or in the or­ga­ni­za­tion as a whole. Their notes are then shared across the or­ga­ni­za­tion in an ef­fort to im­prove things.

You can also hire for dis­sent and op­pos­ing views: Rachael Chong, CEO of the New York-based non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion Catchafire, told me she ac­tu­ally seeks out dis­sent­ing opin­ions when she in­ter­views job can­di­dates, look­ing for peo­ple who dis­agree with her on some key is­sues.

How can we know when it’s ap­pro­pri­ate to push the bound­aries and when not to?

It’s a mat­ter of judg­ment. Or­ga­ni­za­tions that have done this suc­cess­fully make it clear when rules should be bro­ken and when they should not. The lead­ers of Ariel In­vest­ments, a Chicago-based money man­age­ment firm, en­cour­age re­bel­lion in all sorts of ways. They want peo­ple to be authen­tic, which in­cludes feel­ing free to dis­agree with each other, but ev­ery­one in the firm knows which rules should never be bro­ken. For ex­am­ple, be­fore a let­ter goes out to a client, three peo­ple must re­view it for clar­ity, be­cause the com­pany’s rep­u­ta­tion with its clients is so im­por­tant. Con­sis­tency on rules such as this one helps em­ploy­ees know where the bound­aries are.

Can cu­rios­ity be ac­tively fos­tered?

Our will­ing­ness to ex­plore and re­main cu­ri­ous tends to de­cline the longer we’re in a job. When peo­ple are un­der pres­sure to com­plete their work quickly, they have no time to ask ques­tions about broad pro­cesses or over­all goals.

It takes thought and dis­ci­pline to start fos­ter­ing cre­ativ­ity and cu­rios­ity. In most or­ga­ni­za­tions, lead­ers and em­ploy­ees alike re­ceive the im­plicit mes­sage that ask­ing ques­tions is an un­wanted chal­lenge to au­thor­ity. Peo­ple are trained to fo­cus on their work with­out look­ing closely at the process or their over­all goals. But main­tain­ing a sense of won­der is cru­cial to cre­ativ­ity and in­no­va­tion. The most ef­fec­tive lead­ers look for ways to nur­ture their em­ploy­ees’ cu­rios­ity to fuel learn­ing and dis­cov­ery.

En­cour­ag­ing the right kind of rule-break­ing is ex­actly what to­day’s lead­ers need to do.

Do enough of to­day’s lead­ers value re­bel­lion?

Many lead­ers say they value re­bel­lion and rule-break­ing, but don’t en­cour­age it for fear that it will re­sult in chaos. I have met many lead­ers who, in the end, push for con­form­ity be­cause of this fear; but I’ve also met lead­ers who have mod­eled rule-break­ing and en­cour­aged it in their or­ga­ni­za­tions quite suc­cess­fully.

One of the com­pa­nies that comes to mind is In­tuit. Ev­ery year, the firm gives out awards for great in­no­va­tions that em­ploy­ees have come up with. But there is also an award for the Best Fail­ures: ex­plo­rations that didn’t turn out well, but helped the com­pany to learn some­thing. The fail­ure award even comes with a ‘fail­ure party’. This sets up a sys­tem where peo­ple are com­fort­able ask­ing ques­tions and break­ing rules, as they know they won’t be pun­ished for ex­per­i­ments that fal­ter.

Can any­one be a rebel?

Ab­so­lutely. You just have to be will­ing to take risks that can be un­com­fort­able. My goal is for peo­ple to be­come more com­fort­able be­ing un­com­fort­able. I be­gan this project by try­ing to un­der­stand rule-break­ing in the work­place. But break­ing rules, I dis­cov­ered along the way, en­riches ev­ery as­pect of our lives. Most of us are not born rebels. But if you’re like me, af­ter try­ing the rebel life, you won’t want to go back.

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