How a Rebellious Streak Can Help You Excel in the Workplace

What do people like Harry Houdini, Napoleon Bonaparte, the movie director Ava DuVernay, and the famous pilot Chesley Sullenberger have in common?

No, the answer is not “really cool names.” As Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino shows in her new book, “Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life,” those people achieved success in large part because of their willingness to break the mold. As Gino puts it, they are “deviants, but in a positive and constructive way.” She admiringly calls such people rebels, and she has spent a large part of her career as a social scientist showing how we can positively transform our working lives if we learn from their examples.

While Gino naturally devotes a lot of attention to the high-level strategies of CEOs, at its core, the book is about how to be a better employee.

I took away five main lessons from “Rebel Talent” that can help the average worker become more effective, and happier, in the workplace.

Be Authentic

Most of us are motivated to present the most idealized version of ourselves to others at all times. We want our employers to think of us as being good at everything and willing to take on any task. Or, if we’re job hunting, we want potential employers to know that we were always highly successful in our previous roles. This sort of thinking makes a lot of intuitive sense.

“Rebel Talent” encourages you to challenge those notions. Gino shows that we’re better off when we’re true to ourselves, even if that means admitting to mistakes and failures.

One fascinating way she illustrates this point is by writing about a study she designed involving an “elevator pitch” contest. In this Shark Tank-style competition, business school students were competing in front of judges to see who had the best startup idea.

After making their pitches, Gino had the entrepreneurs fill out a survey that aimed to find out how authentic they were. It asked things like “to what extent do you feel you were being genuine during the pitch?”

Those who felt they were being their true selves while making their pitch were three times as likely to make it to the final round. Similarly, those who admitted in their pitches to having made mistakes in the past also had a much higher likelihood of advancing in the competition. The judges valued honesty and authenticity, even though such behavior can make us feel vulnerable.

In my experience, this makes a ton of sense. When people try to sell me something at my job, I can tell almost immediately whether they actually care about what they’re selling or not. And I’m much more likely to do business with those who are genuine about it.

Remember That Everyone Struggles

We live in a culture that emphasizes how great our most prominent business leaders are. People like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk are often described with words like “genius” and “prodigy.” According to Gino, it can be easy to forget that they all made tons of mistakes along the way. When we understand that people who have more experience than us are fallible, it can have tremendous benefits.

Gino points to a study that found firefighters got a boost to their performance after reading case studies about experienced firefighters who committed errors on the job.

Similarly, Gino analyzed hospital data over a 10-year period, and found that heart surgeons who were committed to learning from the mistakes of other doctors had significantly better patient outcomes.

I find that it’s easy to notice all of my own shortcomings, but a lot harder to recognize that highly successful people I admire make just as many mistakes. Gino emphasizes that we need to make ourselves aware of all the ways that others have failed so that we’ll have the courage and tenacity to push through tough times when they arise. Doing so goes against the grain, but it pays off.

Play to Your Strengths

We’re often told that we should focus on improving our weaknesses at our jobs. For instance, if you’re great at doing research but weak at giving presentations to a team, you might be advised to work on your public speaking abilities.

Gino flips this thinking on its head. In her research, she writes, “One predictor of job performance stood out above all others: playing to strengths.”

Rather than working on our weaknesses, we should focus on using our strengths as much as possible. Doing so makes us happier, for one thing. Gino notes that “people who use their strengths daily are six times more likely to get satisfaction out of their job and report less stress and anxiety.”

Furthermore, research has shown that when managers focus on nurturing an employee’s strengths as opposed to working on their weaknesses, their performance improves by 63%.

Amazingly, playing to your strengths helps us even if all we do is think about what we’re good at. In one study, a select group of new employees at a large IT company were instructed to spend 30 minutes thinking about their strengths on their first day. In a follow-up seven months later, those people reported being more committed to their jobs, and were performing at higher levels, than those who didn’t spend the initial 30 minutes focusing on their best abilities.

This was the single most tangible takeaway from the book, from my perspective. I’ve always thought that I should be working as hard as I can to improve in my weaker areas. While that’s not a bad thing, it’s also not optimal. There are people at my company who are good at things I’m bad at, so why not let them handle that stuff? From now on, I’m going to do a better job of being even better in the areas where I already excel.

Be Curious

Gino has found in her research that “curious people often end up being star performers in their organizations.” She lays out a few different reasons as to why this is the case.

For one thing, curious people are more likely to learn new information by reaching out to their colleagues. Not every employee gets the best training, so those who are willing to ask questions and seek help tend to rise through the ranks.

Curious employees are also more likely to be happy at work, even when they’re doing seemingly mundane jobs. A study of workers in a call center showed that those who were curious saw the job less as an assembly line and more as a puzzle to be solved. This change of mindset, so subtle yet so powerful, was a fantastic predictor of who would become the highest performers. It’s a switch we can all make with a little effort.

When Gino surveyed over 3,000 employees from different industries about the power of curiosity, the results were striking. Nine out of 10 respondents (92%) “credited curious people with bringing new ideas into teams and viewed curiosity as a catalyst to job satisfaction innovation, and high performance.”

Even though some of us might be less curious by nature, “Rebel Talent” shows that fostering what curiosity you do have can have a huge payoff.

But: Use Common Sense

My only gripe with “Rebel Talent” is that instead of offering nudges or baby steps, the overall theme is that you should jump into rebelliousness head first. I can almost hear professor Gino in my head as I walk around my office: “Take chances! Tell your boss what’s really on your mind! Come on, Drew, be a rebel!”

While she has proven it can be very effective to adopt a rebel mindset, I think Gino glosses over the downsides to rebelliousness. Every workplace has its own unique dynamics, and not every employee is in a position to challenge the existing way of doing things. When Gino says things like “breaking rules enriches every aspect of our lives,” I feel the need to throw in some caveats.

For many of us, it would be bad form to start asking a bunch of pointed questions during our next conference call, or to challenge our boss repeatedly during our next one-on-one meeting. Asking too many questions can make you come across as needy, a show-off, or an annoyance. I’ve seen it happen.

It’s great to have a rebel spirit, but make sure your timing is right.

Summing Up

If you’ve been waiting for a sign that you should be more assertive and confident in the workplace, this is the book for you. Gino does a great job of showing how people who are willing to blaze their own trail tend to be happier and more productive employees. If you’re authentic, curious, willing to learn from your mishaps, and focused on what you’re good at, your career should be far more rewarding.

Just remember that you exist in the real world, not inside of a social science study, so common sense should always rule the day.

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Drew Housman


Drew is a former professional basketball player and a Harvard graduate. He is passionate about writing content that empowers people to improve their careers, save more money, and achieve financial independence. His writing has been featured on MarketWatch, Business Insider, and ESPN.