A few years ago, I was getting ready to teach two back-to-back, 90-minute classes in one of the Executive Education Programs at Harvard Business School. The participants were all very experienced leaders from both the public and private sectors. I spent quite a bit of time coming up with a teaching plan and key learning points that I hoped they’d find valuable. I not only wanted them to take away useful guidance from the class, but I also wanted to gain their respect, right off the bat: I knew they’d listen more attentively if they thought of me as an influential scholar.
Given that the two classes were exactly the same, I decided to run a little experiment on how my attire might change the way they viewed me—and specifically, how much status they believed I had. During the break in between classes, I simply changed my shoes from a conservative dark leather pair to some bright red Converse sneakers. At the end of each class, I asked the students to fill out a short survey, which included questions aimed at assessing how much they respected me. Rather than making me seem silly, the red sneakers actually bought me some status in the students’ eyes. Breaking the social norms surrounding proper attire for a serious executive education class paid off.
When we think of rebels, we tend to think of people who break the rules just for the sake of it—and make everything worse by slowing down projects, creating conflict, and simply being show-offs. Sure, I got some strange looks from my colleagues as I was walking to my second class, and I am sure some were annoyed by my choices of footwear. But arrogance is the opposite of what makes rebels effective, I learned over the past few years on my journey to study the secrets of “rebel talent.” Effective rebels are willing to break rules that hold them and others back. They look beyond the most obvious answer to find a better one. And in a world that’s ever-changing, rebels succeed because they don’t fear uncertainty: they are masters of innovation and reinvention.
Over the course of more than a decade of studying this phenomenon, I’ve identified a few talents that rebels share, whether they realize it or not. First, they recognize that other people look at us with more respect, not less, when we break social norms. As young children, we learn to follow the rules around us—to be quiet at the library and raise our hands when we have a question. We also learn firsthand that people who break the rules are punished, made fun of, or become the subject of gossip.
By contrast, in our research, my colleagues and I found that when adults intentionally deviate from norms of appropriate behavior—whether by dressing down when shopping in a high-end boutique or wearing red sneakers while teaching at a top-tier school—they gain status and are considered more influential than peers who follow the rules.
Similarly, and paradoxically, leaders can enhance their status by engaging in work that’s below their pay grade. When I surveyed more than 700 employees about their bosses, I found that the most respected leaders are those most willing to get their hands dirty. And when I asked the employees about leaders they don’t respect, they zeroed in on aloof managers who shut themselves off in their offices.
For example, look at the work habits of Massimo Bottura, the chef-owner of Osteria Francesca, a 3-Michelin star restaurant rated Best Restaurant in the World in 2016. Bottura and his team work long hours with the precision of surgeons and the pace of Olympic runners. But what most struck me when I visited the restaurant was the first thing Bottura did when he showed up for work: He put on his chef coat and headed outside with a broom to sweep the street. Later, he hopped on a delivery truck to check the produce, then helped unload it with his staff. He helped prep the table for the staff meal, while finding time to play soccer with workers in between services. When Bottura grabs a broom each morning, he shows his staff that there is no work that’s beneath him—and gains their respect.
The second thing rebels assume is that rules can be changed—and they change them. For most of us, that’s a lot easier said than done. When Greg Dyke arrived at the BBC in early 2000, he found a troubled organization that needed to change. To signal the type of change he wanted to see, the new general director distributed yellow cards resembling the penalty cards that soccer referees hold up when they’re cautioning a player. If BBC staff saw or heard someone trying to block a good idea, Dyke told them, they should wave the yellow card in the air and state their case. He wanted them to use the cards to “cut the crap and make it happen.” This method wasn't in the rulebook. But he made his own, and it worked, as unconventional as it was.
Third, rebels embrace the unfamiliar rather than being threatened by it. Many of us choose to stay in the same jobs and careers, working on the same sorts of tasks for years and years. Thinking that stability is the key to happiness at work, we fall back on our comfortable routines.
Taking on unfamiliar challenges may feel awkward, but it can pay off. To show this, I asked a group of college students to sing the Journey song “Don’t Stop Believin’” in front of an audience of peers—a task that most of them, as you might imagine, found stressful. Before the performance, I asked half the students to wrap a bandanna around their foreheads, which, as I predicted, made them feel uncomfortable. The other group did not wear a bandanna. With the help of a karaoke machine, I measured the students’ note-hitting accuracy, as well as their heart rate and confidence. Those wearing the bandanna sang better, had lower heart rates, and felt more confident. By going against common expectations about their appearance in a singing exercise during a lab study, they felt uncomfortable — but only at the start. Those feelings then turned into greater confidence as that’s what happens when we break rules.
In my own case, when I taught wearing red sneakers instead of formal leather shoes, I found that I felt more confident about the material and my ability to deliver it effectively. When done right, breaking rules shakes us out of our dull routines and inspires us to perform at our best.
Francesca Gino is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. Her new book, Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life is out now.
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