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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For this particular questionnaire, there were 50 statements, which were rated on a scale from “very inaccurate” to “very accurate.” Participants were asked to rate how much each statement was like them. A question might be “I like to go to parties.” And the idea is that statement links to extroversion. Another question might be something like “I enjoy trying new things” and that might be linked to openness. So there were a range of statements that participants rated themselves on.

Q: What was the most surprising thing about the results of this study?

Gardiner: We found a range of personality traits to predict maverickism. I was probably most surprised about the finding of low agreeableness as being a significant factor. I was expecting extroversion and openness-to-experience to play a role and because a lot of my previous research was in lateral preference, I was expecting this proxy measure for creativity to play a role as well. But I didn’t expect low agreeableness.

When I think of people like Richard Branson, I can’t remember him being described as disagreeable. He appears as someone who gets along with others, very friendly, socially confident and charismatic.

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What our studies are showing is that mavericks are much more likely to be characterised as competitive rather than altruistic. So when interpreting the agreeableness finding, it’s not that people are friendly on the high end and unfriendly on the low end. Rather the high end describes individuals who are altruistic, and selfless whereas the low end is about being more competitive and more willing to challenge others to favor oneself.

Extraversion was also found to significantly predict maverickism. This result makes intuitive sense, for mavericks to influence and persuade others to go along with their ideas they need to be outgoing, confident, and socially competent.

At the same time, we found openness-to-experience to be a key factor. Individuals high in maverickism are creative and independent thinkers. The research also suggests that mavericks are willing to stand their ground and be competitive when they need to be. They may come across as abrasive if they’re working in a team environment but, if you appreciate them as individualists, this approach could be quite effective.

Q: Besides extraversion, openness and agreeableness did you find anything else to predict levels of maverick tendencies?

Gardiner: Yes. Two other factors we looked into were neuroticism, which is how worrisome or anxious someone is and also lateral preference, which was a biomarker for creativity where increased right-brain activity indicates a disposition towards creativity and left-brain activity indicates a leaning towards analytical thought.

We found that a combination of these two factors predicted maverickism. So if you think of right-brain activity as a proxy measure for creativity, what we found was that people who were both highly right-brain active and lower in neuroticism tended to be mavericks. If you’re high in neuroticism, it means you’re fairly anxious, afraid of being punished or looking stupid. You would rather stay safe than risk failure to achieve success.

So the combination of being biologically hard-wired to be creative and also a lack of worry about failure facilitates mavericks to achieve.

We also took a look at risk-taking propensity. We tried to use multiple measures to investigate similar constructs in our study. For the risk-taking task, participants were randomly allocated to one of two conditions. In one condition they were conditioned to be risk-aversive and in the other they were conditioned to be more risky. We found that even when allocated to the risk-aversive condition, individuals who were high in maverickism tended to take risks. People who were mavericks tended to persevere. They tended to take risks even though they were no longer being rewarded for it in the short term. In some ways, they could be seen as maladaptive, which I think is a caution.

Perseverance is good but only up to a point. These individuals will persevere even when it’s no longer adaptive so we have to conduct further research to work out what are the boundary conditions? We need to know when will perseverance in mavericks be maladaptive and when will they need a bit more time?

Q: There’s a fun test for maverickism and it has to do with how you answer the phone. Can you explain it?

Gardiner: Yes, we determined lateral preference, through asking a series of questions, their [penchant] for using their left or right side when doing various activities. For instance, we asked questions like, “With which ear would you listen to a low voice?” or “If you wanted to listen to a conversation going on behind a closed door, which ear would you place against the door?” and “Which ear would you listen (without hands) to a cordless telephone?” These questions are from a published scale that measures the preference that an individual might have for using one side of their body over the other.

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So while I am not suggesting that how you pick up the phone determines whether you are a maverick or not, but the preference you have, whether you have a left or right preference has linkages with hemispheric preferences. I’ll talk about how that research was started and how it’s being built on.

Firstly, research shows that the lateral preference an individual reports corresponds with their actual behavior. For example on the questionnaire, if you say you have a left-ear preference and someone observed you in your everyday life, it is likely that you will use mostly (not always) use your left ear for aural functions. I appreciate that the question might seem individually quite strange, but if you put them together as a cluster, that seems to correlate with other measures of lateral preference. Usually what you would do is get someone into an EEG (electroencephalogram)machine and have them do tasks and measure it that way so you can actually see the activation. Obviously, a more direct measure is a better methodology; however, we wanted to look at full-time worker samples. We’ve conducted a couple of studies now. One included over 450 people and another one was just under 500. There’s no way we could test a thousand people using an EEG machine. Just feasibility wise, it wouldn’t work. We can get a thousand people to do a survey and previous research shows that it is valid and reliable so we went with it.

Secondly, due to contralateral pathways, a left lateral preference (a preference for your right hand or right ear) is likely to indicate a right-hemisphere preference. Similarly, a right lateral preference is likely to indicate a left hemisphere preference. Your right hemisphere is thought to be responsible for creativity and emotions and the left hemisphere is for rationality and analytics.

Thirdly, we chose to focus on ear preference because previous research has already shown a link between creativity and dichotic listening tasks.

Our research suggests that, in combination with personality, lateral preference makes a difference. It’s not a strong enough statement to say that mavericks are most likely to use their left ear when they pick up the phone. Ear preference is one way to measure it but that’s not important. What is important is what the preference represents, and that is a biological predisposition towards creativity. It’s not a strong effect but it’s a significant effect. It’s something we need to look at a bit further.

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Q: If people wanted to increase their creativity, could they consciously start answering the phone with their left ear to achieve a more maverick personality?

Gardiner: No, even if you change your habits, it is unlikely that this would alter your initial hemispheric preference. When we did the study, we excluded people who didn’t have free and accurate use of their arms, hands, ears or eyes. For instance, if someone had a broken finger or an injured arm or was hard of hearing in one ear compared with the other they were excluded from the study.

When the question asks, “Which ear would you put the phone to?” Obviously, it depends on which hand you pick it up with. But when you talk about anything that has to do with handedness, it has to do with your arm as well. It depends on other things too. But ear preference is very independent of that. As I mentioned before, the way we measure lateral preference isn’t what is important, it is more the finding that creativity, which we measured by lateral preference, seems to be important to maverickism.

So picking up the phone and putting it to a different ear will not make any difference but I think this means, in practical terms, that creativity may have a biological basis and so maverickism may have a slight biological basis also.

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