Seems Awkward, Ignores the Rules, but Brilliant: Meet the Maverick Job Candidate

Organizational psychologist explains how maverick personalities can be secret weapons that make businesses successful.

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In a paper recently published in the British Journal of Psychology,Elliroma Gardner, an organizational psychologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science, found that employees with maverick personalities could be secret weapons for making businesses successful. Gardiner’s research interests are in the role of individual differences in an organizational setting.
By encouraging creative, independent thinkers to come up with innovative, brilliant ideas and giving workers the support and time to pursue their projects, companies could introduce their next Angry Birds or Google News to the marketplace. In an economic climate where employees might be asked to do more with fewer resources, she says, hiring that maverick employee may be the way a company can increase their profits.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.


Q: How do you define maverickism?

Elliroma Gardiner: Maverickism is essentially a construct we coined to capture and describe maverick tendencies. I view this construct as falling along a continuum such that individuals high in maverickism are those individuals who are innovative, independently minded, goal-focused and successful through risk-taking, where as individuals low on this scale would be described as more team-focused and less radical in terms of both thinking style and execution of work activities.

Rather than simply saying someone is a maverick or is not a maverick, we argue that individuals fall along a range. Some people are likely to be high in maverickism, others moderate and some low. By constructing this scale, we are able to better quantitatively measure maverick tendencies. For instance, we can now investigate what traits are most associated with someone who’s thought of as a maverick, as well as identify who’s a maverick and who’s not in the general public.

The types of mavericks I talk about in my article are popularly known, names such as Sir Richard Branson and Steve Jobs. They are world famous and they’ve accomplished the most amazing things. However, when we use these famous examples over and over, it seems as if this is something that only one in a million people ever have the opportunity to be. We argue that this is not the case. Being creative, taking risks, breaking rules, and being goal focused are traits a lot of people actually have but they don’t always have the same scale of results, which makes them less well known. So it is possible to have on a smaller scale, mavericks within organizations. They aren’t the Richard Branson’s but they have similar qualities. I think that this line of thinking is much more practical and useful for practitioners interested in hiring innovative people on their team and developing the workers they already have.

Q: You name Steve Jobs and Sir Richard Branson as icons of maverickism. What did they do that earns them such status?

Gardiner: They are famous examples that everyone knows about. Part of being a maverick involves being a risk-taker. There are some risks these individuals have taken that, when looking back, doesn’t seem like such a big deal; however, at the time these risks were quite revolutionary and were very much against the status quo.

For example, Richard Branson took a huge financial risk creating Virgin Atlantic and entering the aviation industry as a direct competitor of the then giant British Airways. In the early stages, Virgin Atlantic endured significant financial losses and many were pessimistic about the future of this new venture. However, despite these early difficulties, Virgin Atlantic, as well as the Virgin brand, is now well known and well-respected all around the world. Branson’s passion, willingness to take risks and back himself against criticism is part of what makes him such a maverick, and so successful.

Similarly, Steve Jobs made a lot of risky decisions, such as setting high price points for some products. Some criticized that consumers wouldn’t part with their money. He also made the risky decision of excluding features that were, at the time, thought of as essential, such as removable batteries and the floppy drive from portable computers. I think we would all agree that those risks worked out fine. At the time though, we might have been sceptical. Mavericks are interested in being creative and innovative, always wanting to do something new, and looking at situations from a different angle.

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Another trait that distinguishes mavericks is perseverance. They have a goal in mind and they want to do it at all costs. They have a goal in mind and somehow persuade people and bring people on their side, to help secure the resources and momentum needed to go forward.

A lesser-known maverick, but still a very good example, is Australian entrepreneur Paul Cave who founded BridgeClimb that allows tourists to actually climb the iconic Sydney Harbor Bridge. When he first came up with this innovative idea he began pitching his idea to investors to secure start-up funding. He actually gave over 50 presentations before he had any takers. He also faced a lot of opposition from the government about whether he could use the bridge or not, in terms of safety and other legalities. He was issued with 64 reasons for why he couldn’t use the bridge by the government but he didn’t take no for an answer. He addressed every single concern until the business was finally sanctioned to operate. This is now a very successful business and Cave has been incredibly innovative and focused. He’s using premises that he didn’t pay to create. He’s receiving free advertising from Tourism Australia as well as the spread of word-of-mouth from happy customers. There are millions of people who have climbed the bridge. And now the idea has really taken off. Even cities like Brisbane, Australia, also have a similar setup where people can climb the bridge there.

So I think this combination of innovation, risk-taking and perseverance to achieve a goal is really dynamic and is really the essence of what being a maverick is about.

Q: What made you interested in studying this trait?

Gardiner: My general interest is looking at dysfunctional impulsive behaviors that may seem a little left field. I am an organizational psychologist but what I’m really interested in is looking at what predicts, in terms of personalities and biology, aspects of decision-making, particularly in the workplace. For instance, I am interested in trying to find out why people persist with behaviors and trying to see when persistent behavior is and isn’t adaptive. So if you think about clinical examples, it’s things like gambling and drinking. Individuals often engage in behaviors that aren’t adaptive but they can’t stop themselves. So it’s this idea of perseverance and what is it about your personality and biology that pushes you into this direction.

I think that this same concept applies well to maverickism in the workplace. I think there’s something very unique about this combination of tendencies. Mavericks have a really strong drive to achieve, to follow their goals. Sometimes, however it may seem quite dysfunctional, quite maladaptive. For instance, most of us have been taught that we shouldn’t break rules and good employees are those that follow precedent. However, I wonder whether this is always the case? Jobs was someone who was described as being abrasive at times and not always a team player. So when it comes to something that they feel passionate about, perhaps being an individualist and being able to break the rules has some potential benefit.

As an organizational psychologist, I’m interested in how you can ensure that you hire the right person for the right job. A lot of the time, we have a prescriptive formula for what kind of general personality profile we’re looking for, what kind of scores are acceptable. If people don’t fit the mould, however, sometimes they don’t progress to the next level. But I would argue that we could be missing out on people with special talents. It’s about looking at things that people might first think is dysfunctional.

For example, Paul Cave, if he stopped after his 40th presentation, he would’ve never realized his success. So if he ended up not being successful, we would say he’s a very poor learner or that he should have quit earlier. However, because he did it successfully, we see this perseverance as quite functional. In fact we’re celebrating it. I am not suggesting that we should blindly persevere with every decision or course of action we take, but what I am suggesting is that determining what the boundaries are to functional and dysfunctional perseverance would be useful.

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I think there’s a lot of scope within business where this can be quite adaptive. It doesn’t necessarily have to be entrepreneurship, it can be with intraprenuership.

Q: How did you measure personality in your study?

Gardiner: We used a personality test based on the five-factor model of personality. The five personality traits that were measured were neuroticism, extraversion, openness-to-experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness. HR practitioners will very well know these traits as they tend to use tests that are based on this model for development or recruitment purposes.

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