Featured Expert Francesca Gino: On Rebel Talent, Culture and Ethics

Featured Expert Francesca Gino on her new book Rebel Talent


Your new book, Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life was just published! Congratulations. First off, what defines a rebel? Traditionally the word connotes someone going against the grain without a care towards consequences but here it is used as a positive with beneficial consequences.

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.


Some might argue that we are in a current period of great rebellion towards the status quo and polarization. Why is now the right time to talk about why being a rebel is good? 

The world is becoming more uncertain and the types of problems we are asked to think through are more complex. The world is also divided. There is much polarization, and we often do not seem to get along well, no matter how simple or complex the issue at hand is. Rebels adapt to changing conditions easily as they enjoy what comes with novel and challenging situations. Their curiosity is an important ingredient to help them stay agile and flexible.


How can being a rebel help someone succeed in a culture where following the rules- or compliance- is the prime directive? Also: are there environments where being a rebel is not advised?

Organizations have all sorts of rules, from codes of conduct to chain of command to rules about how to dress properly for work. But as in the case of the call center I told you about, certain rules should be broken. Every organization is weighed down with another set of “rules” which deserve challenge: the ways things have always been done. In one study, I assigned participants the task of folding T-shirts and told them they’d be paid based on how many T-shirts they folded in the allotted time. Before folding, the participants watched a team of paid actors fold T-shirts. Some watched people who folded efficiently, while others watched people who added irrelevant actions to the process, such as stacking the shirts in piles of three before folding them or folding and unfolding the sleeves—steps that slowed down the process. Interestingly, the people who watched this inefficient folding copied it with no questions—and lost money in the process. In fact, as research has found, this type of behavior is something we start doing as little children. When kids watch adults doing something wrong, like using an inefficient way of extracting a toy from a container, they follow suit rather than figuring out how to do it right.

At the Ritz-Carlton in Istanbul, the staff has always planted flowers on the terrace right outside the hotels’ restaurant. But one day, the hotel manager Max Zanardi asked the staff why they always planted flowers. Nobody had a good answer. But everyone started thinking about possibilities. And when it came time to fill the pots, the staff planted herbs and heirloom tomatoes — which they then became ingredients in the hotel’s acclaimed restaurant, Atelier Real Food.


How do people reconcile their ethical behavior while also breaking the rules? For leaders, how do you properly encourage this balance of following rules while also looking to see where they can be broken?

Breaking the rules does not mean being unethical. It means not taking rules for granted, and questioning them when appropriate. When I met the chef and owner of the 3-Michelin star restaurant that took first place in the list of best restaurants in the world in 2016, Massimo Bottura, he showed me a work of art: photos of Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei smashing a 2,000-year old vase. Why had he done it? I asked. A new beginning, Bottura explained. The destructive gesture was in fact a constructive one. As in the case of Ai breaking the vase, rule breaking may seem wrong. But there are productive ways to break the rules.

To survive in business, the rules every leader should follow are clear and often explicitly stated in management courses: make employees as productive as possible, and the work as efficient as possible. But this narrow focus on maximizing productivity comes at a 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.

There is obviously a trade-off between getting work done and exploring. But in the race to improve on efficiency, the desire to learn and the excitement to stay curious get squeezed out. Asking more questions in meetings may slow us down, but it may also open us up to options we’d not considered. Being explicit on the type of responsibilities that come with a job is clearly helpful, but retaining some flexibility so that one does not get boxed into a role is equally important. Reminding ourselves and others to ask why and how more often helps us avoid taking things for granted, and helps us not only stay curious but also strengthen our relationships and get the support we need in our work. And good performance is not the only thing that should be rewarded — learning should be emphasized too. At Intuit, explorations that lead to particularly original innovations are recognized with an award. There is even a “Greatest Failure Award” that comes with its own failure party. 


You say rebellion can bring you joy. But, are there certain personalities or people more inclined to rebellion versus others? Can someone be an unsuccessful rebel?

Rebels are all around us, with their different personalities and inclinations. Film director Ava Duvernay, Doug Conant who turned around the iconic company Campbell Soup when he took the lead in 2001, Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, who ditched a plane with 155 passengers safely in the Hudson River, Pixar President and co-founder Ed Catmull, Greg Dyke who brought yellow penalty cards into the BBC to make sure change happened. Rebels have existed throughout history, from Napoleon Bonaparte to 16th Century pirates sailing turbulent seas to the legendary magician Harry Houdini.

Despite their differences, they all have something in common: they live rich and incredibly satisfying lives. And they have a secret: You don’t have to be born a rebel. There are five rebel talents. You can learn them. Living like a rebel will help you reinvent yourself, be a master of innovation, and bring about positive change in the world.


Can you provide a key tip for companies around nurturing rebels in their ranks?

Don’t fear rule breaking. From the time people get hired into organizations, there should be less focus on rules and pressuring them to conform. When we approach tough problems by asking what we could do rather than defaulting to the common question of what we should do, we come up with more creative solutions and reach better decisions. New recruits should be given the space to think about how they’ll have the opportunity to bring themselves into the work. Of course rule breaking can be taken too far. But in organizations that value the rebels and encourage them to embrace their talents, rule breaking is constructive. Rebels do not break all the rules. They break those rules who hold them and others back.  


What research should people review, in addition to your book, should they want to learn more about being a rebel?

The book website, www.RebelTalents.org, includes other resources that people may find of value. First, it provides a free assessment people can take to learn about which type of rebel they are. Second, the website includes resources to learn more about rebels – like a set of guidelines that explain how to live like a rebel for a week or the top 10 reasons to be a rebel.

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