The trend to recruit disrupters

15 October 2018

From Maverick in Top Gun, to James Dean as the Rebel Without a Cause, we have a cultural romance with the rebel.

The Donald Trump presidency is perhaps a perfect example of how much we love a rebel in tough, unstable times. The political climate and the business climate is becoming ever more VUCA*, and many leaders left with the challenge of getting their organisation to respond to a disruptive environment are hiring ‘disruptors’.

Disruptor is a trending corporate term for the rebel, and hiring for the right mix of attributes needs care and thought. You need someone who can bring change. But should they be disruptive? Rebelliousness can take different forms. Carl Jung described the archetypal nature of the rebel, with the drive to identify things that are not working and change them. Preferring to do things differently, the rebel can often be driven to break the rules.

But what is the price? Driven by disruption, rebels can also desire to destroy or to shock. There can be a lust for freedom in those with strong rebel leanings, and they will fear powerlessness and a lack of impact above all else. Their desire to leave a mark can become destructive where they fail to get traction for creating the change they believe is needed. It is therefore key to understand the rebel’s sense of purpose before hiring them. Is there a strong sense of social conscience and desire to do good things, or is there a hint of anger and lust for power in a candidate’s rebelliousness? Has their pattern always been one of rebellion or do they know how to work with others as well? How big a part of their identity is rebellion? I have seen those who rebel and challenge to undermine and jostle for position, and contrast this with those who, whilst ambitious, seek to challenge how things are done out of a drive to achieve goals that are bigger than themselves.

In the podcast “revisionist history” ** Malcolm Gladwell describes how it might be disagreeableness, rather than disruption, that is the key in driving innovation. He cites Steve Jobs as one example of the disagreeable high achiever. Gladwell cautions; be disagreeable in action not in temperament. I.e. be prepared to make unpopular decisions, but don’t upset people. However, often the two go together. Memoirs and accounts have suggested that Steve Jobs was disagreeable in both action and temperament, and here lies the risk when you recruit for the rebel.

Academic studies exploring the correlation between disagreeableness and innovation have supported the link in some cases, but the evidence is not conclusive. This is probably in part due to methodological issues. Agreeableness is a big 5 personality trait, and measures likeability, friendliness, social conformity, compliance and love***. The dominant theme here is temperament, but as Gladwell points out, for innovation you seek the willingness to reject social conformity whilst not being disagreeable in temperament. I think here of a Head of Innovation, who whilst willing to challenge or ignore bureaucratic processes even where this would not be popular, was effective at building relationships with her peers and selling her ideas in a compelling way.

For this reason, more detailed assessment of candidates than that provided by simply taking a big 5 measure is beneficial for organisations looking for people to bring change. For example, the Hogan Development Survey (HDS) is a psychometric tool that offers a lens on how a candidate might exhibit their disagreeableness, and how they might ‘derail’ when things are not going well for them. It is based on the work of psychoanalyst Karen Horney (1938) who theorised that we deal with this stress in one of three ways – by either moving away, moving towards or moving against others. Or you could reframe these classifications as flight, freeze, or fight behaviour, respectively.

Thorough assessment supported by in-depth psychometrics is critical to understand the risks that a ‘disruptive’ candidate might bring. A rebellious candidate always carries risk, however, this has to be traded off against the risk of having an ineffectual jobholder in a key role, conforming to company culture but lacking real impact. At Wickland Westcott, we always provide our clients with a clear view on a hire. If you are looking for someone who can drive change, the willingness to be nonconformist is critical, but take care not to take the trend for ‘disruptor’ too far.

* VUCA refers to Volatile, Uncertain, Changing and Ambiguous.

** Gladwell, M. (2018) www.revisionisthistory.com. Season 3, Episode 7.

*** Barrick, M. R & Mount, M. K. (1991). The Big Five Personality Dimensions and Job Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Personnel Psychology, 44.

Contact us
Please get in touch to discuss how we can help with your leadership and talent management challenges


Share this: