Firms need rebels who challenge the status quo

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, February 20, 2017

Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?”

Johnny: (Marlon Brando in the movie, “The Wild One”) “Whadda you got.”

In a previous column I noodled about EQ — emotional quotient and its importance in getting ahead in a company. Today, let’s look at rebellion straight up. If my parents and teachers were still around, they might have some thoughts here.

Once again, I turn to Harvard Business School professor, Francesca Gino, who has studied conformity. (It seems there is a lot of it.) She says, “employees are often asked to check a good chunk of their real selves at the door.” Surprisingly, this attitude cuts across both big and little companies – even startups. The desire to fit in seems universal — even to the point that in an experiment where paid actors consciously picked the wrong answer to a simple perception problem; 75 percent of the group agreed with the wrong answer — just to fit in, even though they knew the correct answer. That shows the power of social pressure and its support of the status quo.

Another risk to conformity is that we often interpret data “in a self-serving manner” to support our biases or the group think of the moment. We look for a way to find a solution that supports what we already think. When an investor does due diligence, he is often predisposed to find a way to invest or not invest – but not necessarily based on the actual hard facts.

Gino interviewed more than 1,000 employees and less than 10 percent said they worked in companies that regularly encouraged nonconformity. Her solution is to encourage “constructive nonconformity”— what might be called going against the crowd. Gino actually uses the phrase “deviant behavior.” Be very careful here; the theme is really to speak up with your best truth, not to just agree.

Slightly off-kilter behavior (outside business norms) seems to engender a perception of higher status. Wearing a hoodie and jeans seems to have worked for Mark Zuckerberg. And some CEOs go with red tennis shoes, and some old guys wear baseball caps.

The big idea is to encourage and support challenging the accepted model. I often challenge my various teams with the phrase “let’s pretend.” I know that we all think that the reality is one way, but let’s pretend that something could be different – then “what if.”

What a company should want is an employee who is in touch with “her authentic self.” One of my favorite scientists keeps little furry animals that represent various molecules on her desk. I love it.

Leaders should tell employees what needs to be done, not how to do it. (That one is pretty basic.) Another principle in support of nonconformity is to push decision making down lower in the management stack. Think Four Seasons and Southwest Airlines – where employees are not only empowered but demanded to solve problems in real time.

Find a way to encourage employees to “bring out their signature strengths” — the area where they excel. Consider rotating people into various positions; this is a way to discover hidden strengths and capabilities. The net result is that employees feel more committed to the company, and they are more confident in their abilities.

The elephant in the room is finding a way to strike the right balance. There is a thin line between anarchy and chaos on one side and freedom within rational boundaries on the other.

At my first company, our product was a kiosk to connect to the internet in public places for your email (this is 1996). We were slowly going broke, even though we had customers. One of our junior engineers went to La Guardia airport to do an install of eight internet kiosks, and on the way home on the airplane, he had an idea: why not put the software into hotel rooms. The business traveler was going to need connectivity. He came up to my office to tell me his idea and the rest is history. We sold the company for over $80 million two years later. The best idea did not come from the management geniuses — it came from a regular guy in the field. I would call him “my favorite rebel.”

Rule No. 498: “I rebel, there I exist.”– Albert Camus

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