More Rebels, Please: Q&A with Harvard Business School’s Francesca Gino

May 10, 2018 Sarah Mulcahy

Book Cover “Rebel Talent: Why it Pays to Break the Rules at Work and In Life

History is defined by rebels – courageous people who weren’t afraid to go against common thinking for a greater goal. Our country certainly wouldn’t be what it is today without a few famous 18th century rebels.

But when it comes to the workplace, we often look for the opposite of rebels. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, we recruit people who  conform to accepted practices as opposed to risktakers. We do this at a great cost to innovation and engagement, according to Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino.

With the recent publication of her latest book, “Rebel Talent: Why it Pays to Break the Rules at Work and In Life,” we chatted with Francesca about the value of constructive non-conformity. Francesca shares some simple ways to improve on-boarding and be more inclusive of divergent thinking and problem solving.

Read the full interview below.


Globoforce: Your new book, “Rebel Talent,” was released earlier this month. What led you to research rebels?

Francesca: For many years, I had been studying why people break rules in the moral domain – people who cheat, steal, and act dishonestly. In my work, I explored why this happens and what organizations can do to prevent misconduct. But then I started to pay attention to stories in the news or of people in organizations I was studying that broke rules but created positive change. Their behavior did not result in dishonesty; it generated creative ideas or innovation.

I can vividly picture in my mind the moment when I realized I wanted to write a book on constructive rule breaking. I was browsing bookshelves at a local store in Cambridge (Mass.) when I saw a book that was different in its size, Merlot in color. The title caught my attention, “Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef.” Being Italian, I got curious. When I opened it, it became clear it is not the typical recipe book. It has pictures of beautiful dishes, like The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna. But they do not look like any of the traditional Italian dishes I grew up with, being a native Italian. The book tells the story of a chef, Massimo Bottura, who studied traditional recipes carefully but then broke away from tradition to create something new. And he was successful in his rule breaking; his 3-Michelin star restaurant took first place in the list of best restaurants in the world in 2016. What may appear a destructive gesture – rebelling against traditional recipes that had been passed on for generations – was in fact a constructive one.


Globoforce: What value do rebels bring to our organizations and our teams?

Francesca: We all seem to think of rebels of the business world in a particular way. People like Steve Jobs come quickly to mind. At least in the mythical stories we hear of these rebels, they are described as creative, but also difficult to work with. They are control freaks who create chaos – people you’d rather not have as a boss or an employee. We have this wrong. To be a rebel does not mean to be an outcast or a troublemaker. Effective rebels are people who break rules in ways that are positive and productive. Their lives are rich and rewarding, and we can learn from them. And groups and organizations have much to gain by encouraging more rebellion. We live in a world that is ever changing, and rebels are masters of innovation and reinvention. Encouraging the right kind of rule breaking is what today’s workplaces need to do to adapt. 


Globoforce: Many HR and business leaders look for cultural fit and conformity in new hires. How can we combat this tendency and build more diverse teams?

Francesca: I met my fair share of leaders who are all about assuring new hires fit in and conform. But this comes at a high cost: adaptability. Research led by Jenny Chatman of Berkeley and her colleagues finds that organizational cultures that stress adaptability do better financially during times of crisis. They produce the highest revenue growth, and the highest employee satisfaction.

Chatman and her colleagues gathered data from publicly traded companies, headquartered in the United States, in the high-tech industry. They had information about the company financial performance as well as the organizational culture, as assessed through a culture profile survey multiple informants at the different companies filled out. When adaptability was highlighted as one of the main values in a company, and organizational members agreed on the value the company placed on it, firms did better financially, even in a turbulent industry.

Leaders can fight this tendency of focusing too much on cultural fit and conformity by creating the space for new hires to think about who they are, right when they get welcomed to the organization – rather than having them simply hear what the job is going to be like and why they should feel proud of being part of the company.

My colleagues and I tested this idea in the business process outsourcing division of the Indian IT company Wipro. In an experiment, my colleagues and I had some of Wipro’s new employees take 30 minutes during their initial training to think about what was unique about them, what their strengths were, and how they could bring out their authentic selves in their jobs. Once on the job, these employees found ways to tailor their jobs so they could be their true selves, bringing more of themselves into the way they answered calls, for example. They performed better, and were more likely to stay at Wipro.

Businesses have all sorts of rules that tell people how to do their job, from standard procedures that need to be followed and detailed chains of command, to rules on what to wear or how to talk to customers. The way these rules specify how people should get their work done prevents them from bringing to the company their biggest assess: themselves.

Another way to fight the tendency is to focus on differences, right off the bat. When Rachael Chong, CEO and founder of Catchafire in New York, conducts interviews with new hires, she asks them to think through problems the company has faced in the past or challenges it is facing now. And then she looks for answers that are clearly different from the way she and her team would approach the problem. She is interested in hiring people who are going to challenge her and her team, rather than thinking the same way and conform to what’s there.


Globoforce: Do you have any tips for people managers who would like to encourage their team members to speak more authentically and freely?

Francesca: Leaders should model the behavior for others, and tell them explicitly that they expect them to contribute and be a source of spark in the conversation. When Mellody Hobson, the president of Ariel Investments, joined the firm right after graduating from college she received what she calls ‘precious and unforgettable advice’ on her first day at work from Ariel’s founder and CEO, John W. Rogers Jr. Here is what Rogers told her: ‘You are going to be in rooms with people who make a lot of money and have big titles. But it does not mean your ideas are not as good or even better. I want to hear your ideas. It is incumbent on you to speak up.’ The CEO started off by giving her the license to speak ‘her truth’ though she was 22 at the time, to be who she was.

There are other ways to make sure people do not hold their contributions back. Ed Catmull, the co-founder and president of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios, worried that new hires would be afraid to bring their contributions forward in an organization that they had so much respect for – given its past success. He worried they wouldn’t speak up and challenge existing practices that should be questioned. His solution? When he speaks during welcoming sessions, he talks about Pixar’s past mistakes and screw-ups. He stressed the fact that we are all human and that the company will never be perfect.


Globoforce: You write that being a rebel is not only important at work, but also outside of work. Can you explain?

Francesca: I began my study of how rebels can be successful by focusing on rule breaking in the workplace. But breaking rules, as I discovered along the way, has surprising effects outside of work: It enriches every aspect of our lives. In “Rebel Talent,” I write that, ‘Living life like a rebel is energizing. I’ve tried it myself, and it’s opened me up to a world of new experiences. As a result, I now drink milk in all sorts of colors for breakfast, wear red sneakers on formal occasions, and I am always on the lookout for positive ways of being in the world that may at first feel wrong, or possibly even destructive.’ The experience of learning how to rebel inspired me to create a set of guidelines on how to live like a rebel for a week. Anybody who is interested in trying this out can visit the book website – under the tab ‘Learn More’ you can find these guidelines. Most of us are not born rebels. But if you are like me, after a taste of the rebel life, you’ll be excited to continue on the same journey.

About the Author

Sarah Mulcahy

Sarah is senior content marketing manager at Workhuman. When not writing and reading about all things culture, leadership, recognition, and appreciation, she enjoys iced coffee, running, and spending time with her daughters, Mabel and Eva.

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