In the deep heat of an 18th-century summer, a crew of pirates was sailing off the Virginia coast when a lookout spotted a merchant ship to the south. Springing into action, the pirates launched an attack, rocking the merchant ship with a cascade of musket balls and grenades. The helmsman of the merchant ship abandoned […]
We have a very particular idea of what the rebels of the business world look like. It is an idea that hews to the myth of Steve Jobs: Creative, yes, but control freaks who create chaos and are difficult to have as a boss or an employee. In my research, though, I have found that there are many people who break rules in ways that are positive and productive. We can learn from them: their lives are especially rich and rewarding. But the big surprise is how much organizations stand to gain. 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.
I discovered the power of a particular kind of rule breaking at the business-process-outsourcing division of the Indian IT company Wipro. The call center perfectly exemplifies the rules-based approach to modern service work. After all, a job well done is a job that follows a script. 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, detailed chains of command, with 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.
Going off script does not mean not doing the job. Think of the famous Southwest safety announcements, like this one by Marty Cobb, a Texas-based flight attendant: “My ex-husband, my new boyfriend, and their divorce attorney are going to show you the safety features of the Boeing 737 800 series.” She earned giggles from the passengers, but she also got their attention. When Ed Catmull, President and cofounder of Pixar Animation Studios, talks to new employees during their initial orientation, he tells them about bad choices and mistakes the company has made in the past as a way to stress that the organization is not perfect, and that their ideas and voice will be valued.
Most people want to behave in ways that are consistent with their self-image as competent, effective, and honest human beings. Yet, even when they are fully committed to acting according to their best intentions, they often reach outcomes that bear little resemblance to their initial goals. Why do people often get sidetracked? This is the question I focus on in my research. My research is organized around two conceptual themes: the study of why people fail to follow through on their intentions of being 1) honest, and 2) competent or effective.