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Bad Attitudes Can Lead to Good Innovation - Hire Rebels

By Paul Sloane

How can you build a team that is innovative, dynamic and capable of finding breakthroughs for tough problems? How can you avoid repeating dreary routines and find sparkling new ideas instead? One way is to make sure that among your solid citizens you have a good sprinkling of rebels.

Innovation Impediments

At a workshop in Taiwan delegates were asked what was impeding innovation in their business. The answer was, “we have too much respect” – middle-level managers felt too much reverence for the executives in the company to challenge their views and question the way that things were done. They were used to accepting and implementing decisions that were handed down to them rather than pushing back with better suggestions and radical ideas of their own. Taiwan, like many Asian societies, is well-ordered with good self-discipline. The people are polite and you never see graffiti on walls the way you do in the West. The “bad” attitudes that are manifested in many ways in Western society may have some upsides. Can a company benefit from rebellious employees who challenge assumptions and rudely assert a different point of view? Should a business seek to employ more people who are unruly and disrespectful?

Respect Vs. Deference

What is needed is not a lack of respect but a lack of deference. In the modern innovative organization leaders need to earn the respect of their employees because of the values they stand for – not because of their position in the hierarchy. A lack of deference should be encouraged so that anyone can challenge anyone else’s ideas regardless of their status.

“Innovation comes from angry and driven people,” says business management expert Tom Peters. The innovator is not happy with his lot – he is impatient for change. This can be a problem for successful companies. The natural satisfaction that people derive from success can lead to complacency, which is the enemy of innovation. The innovative leader engenders a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo. It is all very well telling shareholders that the company is making steady and satisfactory progress but the internal message needs more of an edge: “We are doing well but there is much more to be done. We cannot afford to rest on our laurels.”

Often innovators have to be obsessive to the point of apparent irrationality in pursuit of their dreams. They appear insubordinate in opposing convention. Anita Roddick (founder of The Body Shop), Trevor Baylis (inventor), James Dyson (industrial designer) and Richard Branson (entrepreneur) were all seen as obstinate, angry rebels before they achieved the success that changed their status to visionaries. Sometimes the programmer with the worst attitude is the one who produces the most brilliant code.

Harnessing Rebels

How can a business harness the energy of its mavericks? How can negative energy be turned into positive? Throw down a challenge. Rebels can be critical, but leaders can turn a situation around and ask the rebels how they would do things better – without getting into an argument. Take rebels’ ideas on board. Praise them for good proposals and encourage them to find new and better ways to do things. Thank them for their criticisms but insist that they also make positive suggestions.

IBM’s Rebel Achievement

Rebels can achieve amazing successes. In 1994, two rebels saw the future. John Patrick and David Grossman were determined to galvanize the lumbering giant IBM into a response to the opportunities presented by the Internet. Initially, IBM, with its investment in mainframe computers and corporate systems, failed to appreciate that the Internet was going to revolutionize the world. In this respect they were in good company – even Microsoft missed the importance of the Internet at first. Patrick and Grossman saw that being online was a trend that their employers could not afford to miss so they launched a subversive internal campaign. They found a network of enthusiasts and activists. They launched a “manifesto” and circulated it by email. They gave demonstrations of the Internet’s capabilities to senior executives. The two took risks, broke the rules and exceeded their authority. Eventually their pleas were heard, the super tanker turned and IBM became leaders in e-commerce and Web services.

Innovative Staffing

When interviewing candidates, do not necessarily “like” those who respectfully agree with the company’s policies and plans. Recruit staff with attitude, people who are prepared to disagree with the status quo and challenge the company’s direction. Give candidates hypothetical problems to see if they come up with inventive ideas or routine answers. Look for people with unusual interests and hobbies.


Every revolution starts with a rebel. Cultivate a team with some particular bad attitudes – the ones with rebellious, contrary and divergent views – people who some might label as troublemakers. A maverick staff is not negative or cynical – on the contrary, they are passionate about their ideas. They do not defer to authority, they are dissatisfied with the status quo, they are impatient for change and they are angry about the obstacles put in their way. With employees like that, a business – and its products and services – should certainly stand out from the crowd!

About the Author:

Paul Sloane is the founder of Destination Innovation, a consultancy that helps improve innovation. He gives talks and workshops on leadership, creativity and innovation. He is the author of 17 books; the most recent is The Innovative Leader, published by Kogan-Page. Contact Paul Sloane at psloane (at) or visit