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.

  • Share
  • Read Later

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.

(MORE: The Strange Allure of the Gold Standard)

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.

(MORE: Secrets from the World’s Happiest Workplace)

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.

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.

(MORE: How to Recharge Your Leadership in Trying Times)

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.

(MORE: Ease Your Employees into Change)

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.

(MORE: Is the U.S. Headed for a Double-Dip Recession?)

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.

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.

(MORE: The Perils of Small Business Expansion)

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.

(MORE: Why Voters Don’t Blame Obama for the Slow Economy)

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.

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3