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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Q: You created a tool for companies to predict how maverick an employee may turn out to be, called a “Maverickism Scale.” Can you tell us about it?

Gardiner: It is still in its development phase so it’s not suitable for personnel selection yet. However, in the near future there may be some use as an internal development tool. For instance, if a company is interested in encouraging maverickism in their company, then this scale should be able to provide a good indication of where their workers fall along the continuum. Then the organization can address other issues such as seeing what structure and practices do they have in place to allow people to be mavericks.

For example, a company that’s expecting people to be innovative and come up with new ideas has to be able to provide the support for these people, whether it is funding, allocated time, facilities or whether it is more general, such as verbal encouragement and support.

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If a manager is going to tightly micromanage their workers to ensure that complete their tasks in the way that it has always been done, then it is very unlikely their workers are going to feel free to come up with these market-changing and disruptive ideas.

We think the scale will also be useful for companies who acknowledge the importance of the individualist. When we’re recruiting people, when we’re trying to develop people, we typically list getting along with others as top of the desirability list. Most of us subscribe to the idea that it’s important to be team players but occasionally you may want someone to be an individual. I think we lose sight of that. Mavericks are individualists and are focused on achieving their goals.

If companies want their workers to be successful and engage in innovative ideas, our research suggests that it’s important to create a balanced environment. Managers have a lot of power here in that they can give a little bit more leeway to their workers so they can realize their potential and follow things that are worthwhile. But at the same time, let the workers know what is expected of them so there is a safe boundary. So any kind of loss is an acceptable loss. We’re not telling managers to let their workers do whatever they want to do but what we’re saying is if you’re expecting workers to act like mavericks then you need to give some allowances so they can do just that. At the same time, you need to manage them so the losses are not too much. Our results of our study with risk-taking support this. Workers do need boundaries, but because they’re goal-oriented, they can achieve in other ways. It seems dysfunctional in one way, but at the same time, with perseverance and hard work, this goal focus makes them quite adaptable.

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Q: In your study, you also found environmental conditions also played a role. Does that follow through with your suggestion that managers need to give the support, the time and the facilities to be mavericks?

Gardiner: Yes, from our research, environment does seem to play a role. So if mavericks have had some early success, our research indicates that they don’t quit, it just propels them further. Mavericks are really driven to succeed and achieve their goals, and need an environment that allows them to achieve this, but having said that, they may need some boundaries. Our research is showing that they take risks even when the payoffs are removed. Managers need to provide the right balance to these individuals, giving them freedom and, at the same time, make sure it’s an acceptable loss.

Google is a good example of a company that provides such boundaries. Google allocates 20% of their employees’ time for workers to pursue their own projects. The idea for Google Mail was developed from this initiative. 3M is another good example. 3M’s culture encourages workers to experiment and try new things, allowing them to make mistakes and learn from them. This idea of being goal-focused and achieving, and being willing to look at things from a slightly different angle, facilitates innovation.

Q: You highlighted “functional mavericks.” Can you tell us how to identify a low-functioning maverick personality?

Gardiner: We have focused on high-functioning mavericks. They’re goal-focused and achieve but they do it through unconventional ways. Someone who is more of a dysfunctional maverick is someone who is not successful. For example, if Paul Cave had all these great ideas but was never able to procure the capital funding, he would still be innovative and persevering and risk-taking but not high-functioning since it’s really his success that makes those tendencies functional.

Q: You also point out that people on the high and low levels of the maverickism scale can achieve success. There’s Richard Branson (high risk) and Warren Buffett, whom I think of as low risk.

Gardiner: Very much so. You can be low in the maverickism scale and still be successful but you achieve it in a different way. You achieve it by being hard working, by getting along with others. You achieve it by doing what is conventionally the right thing to do. You might take risks but they’re very low risks. You might achieve success but it might take longer. It’s through dedicated hard work, not through an innovative risky idea. They’re more cautious.

This comes back to the recommendations for organizations that I’m hoping to identify through our research. For instance, maverickism may be important for those companies wanting to encourage more of an entrepreneurial spirit and corporate intraprenuership. However, having said this, I am aware that most companies probably just want their workers to just put their heads down and get their work done in a conventional and tried-and-tested way. There’s nothing wrong with that and we know that this formula can work. That might be the ideal path for some organizations and we’re not disagreeing with that. All we’re doing is offering an alternative and unconventional pathway to success.

Q: Do you see any cultural differences that might vary how mavericks are perceived between Australia, Europe and the Middle East?

Gardiner: Yes, I would expect some cultural differences in terms of national culture and the interaction between national culture and organisational culture. For instance, when thinking about organisational culture the rules, practices and atmosphere of the organisation as well as the culture of the workers may determine what is acceptable and whether specific behaviors are seen as progressive or disruptive. In countries that are more collective, you might not expect an independently minded, competitive maverick to be very popular. However in individualistic countries, these traits are very much celebrated. In these cultures, getting along with everyone isn’t always as important as being successful, sometimes at all costs.

To learn more about Gardiner’s research, or to participate in a future study, visit or e-mail her:
Republished with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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