Francesca Gino
Author & Harvard Business School Professor

Rebel with a Cause

March 29, 2022 | 30:30

Most organizations are wary of rebels, but they shouldn’t be, says Francesca Gino, Harvard Business School professor and author of Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life. Join Francesca and Hugo for a discussion of the complex problems that organizations face in 2022, and why we need people to embrace their rebelliousness in order to solve them.

Meet Our Moderator

Hugo Scott-Gall, Partner


00:21 Welcome to this episode with Francesca Gino!
01:33 Why is Francesca interested in the topic of being a rebel?
03:36 What are some characteristics rebels tend to demonstrate?
07:39 Conversation focuses on the relationship between organizations and rebels.
12:05 Francesca advises leaders and comments on how companies are doing.
19:06 Francesca and Hugo consider an example and deterrents to progress.
23:34 Francesca and Hugo consider how things are changing now and offer final thoughts.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Today, I’m delighted to have with me Francesca Gino. Francesca is an award-winning researcher who focuses on why people make the decisions they do at work and how leaders and employees can be more productive, creative, have more fulfilling lives. She is the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration in the Negotiations, Organizations, and Markets Unit at Harvard Business School and the author most recently of Rebel Talent, Why it Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life.

She’s been honored as one of the world’s top 40 business professors under the age of 40 and one of the world’s 50 most influential management thinkers by Thinkers 50. Her work has been featured in The Economist, The New York Times, Newsweek, Scientific American, Psychology Today, and The Wall Street Journal. Francesca, thank you very much for joining us. I’m very excited to have you here.

Francesca Gino: It’s so good to be here. Thank you for having me.

Hugo Scott-Gall: It’s a pleasure. I’m excited. We’re going to talk about rebels and being a rebel. So, I want to know why you are interested in even thinking about what is a rebel, what defines a rebel, who could be a rebel. So, you’re clearly interested in human behavior. From human behavior, what took you to being a rebel?

Francesca Gino: I wanted to shift the way we think about rebels. We tend to think of them as troublemakers. When I say “rebel,” you’re probably thinking about a colleague in your office who’s just a jerk or a contrarian. And I wanted to say there are rebels out there who are breaking rules in a way that is positive and constructive. Let’s learn from them.

So, one of the people who inspired me is an Italian chef. His name is Massimo Bottura, and he owns a restaurant that is a 3-Michelin Star restaurant that became the best in the world in 2016. And his story is a story of breaking rules in a constructive way. So, he went to traditional Italian dishes and reinvented them, came up with very innovative ways of cooking those dishes.

That requires a lot of courage, because I can say, as an Italian, that we have lots of rules when it comes to cooking, and we definitely cherish our own traditions. And so, why is it that so often we take things for granted rather than embracing this rebel spirit of pushing the boundaries in a way that is constructive and creates innovation and positive change?

Hugo Scott-Gall: So, your definition of a rebel is someone who changes things in a reasonably dramatic way, but in a positive way?

Francesca Gino: Absolutely. Rebels do not break the rules just for the sake of breaking rules. They break rules that hold them and others back. And they do so, as you said, in a way that is positive and constructive.

Hugo Scott-Gall: So, in your study of rebels, what are their common characteristics? What are their common biographical characters? Is it something’s happened in their lives that they’re then reacting to? Is it the environment they grew up in? Is it any correlation to do with what or where or even if they studied? Are there any sort of predictive patterns?

Francesca Gino: One of the insights that I wanted to share when I wrote the book is that we can all embrace our inner rebel. In a sense, we are all born that way. The talents that we see in these constructive rebels is a matter of having the courage to embrace them.

And in my work, across industries, across organizations, using all sorts of research methods, I identified five qualities, if you will, that these rebels tend to have. The first one is a desire or a thirst for novelty. So, rather than sitting with what’s familiar and comfortable, these rebels enjoy the new. The second one is curiosity, so they’re people who have this sense of awe and wonder that we all used to have when we were little kids.

They also have perspective, so rather than looking at problems from just one angle, they consider all sorts of views that are also more open to what others think about a certain decision or issue. They are people who have a talent for authenticity, so they don’t tend to conform or nod their heads and go with whatever others are saying or doing, but they bring their contributions forward.

And finally, they have what I call a talent for diversity. So, they push back on stereotypical views or other biases that society so easily puts on us. And so, rebels have these five characteristics, and they use them to create positive change in their organizations or in the world more broadly.

Hugo Scott-Gall: It’s more than being maybe an extrovert. It’s more than just having a growth mindset. It’s more than just having a bit of grit.

Francesca Gino: Absolutely.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Something extra, right?

Francesca Gino: Exactly. And in fact, some of the examples that I use in the book are of people that you would say, wait a second, why do you call him or her a rebel? The one that comes to mind is Captain Sully Sullenberger. I think that many people know his story through the miracle on the Hudson.

This was a moment on a cold evening back in 2009 when he found himself on a plane that had no thrust in the engine. So, the plane left LaGuardia Airport and within seconds, he hit a group of geese, and there was no thrust as a result of that. He had 208 seconds to make a decision. But rather than going where most of us would have gone in that moment of tension and high pressure and a sense of responsibility with 155 passengers on the plane. Rather than going to the most obvious answer, he came up with a rather innovative one, which was land in the Hudson River.

And if you look at what he did in that moment, he kept broadening his view, his options, his alternatives, eliminating them quickly, but really demonstrating this broad perspective that I see in rebels. And what I was surprised by, when I learned about this story, and I had the privilege of interviewing him, is that he had a ton of experience when the accident happened. But he always looked at his expertise and experience not as a signal that he knew it all, but as a signal that there was more to learn. So, a very curious person.

Hugo Scott-Gall: So far, we’ve talked a bit about individuals. But how do rebels fit into organizations? How do organizations come to terms with the fact that they need rebels?

Francesca Gino: One of the hobbies that I took on—this was pre-pandemic, when I was spending a lot of time visiting organizations, following leaders. One of the hobbies that I took on—might be a little bit cynical—was to go into organizations and try to pay attention to processes, systems, ways of working that to the eyes of a person who didn’t work there really made no sense, or made little sense. Maybe I shouldn’t be so dramatic. They made little sense.

And then I would ask people why do you do things this way. And the answer was always the same. It was we’ve always done it this way. So, to me, there is so much need of rebels in organizations. We need people who don’t set with what is comfortable and familiar, don’t take ways of working for granted, but they think about “how could we” or are deeper in thinking about the “why” we follow certain processes.

And so, I would argue, especially in 2022, where the type of problems that organizations face are pretty complex, that we truly need more people to embrace their rebelliousness. In fact, I would go as far as saying we need 100% rebels in organizations.

Hugo Scott-Gall: I don’t argue with you, because you’re a professor at Harvard and I’m not.

Francesca Gino: You are scared by this very statement.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Some organizations have to prioritize things. Some of them, safety might really matter, for example. What you’re saying is that—and I’m arguing against myself—is that almost any organization can benefit by someone saying “why”. Why do we do it this way, why can’t we do it this way, there must be a better way.

So, is that why you’re saying that it’s the curiosity; it’s the confidence to say “why” out loud versus why inwardly? Because I think not everyone’s curious, but people have probably been asking why inwardly for a long time. Some ask why outwardly. You’re saying create the conditions to enable people to ask why outwardly. And that can be true in any organization.

Francesca Gino: Absolutely. And in fact, you got to this greater change, higher level of innovation because by allowing people to embrace their inner rebels, you’re allowing them or giving them a greater chance to thrive in the work that they do, to feel satisfied and joyful about the work and the contributions that they’re making.

I can think of an organization that is clearly all about safety. This is a group in the Air Force in the United States. And a new leader came in a few years ago into this group and said, look, if we want to be ready for combat, which is our mission, we need to do things differently. And so, he asked people to bring out their curiosity, asked them to have a broad perspective, to bring out their contributions.

So, he was allowing for rebelliousness. He was clear on the ask. He was also clear on the boundaries. He asked everyone to go and study regulations to make sure that every innovative idea was within those boundaries. And if you look at the number of innovative ideas that came out of that group in the last three or four years, it’s pretty impressive. They do contracting more like the private sector rather than the public sector.

Or this group is a group of primarily pilots who fly spy planes, and so, some of the pilots, given the ask, just started educating themselves about how to write software, how to create apps, and they created apps that help them increase safety during the flight. That came out from only one person who decided to create the conditions for people to embrace their rebelliousness. And again, that’s an organization that has clearly a lot of bureaucracy, hierarchy, and definitely is interested in keeping things safe.

Hugo Scott-Gall: If you were head of human capital at a big company in the U.S., how would you communicate we need to start looking for rebels, and here’s how we do it, here’s how to identify a rebel. How would you do that?

Francesca Gino: An additional motivation for writing this book, since these are serious journeys that require a lot of sweat and a lot of energy, was to see the book in the hands of the type of executives that you’re asking me to imagine being. I wanted first for them to understand or at least consider the idea that this rebelliousness, as the research suggests, is clearly beneficial.

I think that a lot of leaders struggle with that because creating the environment where people bring out these talents also means giving up a little bit of your control. It also means being willing to be surprised, leaving the door open to the unexpected, as Bottura would say. And so, that requires a little bit of convincing.

So, first, I would educate myself and be sure that I understand why this is so beneficial. And then, I would start by modeling these behaviors, by bringing more curiosity into the work that I do. When looking for great talents and not stopping just at a person’s resumé, but actually trying to understand whether I can see signals of these characteristics, of curiosity, of authenticity, during an interview. I would speak to my colleagues around those interviews and make sure that they understand how to capture those elements.

And it’s not that difficult. Like, for example, if I were to measure or assess a person’s curiosity, I would ask, what kind of companies have you been following, and see if they’re just interested in the company they’re applying to or if they have a broader set of interests. Maybe they’re following companies outside of that specific industry.

Or I would ask them about their interests at work or I would put them in situations where you say, imagine you’re in a city that you’ve not traveled to, you’re there for work, you arrive at your hotel, do you have dinner in your room or do you go explore? There are lots of things that can help you pick up curiosity.

Similar for the other traits. Walk them through a problem that the company’s experiencing. How are they reasoning through it? Are they considering multiple perspectives or are they stuck on one particular view? Or ask them about a time they struggled in their previous role or ask them what one of their points of weaknesses might be and are they telling you that they’re too much of a perfectionist? So, that’s not authenticity. So, through questions, I would get at these very characteristics that signal a willingness to be rebellious in a constructive way.

Hugo Scott-Gall: From what you’ve seen of the corporate world, are they close to doing some of the things you just outlined or do you think there’s a long way to go?

Francesca Gino: Some companies and some leaders are definitely better than others. I’ve had events or speeches with a company where we spend three or four months thinking about how to best even market the title of the talk. So, rebelliousness was too much to take in, breaking away from the status quo or breaking away from the mold is something that we ended up.

So, you learn a lot about leaders, executives, even employees in the culture of an organization, from the interactions that you have. So, I would say I wish there were more of it. It’s interesting that we’re speaking at a time where we’re still in the pandemic. And so, I’m hoping that given the experience that we have had over the last two years, that there is more of an appetite for this type of rebelliousness, because it helps organizations adapt more quickly. It helps organizations even see moments of crisis and stress and react to them with more resiliency. That’s something that curiosity allows us to do. So, to be seen.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Have you seen companies who try to attract more rebels suffer some consequences, some cultural tension, some cultural volatility as maybe some non-rebels feel threatened or don’t like the change that hiring rebels brings? Is that something you need to be aware of? Is that an unintended consequence of—or maybe it’s an intended consequence—of seeking out and hiring rebels?

Francesca Gino: Often I work with people who are trying to be effective in their rebelliousness and they think that they’re failing at it. And what I generally work on is making sure that in the way they push boundaries and the way they suggest ideas and the way they come into conversation to challenge a view, they don’t forget about perspective. Because what that allows them to do is to join the conversation, to come into that interaction with respect.

It’s interesting that I think many of us grew up with thinking that either we are honest in the way we talk to each other or that we are generous, so we maintain that relationship. And often rebels find themselves being honest in expressing their views, but in a way that shows their frustration with existing ways of working. And so, there is a better choice, and the choice is to come in still with our contributions, our opinions, our thinking, but being so in a way that is respectful and understanding of what is there.

One of the reasons why I find the story of Massimo Bottura to be so inspiring is that he took a lot of care in understanding traditions. He shows a lot of appreciation for traditions. But then he wants to move them forward. As he always says, traditions are well-received experiments. Traditions were built to be rebuilt. What a fantastic way of thinking. I don’t think that that is so common in organizations in 2022.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Have you heard of an English writer called G.K. Chesterton? He has a short story called “The Fence.” He said, before you ever think about moving the fence, you need to understand why it was put there in the first place. But he doesn’t say you shouldn’t move it, but he says you’ve got to understand why it’s there in the first place.

Francesca Gino: Beautiful.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Yeah.

Francesca Gino: Beautiful.

Hugo Scott-Gall: So, before we started recording, we were talking about someone we have both met, both enjoyed meeting—Brunello Cucinelli, founder of the eponymous, Brunello Cucinelli. So, he’s been on the podcast, and he was a very, very interesting, broad-ranging guest who sort of covered many things.

And we talked a lot about humanistic capitalism, thinking of the way he treats his company, the way his company treats his employees, the way his company treats its suppliers, and how that ethos flows through everything he does. That, to my mind, makes a difference, and very interesting and very rewarding. But I didn’t come away thinking, I’ve just met a rebel. Do you see him as a rebel?

Francesca Gino: Absolutely. I, as you said, met him. I had the privilege and pleasure of writing a Harvard Business School case study on him. And I think had I met him before, he would likely be in the book. Everybody’s unique and different, but an example that makes me think of him, that I do tell in the book, is that of Adriano Olivetti, back in the ’60s.

So, this is the first manufacturer of typewriters in Italy, and is the son of the person who founded the company. And when he took power and he became the CEO, the first thing that he did was actually spend some time in the manufacturing plant. And so, he thought that there was more need to recognize dignity in the work that they were doing, but also to broaden interest, to bring more curiosity.

So, he created a library with over 10,000 magazines and books. He made the lunch break from one hour to two hours. He used to say that the first hour is to eat lunch; the second hour is just to eat culture. And he reminds me a bit of what I’ve seen some of the initiatives of Brunello Cucinelli.

So, for example, he has a cultural budget, such that people who work in his business can use the money to educate themselves, follow their interests, go to visit art museums. He has this ability of understanding that part of what being rebellious is all about is seeing your work as a source of joy and satisfaction rather than a source of frustration.

Hugo Scott-Gall: So, Mr. Cucinelli has been very successful. It’s very obvious. But there haven’t been many people (like him). He’s still quite unusual. If he’s a rebel and he’s a very successful rebel, and you can see some of what he’s done, right? He pretty openly shares how he’s done it and again, the way he treats people, his whole ecosystem. Why aren’t more people doing that then?

Francesca Gino: I think that part of the answer comes back to the way we think about curiosity. One of the big lessons that I took away from doing this research, working on the book, is a lesson that I’ve learned from taking improv comedy classes. It’s almost like a mantra. And the philosophy is curiosity and judgment can’t coexist.

So, to the extent that you as a leader are making courageous decisions that shows curiosity, you might show and embrace your rebelliousness, but you’re doing so because you’re not worried about what others are going to think. Part of the reason why as we grow up, we lose the very innate curiosity that we had when we were born and we were kids and we were exploring and pushing boundaries is that we start worrying about what others think, how they’re going to judge us.

And when it comes to asking questions or doing things differently or challenging the common ways of thinking, we fear negative judgment. We fear negative evaluation. And so, we stay in the comfortable, safe zone rather than bridging out. I think that that explains part of why we don’t see more rebels out there.

Hugo Scott-Gall: One of my investing heroes, who is also a philosopher, and I think a rebel, is a guy called Charlie Munger. He’s Warren Buffett’s partner. He says give me the incentives, and I’ll show you the behavior. And so, I think that may well be why people’s inner rebel is suppressed, because they may well be inside systems with incentives that don’t reward rebel behavior.

And you could maybe sit and look back at the past 20, 30, 40 years and say that was certainly true in a lot of companies maybe around the world. Do you think that is now changing as expectations of millennials and the generation behind them are coming into the workplace, perhaps this idea of the Great Resignation which I’ve got more options now as an employee and actually, I’m gonna look for some things that are certainly more intangible, but maybe matter more? Do you think this is all coming together into what is it I want from work?, am I able to be myself?, is it more about being myself versus fitting into a corporate culture?—that means that the inner rebels are not gonna stay inside for much longer, they’re gonna come out? We’re gonna see more rebels and that will be a sort of self-fulfilling virtuous circle?

Francesca Gino: Yeah, I think that your hypothesis is a really good one, and I bet that we’re going to see some of that. I was recently looking over some data from an article that was quite interesting, and it was reviewing data explaining the Great Resignation. And one of the points in the article that stood out to me is that if you look at how predictive of people leaving the organization toxic culture is, it’s 10 times more predictive than compensation issues.

And if I think about toxic cultures, I do not believe that what this means is that people are really treated poorly in their work. I think that what that comes out of, at least in a lot of situations, is that people don’t have this sense that they can really be who they are; that they can bring out their contributions in the work that they do.

And then the second thought that came to mind, which also gave me pause and some reflection, is if you look at leadership practices or where executives spend their time in organizations. I would argue that probably much more time is spent on compensation decisions rather than thinking about do we have the right culture and the right practices that allow for people to experience us differently.

And so, I think that there is a lot to think about in regards to that. And my hope is that with more conversations, we’re going to convince more and more leaders to create environments where people, in fact, have the chance to bring their best contributions forward, to think about problems in a different way, to stay curious, and to have more open and broad perspectives about whatever it is that they’re working on.

Hugo Scott-Gall: So, confession: I really wanted to be a pirate, but I’m a traveler. What am I talking about? So, you have a way for us all to work out what type of rebel you are. And it’s at rebeltalents.org. And it’s pretty quick, to anyone listening who wants to find out what sort of rebel they are. It doesn’t take long, and you find out—well, in my case, you find out that you’re not a pirate, and it took me a while to get over that. So, I’m a traveler. What type of rebel are you?

Francesca Gino: You know what? I was the person who created the test, and so I’ve never taken it, because I thought I knew too much. But now, it’s been a couple of years, so maybe I’ll try it out and see what I find out about myself. The thing that I know is that I’m still learning. I’m still on the journey of more consistently embracing my inner rebel. It is a journey. I think that embracing these talents require us to fight against our human nature that pushes us in different directions. And so, it takes intention and a bit of thoughtfulness. So, still a lot to learn, but I’m on my way. I’m on my way.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Exactly. And I didn’t know how much I wanted to be a pirate, but now I know there is one, I’m going to be. And I guess, you know, as you look back, do I think I wish I’d been more of a rebel or less of a rebel, it’s clearly I wish I had been more of a rebel. So, I think I imagine for a lot of people, once they sort of see the framework and think about it, it’s a bit like growth mindset, fixed mindset. I don’t think anyone would choose fixed mindset, but they will certainly see aspects of that in their lives.

But just the awareness, I think, can change behavior, and that might be good behavior change; it can be a lightbulb moment or it can be by habit and awareness and the environment. So, I have really enjoyed meeting you. I really enjoyed reading your book. I really enjoyed talking about being a rebel, and I’m now much more aware of it’s a good thing to be a rebel in a positive way.

Francesca Gino: Absolutely. And I’m really appreciative that you’re helping me spread these ideas further. So, thank you for that.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Well, it’s been lovely having you on, so thank you very much.

Francesca Gino: Thank you.

Meet Our Moderator

Hugo Scott-Gall, Partner

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