Why Leaders Should Encourage Employees to Rebel

marketing strategy ideas

By Francesca Gino

Organisations see lacklustre results when workers feel bored and constrained. By encouraging employees to rebel against convention and bring their best selves to the office, leaders can strengthen workforce engagement – and the bottom line.


When Greg Dyke arrived at the BBC in early 2000, he found an organisation in desperate need of reform. After growing for decades, the BBC was struggling financially and had lost its creative edge. To signal the type of change he wanted to see, the new general director distributed yellow cards resembling the penalty cards used by soccer referees when there’s an infraction. When staff members saw someone trying to block a good idea, Dyke explained, they should wave the yellow card and speak up. He wanted employees to use the cards to “cut the crap and make it happen.” The unorthodox directive was just one of many initiatives Dyke launched to give BBC employees more freedom to speak up. And it worked: After just a year with Dyke at the helm, ratings and audience satisfaction increased.

It’s common for successful organisations to one day discover that the usual ways are not producing the usual results – that the company has become complacent, or been too slow to adapt to industry or marketplace changes. As the threat of failure increases, leaders lean toward dramatic action: Time to reorganise, or to rethink the organisation’s values, or to merge with an industry disruptor. My research makes a strong case for a different solution: tell your employees to break the rules. When the world slips into uncertainty, our problems become more complex. As I write in my book, Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life, the rebel, undaunted by novel situations and ideas, adapts to change as a matter of course. A ground-up approach – unleashing everyone’s abilities by encouraging productive rebellion – can help organisations stay competitive in shifting markets.

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Some rule-breakers are different. The rebels in my research deserve our attention because they teach us the value of breaking rules in constructive, positive ways.

Nobody likes the office troublemaker. We’ve all had colleagues who seem to specialise in time-wasting detours, who would rather perform than contribute, whose acts of rebellion are empty exercises in showmanship. But some rule-breakers are different. The rebels in my research deserve our attention because they teach us the value of breaking rules in constructive, positive ways.

I spent more than a decade studying rebels in different organisations around the world, from high-end boutiques in Italy’s fashion capital to a thriving fast-food chain to an Oscar-winning computer animation studio. I identified leaders and employees whose shared talents help them break rules that hold companies back.

The first is a talent for novelty: rebels embrace unfamiliar situations rather than avoiding them. Many of us choose to stay in the same careers, slogging through the same tasks, for years and years. We tend to think that stability is the key to happiness at work and trade our deeper passions for the comfort of routines.

But when I surveyed a group of 300 new employees across a wide range of organisations and industries in the United States, I found that the more frequently they experienced novelty at work – whether by learning new skills, meeting new colleagues, or engaging in challenging tasks – the more satisfied and energised they were in their jobs, and the longer they hoped to stay with the organisation. Stability didn’t seem to bring the same type of benefits. When employees said their job felt “more or less the same every day,” they were less satisfied and more eager to move on. This is not a US-specific finding: the same is true – my research shows – in organisations across the globe.

No matter our responsibilities, there are always chances to inject a bit of novelty into them, even when the work is all about execution and requires a lot of repetition. In most fast-food chains, new workers go through a two-hour training session per process before starting on the line. But not at Pal’s Sudden Service, a drive-through chain whose boxy blue restaurants include statues of fries and burgers on their roofs.

At Pal’s, employee training averages 135 hours and can span six months. And that’s hardly the only break with convention. In most fast-food chains, predictable schedules tell employees what they’ll be doing day to day. At Pal’s, variety is a key feature in station-to-station shifts. Employees learn the order in which they’ll move from station to station when they arrive at work each day. Pal’s is the type of workplace where boredom and tedium could set in easily. To make sure that it doesn’t, managers inject some unpredictability into the workday – with great results.

Rebels don’t have to choose between creative thinking and decisive action; they can manage both.

Another important rebel talent is perspective. Many of us take just one view of a situation or problem: our own. But the rebel always considers multiple options and perspectives. Take Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who landed his plane safely in the Hudson River on a cold January day in 2009. Sully had only 208 seconds between the time he realised the plane had lost thrust in both engines and the moment it hit the water. Most pilots in his situation would have favoured the most obvious solution: land at the nearest airport. Sully, instead, ran through all sorts of alternatives, despite the limited amount of time he had. Rather than asking what he should do, he kept asking what he could do -shifting his thinking from one option to many. By broadening his perspective, Sully did not only follow the usual crisis procedures: he found a solution that was not part of the script. Rebels don’t have to choose between creative thinking and decisive action; they can manage both.

Rebels maintain their broad perspective in part because they approach situations by asking “What could I do?” rather than “What should I do?” This type of framing, I’ve found in my research, leads us to creative thinking and better decisions. For instance, my colleagues and I conducted an experiment in which participants faced ethical challenges that seemed to offer no good choice. One group was asked “What should you do?” while the other was asked “What could you do?” Participants in the “could” group were able to generate more creative solutions. Approaching problems with a “should” mind-set guides us to the obvious answer. But “could” stokes our imaginations, helping us find a better one.

Rebels also have a talent for authenticity. They don’t disagree for the sake of it, but invest time and thought in informed opinions, and stick to them even when a co-worker or a boss disagrees. Rebels stay authentic by expressing their views even when everyone else seems to agree on a different course of action; they do not cover up at work but act in ways that are consistent with their values and preferences. And they are also not afraid of expressing who they are at work. By doing so, they boost performance and satisfaction in their jobs. Consider a field study my colleagues and I conducted in the business-process-outsourcing division of the Indian IT firm Wipro. The division had been struggling to retain workers; most would exit after just 45 to 60 days with the company. We asked a group of recruits to reflect on their strengths and how they could adjust their jobs to bring them out. The effects were impressive. Compared to employees who went through the standard Wipro welcoming process, recruits were given a chance to reflect on their strengths were more satisfied in their work. They performed better and stayed with the company longer.

Ed Catmull, co-founder and former president of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios, worried that new employees would be intimidated into silence by their colleagues’ record of success, leading to a culture in which the old ways escaped potentially constructive scrutiny. His solution? When Catmull spoke at welcoming sessions, he talked about Pixar’s mistakes. We are all human, he reminded new employees.

My colleagues and I collected data from different contexts to identify evidence for the power of authenticity, and we found it – consistently. One setting involved a “fast-pitch” competition in which 166 entrepreneurs presented ideas to a panel of three venture capitalists. The investors filled out a scorecard after each pitch and then deliberated to choose 10 semi-finalists. Post-pitch, we asked the entrepreneurs to answer a question about whether they were being themselves (genuine, authentic) when giving their presentations. The result? Entrepreneurs who felt authentic were three times more likely to advance than those who did not. Being real matters.

The challenge for both workers and managers – as well as partners, teachers, and parents – is to sculpt our days to bring out our very best and to help others do the same.

Thanks to authenticity and other talents, rebels challenge the status quo in ways that drive positive change. Renaissance master Michelangelo described sculpting as a process whereby the artist releases an ideal figure from the block of stone in which it slumbers. All of us possess ideal forms – our own fire, our signature strengths. Rules and established ways of working get in the way and make it challenging for anyone to bring out their fire. Employees at the BBC were used to a general director that very much managed from a central office: they received direction from him and they executed on the work. Dyke, instead, showed up in the cafeterias at lunch, across all sorts of locations in the UK, asking employees for their views – -interested in knowing how he could help them do their work better. Following the spirit of Michelangelo’s quote, he started sculpting. Other leaders would stand to benefit from the same approach. The challenge for both workers and managers – as well as partners, teachers, and parents – is to sculpt our days to bring out our very best and to help others do the same.


About the Author

Francesca Gino is an award-winning researcher and teacher, and a tenured professor at Harvard Business School. Her consulting and speaking clients include Bacardi, Akamai, Disney, Goldman Sachs, Honeywell, Novartis, P&G, and the U.S. Air Force, Army, and Navy. She has been honoured as one of the world’s Top 40 Business Professors under 40 and one of the world’s 50 most influential management thinkers. Her work has been featured on CNN and NPR, as well as in the Economist, Financial Times, New York Times, Newsweek, Scientific American, and Psychology Today.


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