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Why it pays to be a rebel talent at the office

Harvard professor urges employees to break the rules

What do Steve Jobs, Harry Houdini and Napoleon have in common? According to Harvard Business School prof Francesca Gino, they are prime examples of “rebel talent”—the rule-breaking, outside-the-box thinkers that rise up and change history. We asked Gino, author of Rebel Talent: Why it Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life, what exactly makes for rebel talents, how managers might foster the next Zuckerberg —and, oh yeah, also when it’s cool to steal from the office.

How did this book come to be?

For many years, I’ve been interested in people who break rules at work. Often they end up in big trouble—corporate corruption, for example—but just as often rule breaking leads to great outcomes. Rule breaking is a source of excitement, creativity and satisfaction—yet most of us don’t do it. Then I was in Italy, learning about this Italian chef who breaks food rules by experimenting with traditional dishes. In my culture, you don’t do this. But here was a person who was breaking all the rules and achieving good outcomes for himself, his business and the people who work with him.

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He’s a Rebel Talent! What does this mean?  

Rebel talents are people who are fully engaged in the work they do, breaking rules as necessary and questioning the status quo. There are five different ingredients that define rebel talent— novelty, curiosity, perspective, diversity and authenticity—and while you don’t have to have all five, many do. They also have a sense of engaging in activities that are unexpected. I’d see the chef arrive, put on his chef’s coat, then go outside with a broom and clean the street. He has this way of working against what you expect, and people respond to this.

Does everyone have some rebel talent in them?

I believe that all of us have rebel talent in some ways, if we put ourselves in the right situations. Most leaders don’t let us do this, because of this fear that the workplace will spiral out of control. Or they themselves will lose control. So they focus on this fear, don’t encourage these talents, and fail to see the benefits that a rebel talent might bring to the organization.

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Can you tell me a story about rebel talent in action?

One of my favourites is from an Italian company that was the first typewriter manufacturer. When an employee was caught taking pieces of machinery, his colleagues reported him to the boss and called him a thief. Most leaders would probably fire him, but instead he decided to talk to the guy, who said he had an idea for a machine. The boss promoted him instead, and he ended up building a new type of calculator that became one of the company’s top selling products.

How can bosses encourage rebel talent even on a regular, non-thieving day?

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Even in the most routine jobs, you can let people do things on their own terms. Tell them what needs to be accomplished but let them decide the how. That’s a really nice way of letting an employee be authentic. Another talent is curiosity, and if you measure our natural curiosity at the beginning at the job, people are generally very curious and interested. Survey the same people six months later and you’ll see a huge drop. Why? Maybe they’re too busy or too efficient, but leaders haven’t nurtured that curiosity and it’s gone.

Does exercising rebel talent get easier or more difficult as you move up the ladder?

You might think it’s easier, but it’s actually more difficult because, starting when we’re very little, we all experience pressure to conform to the status quo. As we climb the ladder, we end up in positions where not only do we succumb to that pressure, but we pressure others to do the same. So part of my motivation for writing this book is that I’d love for leaders of organizations to think differently and model their rebel talent—but also make opportunities for employees to do the same.