When Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino thinks of a workplace culture that effectively encouraged unconventional talent, 18th-century pirate ships come to mind. More than a century before slavery ended in the U.S., these ships were the most diverse organizations on the planet because they hired people not based on gender or race but because of their attitudes and belief in the mission. Together they worked out an equitable leadership style, with members of the crew in charge of electing the captain.
So what do pirate ships have to do with the modern American workplace? More than you might think, argues Gino, author of Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life. During a conversation with Fortune features editor Kristen Bellstrom at a From Day One virtual conference on acquiring skilled talent, Gino discussed not only the history of nonconformist workers but how rebels can change things for the better and can be employees who help businesses evolve and succeed.
“People say, what is that magic percentage, what is the percentage that can make my organization great when it comes to rebels?” Gino told Bellstrom. “I say you want 100%.”
Gino is an award-winning researcher who focuses on why people make the decisions they do at work. Originally, she studied misconduct like the accounting scandal involving Enron Corp. “As I was doing this research,” she said, “I kept noticing a very different side of rule breaking, people who were approaching the world with unconventional looks and were driving positive change.”
Gino outlined five rebel qualities: novelty, curiosity, perspective, diversity and authenticity. “These features don’t come naturally to us because of human nature,” she noted. Most of us get comfortable with our routines. Novelty, for example, introduces disruptions to the day-to-day.
One positive trait to rebels is that they embrace conflict in a productive way. “Three ingredients that are important there are authenticity, curiosity and perspective,” Gino said. Authenticity means that rebels have the courage to speak their minds. Perspective allows them to be open to different possibilities. And curiosity opens up new dialogue and the potential to go down different paths.
These are key qualities to workplace leaders, too, which have emerged during the pandemic. “This crisis revealed good leadership and really bad leadership,” Gino said. “Leaders who I wouldn’t call rebels don’t have trust in their people, they’re not providing them enough freedom,” she said. “A lot of leaders reverted back to micromanaging, which is not good for engagement or creativity.”
Rebel leaders work to make positive changes in their organization, as opposed to waiting for change to happen. Gino used an example of an Air Force leader who rebelled against the follow-the-rules culture and empowered his squadron to express authenticity, curiosity and offer their own perspectives. “If you look at the number of the innovations that came out of the group in the last three years, it’s really impressive,” she said.
The rebel talent of diversity is also relevant to the recent focus on workplace equity and inclusion plans. “Rebels are able to push back on stereotypical views that society passes upon us–they’re truly leveraging their differences,” Gino explained. In a workplace setting, these rebels should be empowered to help others feel included. “We want to be in situations, in organizations, feeling that our differences are cherished and leveraged. I think that rebels tend to do that better than ‘regular people.’”
But as Gino points out, rebel talent can be–and should be–encouraged and nurtured for every employee, at every level. (You can actually take a rebel test on her website to figure out the kind of rebel you are.) Among the characteristics of novelty, curiosity, perspective, diversity and authenticity, “nothing should worry us,” she said.
To attract and encourage rebelliousness in the hiring process, Gino suggested that companies focus on the questions they ask job candidates. “For curiosity, a good question is what organizations or industries they follow,” she suggested. “See if they’re just following the organization in the same industry that they’re applying, or if they’re broadening their interest.” To embody perspective, Gino gave an example set by the CEO of the social-good platform Catchafire, who poses challenges to the job applicant and pays attention if they solve it from a different standpoint than her own.
The conversation ended on how employees could encourage rebel talent in their own workplaces. The power of suggestion can go far, Gino said, especially when it’s positioned as an opportunity for more talent to come forward. To kickstart things, employees can act as rebels themselves: “Start small … but get going!” said Gino. “Don’t wait for others to pave the road for you–just get started.”
Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.