Book Review: Rebel Talent


Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life is a sensationally titled book. It’s not at all a bad book, but it’s not about rebels in the strict dictionary sense of the word.

This is a pretty typical business book that follows a now-familiar formula: a series of chapters each filled with historical references, business case studies, and personal anecdotes that all tie – sometimes tenuously – to the theme of the chapter, each chapter working to support the primary premise of the book. This book could easily be 100 pages shorter by reducing the number or length of the supporting stories, but I guess this is how Harvard Business School folks are taught to write books.

The provocative notion of a “rebel” is more about non-comformity, non-complaceny, and thoughtfulness. There are some really powerful things to think about presented within its pages, so I do recommend it.

The chapters explore the various traits that the author has identified as exemplars of rebel talent: novelty, curiousity, perspective, diversity, and authenticity.

Regarding curiosity, this quote really hit me:

We work to finish assigned tasks without questioning the process or asking about overall goals. And, rather than celebrating curiosity, our leaders often discourage it. They see its value, but their actions often tell an alarmingly different story.

Followed by:

Leaders can encourage [curiosity] throughout their company by first being more inquisitive and curious themselves. Curiosity needs champions, and that needs to start at the top.

This immediately made me think of Genchi Genbutsu, or the practice of “Go see”. I would dearly love to see more executives taking time to examine – and experience – the day-to-day challenges that individual contributors live every day. There are some great stories in the book about incoming leaders doing exactly this at organizations as different as the British Broadcasting Corporation and Campbell’s Soup.

This section reminded me of former Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst, who would regularly take a shift on the company’s tech support call center. This let him experience, first hand, the workflow challenges his call center employees faced, and also gave him first-person insight into customer concerns and frustrations. It takes a lot of guts for an executive to do this kind of grunt work, but it sends such a powerful message!

Another really powerful quote regarding curiosity came from Gail Jackson, United Technology’s vice president of human resources. “‘We want people who are intellectually curious,’ she notes. ‘It is better to train and have them leave than not to train and have them stay.’” Think about that for a moment: do you want people who are not curious, not motivated, not energized to stay at your company, dragging it (and you!) down?

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, “changed the criteria in the firm’s performance review so that they would include an evaluation of how well employees learn from their colleagues, share ideas, and apply their new knowledge.” That’s a really clever, and powerful, metric to measure and reward.

The chapter on perspective had some great thoughts, too:

In all aspects of our lives, whenever we face an important decision, we naturally ask ourselves ‘What should I do?’ But this framing constricts the answers we will come up with. When we instead ask ourselves ‘What could I do?’ we broaden our perspective.

When we frame work around /learning/ goals — such as developing our competence, acquiring new skills, and mastering new situations — we perform better than if we frame work around performance goals, such as hitting results targets. When we are motivated by learning rather than performance, we do better on tests, get higher grades, reach greater success in simulations and problem solving tasks. … And in another study, sales professionals with a performance orientation performed worse than those who had learning goals.

This was highly reminiscent of Primed to Perform, and re-affirms much of what I read there.

Perspective is an interesting topic, because there’s a natural tension between expertise and creativity. We can all get seduced into thinking “our way” or “the usual way” of established practices are superior simply because they are established.

It can be easier to approach problems from fresh perspectives when we are /not/ experts. Unfamiliar or unpleasant arguments, opposing views, information that disproves rather than affirms our beliefs and counterintuitive findings — rather than familiar arguments and evidence that confirms our views — cause is to think more deeply and come to creative and complex conclusions. And that’s where outsiders have an advantage over experts: They are less rooted in, and defensive of, existing viewpoints.

This requires some careful analysis, because some (many?) times the experts are right, and the established process are the best available. But being willing to be curious, being willing to explore alternatives, and being open to novelty help keep us from wearing blinders too often.

The chapter on diversity was one of the more data-heavy sections of the book. Lots of statistics were shared about the greater financial success of large firms that had more diversity in their executive staff, all other things being equal. A number of psychology and sociology experiments were detailed, demonstrating deep facets of implicit bias, powerful cultural norms, the strengths (and weaknesses) of likeness.

In fact, contrary to our intuition, greater diversity produces better outcomes exactly because it /is/ harder to work among a mix of perspectives. Part of the reason we associate homogeneity with greater performance is our preference for information we can process easily, a bias that psychologists have named the fluency heuristic. Easy-to-digest information seems truer or more beautiful […]. And when we face opinions we disagree with, discomfort is only one issue. We may also believe that disagreement will make reaching our goals more difficult and time-consuming. Again, this belief is misplaced. Think of working effectively in a group like studying (or exercising, for that matter): No pain, no gain.

Regarding authenticity:

It’s a curious reality that most large organizations manage their employees based on weakness. Just think about how performance reviews typically work. Gaps between ideal behaviors and actual ones are identified, and feedback follows. Thanks to feedback, the employee gains a sense of where he’s failing and then starts to think about improvements. It’s true that feedback sometimes covers strengths, but none of us escape the negativity bias, or the tendency for negative information, thoughts, emotions and experiences tend to make a more lasting impression on us. When we give feedback to others, we often focus on the problems that performance reviews identify, rather than on words of praise or encouragement.

This reminds me of the many examinations of economics for workforce development: invest more in your high performers, and encourage people to do more of what they’re good at. You’ll get higher returns, for less effort.

And regarding engagement:

A sense of conflict triggers exploration of novel ideas. … People experiencing conflict have been found to generate more original solutions to difficult situations than individuals who are in a more cooperative mood. Similarly, when members of a team experience conflict, they tend to scrutinize and deeply explore alternatives, which leads them to novel insights.

In conclusion, I was glad to have read this book. The title is too sensational, but then again, I might not have elected to read it if it had a more accurate, though prosaic, title! I recommend this to both individual contributors and managers.

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