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Here’s to the Crazy Ones: The Pleasure and Pain of the Business Maverick

February 05, 2013

​​​Bold and creative maverick leaders tend to deliver great innovations and breakthroughs. At the same time, they are highly disruptive, disturbing to work for and, by nature, definitely not team players. In business, it seems we can’t live with them and can’t live without them, as many who encountered Apple founder, Steve Jobs, have attested. 

New research from the Australian School of Business delves into the personality traits and risk-taking behaviour of mavericks and finds the case for understanding the visionary nonconformist, while also carefully managing those within their influence.

Mavericks are essential in business, according to corporate psychologist Gavin Freeman, director of The Business Olympian. "We wouldn’t believe we could get to Mars if we had never made it to the Moon. For all of the damage that mavericks can do when things go pear-shaped, the benefits of their better decisions can be seriously far-reaching," Freeman insists.

Think of how the iPhone and the iPod have changed entire industries and of their impact on society more broadly, prompts Freeman. He notes that behind almost all amazing innovations, discoveries and astonishing events are people who had incredible vision and insight and were able to push through when others were shouting: "You shouldn’t do that!"

A maverick - as defined in a recent research study by Chris Jackson, professor of business psychology at the Australian School of Business, and Elliroma Gardiner from the London School of Economics and Political Science - is a bold and creative individual who is unlikely to heed the advice of others.

"We conceptualise maverickism as a behavioural tendency to engage in creative, dynamic, risk-taking, disruptive and bold goal-directed behaviours," the writers say in their paper, Workplace Mavericks: How Personality and Risk-taking Propensity Predicts Maverickism.

"However, rather than viewing maverickism as a typology, we see maverickism as a continuous variable where high-scorers are bold, eccentric and disruptive but also talented and engaging in goal-directed behaviour. High-scorers are also socially competent, comfortable in making decisions and persevering in actions which go against the status quo." On the other hand, individuals low in maverickism are team-oriented, steady people who favour conventional approaches to risky ones, the researchers say.

The bold and disruptive behaviours common to mavericks can cause problems within organisations. In society, people want for certainty and predictability because the human brain looks for patterns, observes Freeman. For example, people like knowing that the shops will open at 9am, because that’s what they do every day. If the shops don't open at 9am, many will be upset because their perceived patterns are thrown out of whack. Their sense of certainty disappears with the predictability of the pattern.

Similarly, mavericks - people whose behaviours are unpredictable and unable to be measured and understood by our own past experience - make others feel uncomfortable. Mavericks take away that longed-for predictability and certainty. In doing so they can disrupt teams, destroy culture and cause greater staff turnover.

"So much of modern business education centres around the importance of teams - of building and working within and managing teams," says Jackson. "But another perspective is that it’s the mavericks in the organisation who create the really exciting opportunities and innovations. They’re necessary but they must be understood and they - and the staff around them - must be carefully managed."

How to Identify a Maverick

The work of Jackson and Gardiner centred on the identification and the prediction of mavericks and maverickism within organisations, with their efforts concentrated on the positive - or functional - side of maverickism.

"We view maverickism as involving components which may potentially lead to both adaptive and maladaptive consequences," the researchers say. "For example, on one hand, the tendency of individuals high in maverickism to be disruptive may work to overturn the status quo and generate market-changing and innovative technologies; however, being disruptive may also be counterproductive to maintaining team cohesion."

Jackson and Gardiner point out that not all creative, bold and independent actions will yield positive outcomes. A maverick’s non-compliance can be adaptive in some instances, whereas non-compliance in other situations may be detrimental to overall organisational health. "Therefore, it could be argued that the striking difference between functional individuals high in maverickism and individuals who could be otherwise classified as workplace deviants is the tendency of the former to achieve, contribute and pull it off when least expected." For this reason, the researchers limited their efforts to an investigation of functional maverickism.

The study yielded three major findings. The first is that extraversion, openness and low agreeableness are major predictors of maverickism. Think of Steve Jobs, who famously began a speech, "Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square hole. The ones who see things differently." The Apple founder championed people such as himself - those with magnetic personalities and big ideas who also were often described as being difficult to deal with.

"We contend that extraversion provides the requisite positive effect and social skills required by individuals high in maverickism to persuade others and be successful when pursuing their own agenda," the researchers say. "The personality variable of openness meaningfully taps into the inquisitive, non-conformist and imaginative dimension of maverickism. Of all the … variables, openness was found to be the strongest predictor indicating that a tendency to be creative and broad-minded is integral to maverickism … Although counter-intuitive, our finding indicates that individuals high in maverickism are more likely to be antagonistic and competitive rather than altruistic. We argue that these traits are a prerequisite for disruptive and non-conformist maverick-like behaviours."

Biologically interesting is the second finding that those with behaviour patterns high in maverickism tend to report a right hemisphere preference, also known as a left-ear preference (meaning they prefer their left ear for hearing), and low neuroticism. "We suggest that the right lateral (left ear) preference indicates a biological predisposition towards the creative, and low neuroticism allows individuals high in maverickism to pursue untested approaches with minimal fear of failure or punishment," Jackson says.

Finally, in difficult and punishing business conditions, those who are low in maverickism tend to lean towards the conservative in terms of behaviour and decision-making. But in those same testing conditions, mavericks will take just as many risks as they would when the climate was far more forgiving of errors. "More interesting though, is that in rewarding conditions, individuals high and low in maverickism do not appear to display differences in risk-taking propensity," Jackson says.

Working With Mavericks

People who are suddenly forced to work in an environment of uncertainty, such as those working with a maverick, will often go into protection mode, says Freeman. They strive for mediocrity in order to maintain an acceptable performance level, rather than stand out for any reason. "They withhold and wait. Because they don’t ever know how the boss will react, they prefer to go unnoticed."

However, if the work environment is accepting of failure and the culture encourages experimentation, risk-taking and the pushing of boundaries, then staff will feel safer to emerge from their protection mode, Freeman contends. "The maverick leader must be seen to be inviting staff on the journey and giving them consideration. The leader is not necessarily saying they should be like him - companies still need structure and organisation - but he’s engaging them and saying that failure is okay."

The parameters of the workplace must be altered so that staff accept that the maverick’s unpredictability actually makes him or her predictable, Freeman explains.

"We as staff know that the maverick leader will always be unpredictable," he says. "Let’s go back to the pattern around the fact that we expect shops to open at 9am on weekdays. If we changed the parameters and instead lived in a society in which shops opened whenever they wanted, at different times every day, then we would get used to that. The unpredictability of the shops’ opening times would be normal and we would alter our habits and behaviours around that fact. Allowing for risk, innovation, experimentation and failure within an organisation helps people to change their behaviours at work while accepting the unpredictability of their maverick leader or manager.

"Of course it would be nice if everyone acted the same way and the world was very predictable, but then we’d have no innovations. We need mavericks and they need to continue to push the boundaries, otherwise we’d never break the four-minute mile. We’d never challenge the status quo. We’d never achieve anything." ​
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