Pirate ship at dawn

Is It Time to Hire “Rebel Talent”?

Mark Parkinson, Ph.D.

Business Psychologist | Executive insight, new psychometrics and entrepreneur specialist. in Work

The world of work is changing at lightning speed. The torrent of data that narrates our daily activities is becoming too vast to comprehend, and being able to understand and apply the digital intelligence it represents is now more valuable than the data itself; likewise many work tasks requiring linear -- step-by-step -- thinking are being progressively automated. Of course change isn’t new, but this all adds up to a big shift in the work paradigm.

Perhaps this is why a recent machine-like vs. humanDeloitte report predicts that by 2030 over 63% of jobs will be “soft skill” intensive. That’s skills like problem solving and adaptability, which in turn drive higher rates of innovation and productivity. However this isn’t bad news, it just means work needs to focus more on those attributes that are more human than machine-like: less linear thinking, more open-ended thinking. And as if a further nudge were needed, the report also finds that the number of jobs in soft-skill intensive occupations will grow at 2.5 times the rate of jobs in other areas.

The sheer rate of change suggests something else: not only the need for people with the “right” soft skills, but with the intellectual impetus and personality to give them real impact. However most organisations are more concerned with stability, not change, and attempts to import people to shake up the status quo -- often described as intrapreneurs -- almost always fail. That’s because the very point of being an intrapreneur is you’re paid to think the unthinkable, break the rules and bust open the traditional way of doing things. Naturally there are ways of trying to manage this so-called disruptive talent but that does take a truly enlightened organisation. It might also be that the intrapreneur analogy is not the way to go.


Rebel talent

Perhaps the US Navy has the answer. The irony of this statement won’t be lost on those who recall the famous quote by “innovator-in-chief”, Steve Jobs:

“It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.”

Steve was undoubtedly reflecting on the fact he wanted people on his team who were passionate, driven, and who shared a common Apple-centered vision. He wanted game changers, not employees who were mired in rules, regulations, and bureaucracy. To be fair this doesn’t sound much like the Navy, but welcome aboard the USS Gabrielle Giffords. USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS-10) underway in the Philippine Sea on 1 October 2019 (191001-N-YI115-2128)The “Giffords” is in a class of multi-role vessel that has a remarkably small core crew of 40 -- in stark contrast to the 200 you would normally find on a similar destroyer-sized ship. How is this possible?

The concept of “minimal manning” requires each member of the crew to assume multiple roles and to switch effortlessly between them. Frankly, to be able to cope with whatever task or problem gets thrown in their direction. In practice this approach to crewing a ship has not all been plain sailing (pardon the pun), but the principles are sound.

Way back in 2000, a psychologist called Jeffrey Le Pine ran a study exploring decision making. The standard task tended to favour those with high general mental ability and there was comparatively little that could be attributed to someone’s personality. However there was an important twist: at two points in the task the rules governing decision making changed. And guess what happened? The cognitive ability effect increased, but so did the role of two personality factors: Openness and Conscientiousness.

As might be expected, those with higher Openness made better decisions. This is no surprise because it’s associated with less traditional and more open-minded approaches to information processing. No, the big surprise is that better decision making was also associated with lower Conscientiousness. Students of the Big Five personality model will find this surprising, because Conscientiousness is generally found to be the factor that is the most predictive of work performance; albeit, when general mental ability is added to the mix, the honors are split almost equally between Conscientiousness and Openness. What’s going on?

One explanation is if you want an open-minded “crew”, who are adaptable and can cope with change, the ideal mix is high general mental ability, high Openness, and only mid-range Conscientiousness. To paraphrase the management guru, Peter Drucker:

“Efficiency is doing things right, effectiveness is doing the right things.”

This means for Conscientiousness it’s a question of playing down the orderly, systematic, and dutiful aspects, and ramping up the competence, achievement, and self-direction. Keep the passion, lose the box ticking!


X marks the spot

It looks like the personality map is Pirate-Map-to-Buried-Treasure,-Personality-Map-May-Be-Changingchanging. Could it be that to ride the shifting sands of work we need to revise our view of the ideal employee? Less grit, less order, less expertise, and more intellectual curiosity, constructive “distractibility,” and learning orientation -- that last part being another benefit of high Openness. These are the aspects of personality that give wings to the “soft skills” of problem solving and adaptability.

In addition, the quote about efficiency/effectiveness underscores the difference between management and leadership. Could it be that if you’re looking for future leaders you might want to use the same formula? It looks like the Navy is on the money after-all!


Looking for your rebel talent, from new hires or within? Traitify’s personality assessments can help!


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