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Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life by Francesca Gino

Published in May of 2018.

In sociology, we have this concept of positive deviance.  This is an extension of Durkheim’s (1858-1917) conception of the function of deviance in reinforcing social norms.  Where deviance is the negative violation of social codes and cultural practices, positive deviance is the process in which norm violation enhances well-being.

In their 2017 article, Positive Deviance in Theory and Practice: A Conceptual Review (subscription perhaps required), Henington and Fliert define the term as:

"Positive deviance employed as a practical strategy is about looking for “champions” for change— outliers who succeed against all the odds. It is a method of social inquiry grounded on the premise that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behavior and strategies enable them to find better solutions to the same problems facing their peers."

In Rebel Talent, Harvard Business School (HBS) professor Francesca Gino applies the concept of positive deviance to the world of work.

Rebel Talent would probably be classified as a business book.  The audience is executives, managers, and knowledge workers - not academics.

But going with Dr. Gino’s advice that an under-recognized leadership and collegial trait is the authentic display of emotions and feelings, I will say that I was sad that the book never connected her thinking on “rebels” with positive deviants, or gave sociologists the credit that they deserve.  Okay, I’m over it.

What Rebel Talent does do is make three convincing arguments.

First is the recognition that most people are disengaged from their jobs.

Second is that work unhappiness comes mostly when work is not built around strengths, and when the workplace is rigid.

Third is that many of the behaviors at work that we think we should be following to move forward in our careers are actually counterproductive.

To make this case, professor Gino spends time with some workplace rebels, and in the organizations that rebel bosses can create.

Fans of restaurant workplace books - the genre kicked off by Kitchen Confidential - will enjoy the descriptions of the nonconformist Italian chef Massimo Bottura, and his three-Michelin star restaurant, Osteria Francescana.   Apparently, and I didn’t know this, Italian cooking has all sorts of rules. Chef Bottura’s relaxed kitchen and nontraditional dishes set his restaurant apart.

Rebel Talent goes on to spend time with Napoleon, pirates, a tomato company, a software game company, Pixar, and Campbell's soup.  In each case, the workers who are willing to bring their authentic selves to work, challenge authority and the conventional wisdom and the status quo, and do things a bit differently always seem to come out on top.

What makes Rebel Talent more sophisticated than a one-note business book on the value of “think differently” is Dr. Gino’s analysis of the costs of nonconformity.

Unsurprisingly, and so depressingly, women pay a much higher cost for their workplace rebel actions than men.

For instance, women are much more likely to receive negative comments on performance reviews.  Women’s fashion choices are policed.  In promotion decisions, women are penalized for behaviors like assertiveness that are viewed as positives for men.

Going back to performance reviews, the evidence should lead any HR professional to question why they are still done.  Rebel Talent shares stories from companies that have moved away from the typical goal-setting methods and instead moved to build reviews around strengths.

While reading Rebel Talent, I kept wondering if this is the sort of book that university HR people might read?

It is common to hear from bosses of all types - including university bosses - that they value employees who push boundaries and take risks.

If this is true, why do organizations (including universities) persist in annual performance reviews that reward the setting and completion of incremental goals?

Is it even possible to aspire to follow the Rebel Talent algorithm in an environment where some have tenure, and others never will?

The reader of Rebel Talent will come away from the book with many insights about the downsides of playing it safe at work.

What I wonder about Rebel Talent is the same thing I wonder about almost everything that business school professors write.

Where is the control group?

Professor Gino profiles all the cases where breaking the rules paid off for employees and companies.  What about the examples where rebels lost their jobs?

Would anyone advise anyone pursuing an academic career - either traditional or alternative - to be a rebel?

We all want to believe that we have rebel talent.  I imagine that most of us, and almost all of us in academia, are pretty much rule followers.

What business books with possible implications for higher ed would you recommend?

What sorts of books do higher ed HR professionals read?

Are you a positive deviant?

What are you reading?

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