Pioneers Post
the business

Why swimming against the tide is good for business

9 April 2012
Photo of a green fish swimming in the opposite direction to a shoal of goldfish

Being a maverick is more than just having an idea or a hunch pay off, it is about taking real risks and achieving in a way that is unique and unexpected.

A cutting edge analysis of workplace mavericks – the creative, independent thinkers who can be brilliant but troublesome – could help employers to better identify them and channel their talents.

The research, from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and the University of New South Wales, Australia, cites famous ‘mavericks’ such as Steve Jobs and Sir Richard Branson, and is due to be published later this year in the British Journal of Psychology.

The study of 458 employees from a range of organisations explains that ‘recent economic events have seen businesses increasingly more reliant on the skills of internal “mavericks” to keep firms aggressive and competitive in the global market place’. 

It adds: ‘Maverick employees have been popularly described as independent thinkers, creative problem solvers, quick decision makers, and goal-oriented individuals. However, despite the apparent value of such individuals to organisations, no formal model explaining this behaviour exists.’

Dr Elliroma Gardiner of LSE and Professor Chris Jackson of UNSW analysed the personality traits and biological and environmental factors that predict ‘maverickism’. They found that people with a preference for using their left ear rather than their right ear are more likely to be mavericks. This is because it denotes a preference for using the right hemisphere of the brain, known as right lateral preference, associated with creative, problem solving activities.

However, the researchers suggest that those with a right lateral (left ear) preference are likely to generate novel, unconventional and creative solutions only when they are also low in anxiety or neuroticism and therefore feel more comfortable to unleash their potential. Lateral preference can be determined by which ear a person would put to a closed door to try to listen to a conversation, or to someone’s chest to hear a heartbeat.

The study also found that mavericks are more likely to be extroverts, explaining: ‘Although extroversion may seem incongruent with maverickism, we argue that the talent of individuals high in extroversion to be persuasive and influencing is likely to be an advantage when trying to recruit and win others over to their way of thinking.’

Another personality factor related to maverickism, the research found, is openness to experience, which encourages ‘the broad-mindedness of individuals towards the unconventional and fostering of new ideas’.

Mavericks tend to be poor team players and therefore low in ‘agreeableness’, the research found. ‘Although individuals high in maverickism have a demonstrated ability to communicate well and influence others, we do not believe that this necessarily implies a positive association with agreeableness. Instead, we argue that for an individual to engage in disruptive and non-conformist behaviour, they would need to be antagonistic, egocentric, and sceptical of others’ intentions rather than cooperative.’

The final characteristic found in mavericks is that they are likely to take more risks and are also likely to persevere with risk-taking even after negative feedback.

‘Individuals high in maverickism are not cautious, safe or conservative; they are prepared to break rules to achieve results…Consider “maverick” Sir Richard Branson’s risky decision to challenge airline giant British Airways through the launch of his new airline, Virgin Atlantic. Despite considerable financial losses in the 1990s, Virgin Atlantic is now one of the world’s most profitable airlines. Branson’s story also illustrates that whilst both success and failure are inherent in risk-taking, only successful risk takers are likely to be branded “mavericks”.’

Those who took part in the study were asked to rate themselves on a seven-item Maverickism Scale, designed to capture only the functional aspects of maverickism in the workplace. The study found that males were slightly more prone to maverickism than females.

It concludes that it is the first to provide empirical evidence to support the idea of maverickism as a multifaceted construct because the results show that it is related to a number of personality traits, has strong ties to creativity and risk-taking, and is partially biologically based.

It says: ‘More practically, our research also introduces a tool which may be useful for organisations interested in identifying maverickism in their employees. Through finding support for our hypotheses, we present a model of how personality variables predict maverickism… We hope our research will serve as a platform upon which additional research can build to better define, measure, and evaluate the utility of maverickism in the workplace.’

Dr Gardiner and Professor Jackson commented: ‘Being a maverick is more than just having an idea or a hunch pay off, it is about taking real risks and achieving in a way that is unique and unexpected.

‘Although we are not suggesting that businesses rush to fill their organisations with mavericks, what we are suggesting is that in the current climate, where many businesses are asking their workers to do more with less, encouraging workers to be creative and giving them some leeway to take measured risks may have some potential benefits.

‘Now that we have a better idea of what personality characteristics predict maverick behaviour, the next step is to investigate whether other factors, such as work experience and job role, also play a part.

‘Understandably, some aspects of the maverick personality profile, such as risk-taking and low agreeableness, might make some hiring managers quite nervous. However, our research suggests that when combined with other traits, such as extroversion, creativity and openness, the results can be quite positive.

‘Our research is interesting because it challenges our preconceptions of certain characteristics and provides evidence that dysfunctional behaviour, like risk-taking, can actually be adaptive.’

 

Dr Elliroma Gardiner is an organisational psychologist and Fellow in the Employment Relations and Organisational Behaviour Group at LSE’s Department of Management.

Professor Chris Jackson is Head of School of Management and Professor of Business Psychology at the Australian School of Business, UNSW.