Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School Francesca Gino
Rebels aren't a threat; they're an asset

Think:Act Magazine "Breaking the rules"
Rebels aren't a threat; they're an asset

Portrait of Think:Act Magazine

Think:Act Magazine

Munich Office, Central Europe
April 10, 2019

It's time to leave conformity behind and embrace rebel talent


by Francesca Gino
illustrations by Sasan Pix

Read more on "Breaking the rules"

If you want to maximize your potential, a little rebellion can go a long way. Fortunately, the key to unlocking your inner rebel is easier – and far less dangerous – than you may think.

Conformity: It's almost as if it's hardwired into us. Very early on, we learn to fit in. And as we grow up and climb the ladders of success, we learn to play the game and behave the same as others do around us. Consciously or unconsciously, organizations pressure employees, including their leaders, to check a good chunk of their real selves at the door. But the pressure to fit in has a significant negative impact on worker engagement, productivity and innovation. We need to change that. We need to rebel and we need to create rebels. To be a rebel does not mean being an outcast or troublemaker. It's what I call constructive nonconformity: behavior that deviates from organizational norms to the benefit of the organization. Effective rebels are people who break rules in ways that are positive and productive – and encouraging the right kind of rulebreaking is what today's leaders need to do to help their organizations adapt. When we rebel, we find more enjoyment in work.

For some, being rebellious is uncomfortable. But becoming more aware of our own rebel profile can help us become more comfortable with the uncomfortable. The four rebel types I identified show how we are prone to embracing some talents more regularly than others and how we can challenge that (you can try a short version of the test on the opposite page to get an idea of which you might be).

As I explain when people take the more in-depth test, it's designed to assess a person's behavior at work and in life. Two dimensions are relevant for describing a rebel's behavior: (1) rebelling against external pressures to conform; and (2) rebelling against internal pressures to choose the comfortable and familiar over the novel and challenging.

There is no good or bad type. Each rebel type comes with advantages and disadvantages – we all stand to learn. What's important is knowing your own rebel potential. So, once we are more aware of our rebel type, we can think of talents we do not use as regularly. That's an opportunity. So, imagine you're the type that lacks on novelty. Then, you'd consider strategies that can help you – such as creating more challenging experiences for yourselves and others, whether at work or in your personal life. It's easy to get bored and fall back on routinized behavior when there is little variety or challenge in one's job. When we perceive our work as boring we lack the motivation needed to perform well and creatively; challenging work enhances engagement.

About the author
Portrait of Francesca Gino
Francesca Gino
A professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, Francesca Gino is also an award-winning researcher and the author of two books. Her most recent, "Rebel Talent", was published in May 2018.

Three tactics you can easily employ – and which might be rebellious for you as a manager – will have an impact on your employees and even nurture some positive rebellion in them as well. First, maximize variety: Varying the tasks that employees perform makes it less likely that they will go on autopilot and more likely that they will come up with innovative ways of improving what they are doing. Try rotating employees through tasks in a different order or find new ways to promote their career trajectories. Second, inject novelty into work: It is a powerful force. When something novel occurs at work, we pay attention and tend to better remember it later on. How to do this? Try staffing a project with a few people who feel a bit out of their comfort zone or periodically present your team with a new challenge. Third, identify opportunities for learning or growth: Giving people such experiences is an essential way to promote rebelliousness.

So What if you get a company of rebels, and then they all rebel all the time? When people ask me what the exact right percentage of rebels to have in an organization is, I simply answer 100%. The rebel talents I discuss in my book are not threatening: If used with a respectful approach, they can lead to positive change in an organization, and also in one's life. When we break rules by relying on these talents, we experience full engagement in the work we do. It is thanks to this engagement that rebels perform at higher levels in their jobs, stay innovative and reach their success.

But what about dangerous rebels, I hear you ask? The rebels on the edge who might overly disrupt things? I would give them the benefit of the doubt and try to understand the intentions that are driving their behavior. Often rebels are on the edge because of frustration. Learn from them – they may have something innovative to offer. So, bringing out the inner rebel is all about encouraging free thinking. And that encouragement requires a bit of rebel thinking from you: It is important for leaders to be clear on the goals or mission the organization is after. They need to be clear on the "what." But when it comes to the "how," they can give employees more flexibility. For instance, leaders can tell employees what job needs doing rather than how to do it. Leaders can create opportunities for employees to use their minds at work and decide how to best address problems. Free your own inner rebel and you'll be surprised at what it releases. And, with a company of new rebels, you'll be astounded at how productive rebelliousness can be. Not to mention how much fun.

Further reading
Our Think:Act magazine
blue background
Think:Act Edition

Breaking the rules


Is breaking the rules a crucial skill? We examine how the people who have made their own rules also significantly shaped the world of business.

Published March 2019. Available in
Subscribe to newsletter

Curious about the contents of our newest Think:Act magazine? Receive your very own copy by signing up now! Subscribe here to receive our Think:Act magazine and the latest news from Roland Berger.

Portrait of Think:Act Magazine

Think:Act Magazine

Munich Office, Central Europe