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Why it Pays to Break the Rules

Interview with Harvard Professor Francesca Gino by Carolyn Drebin

The more frequently people experience novelty in their work, the more they will feel satisfied with and energized by their job.


How do you define ‘rebel talent’?

Rebels get a bad rap. We mostly think of them as contrarians — colleagues, friends and family members who complicate seemingly straightforward decisions and disagree when everyone else agrees. But rebels also change the world with their unconventional outlooks. In an environment that is demanding more and more innovation and reinvention, we can learn a lot from them.

I spent over a decade studying rebels at organizations around the world, from high-end boutiques in Italy’s fashion capital, to the world’s best restaurant, to a thriving fast-food chain, to an award-winning computer animation studio. From an early age, we are taught to follow the rules, and the pressure to fit in only increases over time. But when we mindlessly accept norms rather than questioning and constructively rebelling against them, we ultimately end up stuck and unfulfilled. Rebels — those who practice ‘positive deviance’ at work and in life — might be harder to manage, but they are good for the bottom line: their passion, drive, curiosity, and creativity can raise an entire organization to a new level. Encouraging the right kind of rule-breaking is exactly what today’s leaders need to do to help their organizations adapt and thrive.

Encouraging the right kind of rule-breaking is exactly what today’s leaders need to do.Tweet this

You found that rebels come from all walks of life, but they share certain characteristics. Please describe them.

I was able to identify five core elements of rebel talent. The first is embracing novelty — a desire to seek out challenge and the New. The second is curiosity — the impulse we all had as children to constantly ask ‘why?’ The third element is perspective, the ability to constantly broaden your view of the world and try to see it as others do. The fourth is an appreciation for diversity, a tendency to challenge predetermined social roles and reach out to those who may appear different. And the fifth is authenticity, which rebels embrace in all that they do, remaining open and vulnerable in order to connect with and learn from others.

Tell us how rebels challenge the ‘status quo bias’.

Most people naturally avoid tension and conflict, but rebels embrace it. Instead of asking ‘what should I do here?’ — based on what they’ve seen others do or what they’ve done before — they ask, ‘what could I do here?’ The fact is, many of the traditions and rituals we encounter in organizations and in society are a product of routine rather than thoughtful deliberation. This preference for the status quo leads us to choose activities we are familiar with, missing the opportunity that novelty presents. In my research I have found that the more frequently people experienced novelty in their work, the more they felt satisfied with and energized by their job. Stability, by contrast, did not bring these benefits.

Are there companies that actively challenge the status quo?

Definitely — and I wish there were more of them. Pixar is one company that challenges its status quo by proactively drawing out tension and conflict. The company actually has certain days set aside where people stop doing their usual job and instead spend an entire day thinking about what is not going well at the company — on their team, in their job or in the organization as a whole. Their notes are then shared across the organization in an effort to improve things.

You can also hire for dissent and opposing views: Rachael Chong, CEO of the New York-based nonprofit organization Catchafire, told me she actually seeks out dissenting opinions when she interviews job candidates, looking for people who disagree with her on some key issues.

How can we know when it’s appropriate to push the boundaries and when not to?

It’s a matter of judgment. Organizations that have done this successfully make it clear when rules should be broken and when they should not. The leaders of Ariel Investments, a Chicago-based money management firm, encourage rebellion in all sorts of ways. They want people to be authentic, which includes feeling free to disagree with each other, but everyone in the firm knows which rules should never be broken. For example, before a letter goes out to a client, three people must review it for clarity, because the company’s reputation with its clients is so important. Consistency on rules such as this one helps employees know where the boundaries are.

Can curiosity be actively fostered?

Our willingness to explore and remain curious tends to decline the longer we’re in a job. When people are under pressure to complete their work quickly, they have no time to ask questions about broad processes or overall goals.

It takes thought and discipline to start fostering creativity and curiosity. In most organizations, leaders and employees alike receive the implicit message that asking questions is an unwanted challenge to authority. People are trained to focus on their work without looking closely at the process or their overall goals. But maintaining a sense of wonder is crucial to creativity and innovation. The most effective leaders look for ways to nurture their employees’ curiosity to fuel learning and discovery.

Do enough of today’s leaders value rebellion?

Many leaders say they value rebellion and rule-breaking, but don’t encourage it for fear that it will result in chaos. I have met many leaders who, in the end, push for conformity because of this fear; but I’ve also met leaders who have modeled rule-breaking and encouraged it in their organizations quite successfully.

One of the companies that comes to mind is Intuit. Every year, the firm gives out awards for great innovations that employees have come up with. But there is also an award for the Best Failures: explorations that didn’t turn out well, but helped the company to learn something. The failure award even comes with a ‘failure party’. This sets up a system where people are comfortable asking questions and breaking rules, as they know they won’t be punished for experiments that falter.

Can anyone be a rebel?

Absolutely. You just have to be willing to take risks that can be uncomfortable. My goal is for people to become more comfortable being uncomfortable. I began this project by trying to understand rule-breaking in the workplace. But breaking rules, I discovered along the way, enriches every aspect of our lives. Most of us are not born rebels. But if you’re like me, after trying the rebel life, you won’t want to go back.   

The 8 Principles of Rebel Leadership

  1. Seek out the new. It’s important to break away from routine and find inspiration in unlikely places. For business leaders, this could mean introducing employees to things that aren’t obviously related to the organization.
  2. Encourage constructive dissent. We often seek out the opinions most likely to match ours, but rebels fight that instinct, finding ways to encourage conflict and disagreement.
  3. Open conversations, don’t close them. Rebels are willing to keep an open mind.
  4. Reveal yourself – and reflect. Rebel leaders focus on their strengths, but are honest about their weaknesses and make an effort to be mindful of both.
  5. Learn everything – then forget everything. Successful rebels understand the importance of mastering the fundamentals of their industry, but never become slaves to the rules.
  6. Find freedom in constraints. Many people think they can’t innovate because the parameters of their job are too rigid. Rebels work through and even find inspiration in constraints.
  7. Lead from the trenches. Rebel leaders are willing to get their hands dirty, and their employees respect them for that.
  8. Foster happy accidents. Rebels know the value of a happy accident. They believe in workspaces and teams that cross-pollinate, and realize that a mistake can unlock a breakthrough.
  What is your Rebel Quotient?
Find out at
The website also includes stories
and case studies of rebel leaders. 

Francesca Gino is the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit at Harvard Business School and the author of Rebel Talent: Why it Pays to Break the Rules, At Work and in Life (Dey Street Books, 2018). She is formally affiliated with the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, with the Mind, Brain, Behaviour Initiative at Harvard, and with the Behavioural Insight Group at Harvard Kennedy School.

This article appeared in the Winter 2019 issue. Published by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Rotman Management explores themes of interest to leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.

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