From Pink Milk to Smart Questions, How to Be a Rebel Leader Testing

This month, Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, published her book Rebel Talent: Why it Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life. We’re pleased to share a short Q&A with Gino and a book excerpt that highlights what Gino says are key qualities of successful “rebel” leaders: a knack for question-asking and an appreciation for inquiry. 

When Francesca Gino wakes up in the morning, she pours milk into a cereal bowl and squeezes in a few drops of food coloring. The Harvard Business School professor has tried green, blue, and red, but her favorite color is yellow.

This ritual began when Gino’s now five-year-old son asked her and her husband one morning why they don’t use food coloring in milk (they had recently used it to paint Easter eggs). She was struck by her husband’s reflexive response: “We just don’t do that.” Why, really, shouldn’t the milk be pink—or any other color? wondered Gino.

And then, she realized something: her son’s determination to break the breakfast rules was intimately connected to her research on innovation. Curiosity and insistence on questioning the status quo—why can’t cereal milk change colors?—are among the qualities Gino has discovered separate good leaders from great ones, and the people who can’t wait to get to work from the ones who count the minutes until they can leave. These qualities are part of an instinct to rebel against what feels comfortable. And adopting those qualities may be key to, as Gino puts it, creativity, productivity, and making work suck less.

In her new book, Rebel Talent: Why it Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life, she distills the rebel mindset down to its elemental principles, sharing her own story and those of other rebel leaders along the way. I had a chance to talk about her own struggle to rebel and the behavioral interventions that can make it easier for all of us buck convention. Below our condensed and edited conversation, you can also read an excerpt from her book about the rebel talent of curiosity.

Your book is full stories of rebels. Which one influenced your thinking the most?

I love the story of Hollywood film director Ava DuVernay, because she didn’t start her career as a filmmaker. She realized she was in a very male-dominated industry, but rather than overinvesting in the idea of finding the right people to help her break into it, she just picked up a camera. She has a beautiful quote about how she admires people who create their own ceilings rather than people who just break through glass ceilings that others put in place.

DuVernay seems to follow one particular rebel rule that you surface—“Rebels don’t thoughtlessly accept the social rules and attitudes that society promotes.” DuVernay has been very successful. But research shows that people from underrepresented groups—like women and people of color—can be censured for engaging in behaviors that break with social norms. Should those populations think differently about rebelling?

I wrote a blog post for Harvard Business Review entitled “4 Ways Women Can Break Barriers by Breaking the Rules” because one of the things women say when they see the book is, “Maybe guys can break the rules, but we can’t.” And that’s just not true. Both men and women have the potential to embrace the talents that I identify—novelty, curiosity, authenticity, and diversity—to be effective rebels and to achieve the great results that can come from breaking rules.

It is true that women may need to be more courageous because there’s this perception that rule-breaking comes more easily for men than women. There are stereotypes out there that minorities and women are facing. But many rebel women end up making their own rules, rather than just sticking to accepting social rules that are passed on to us by society. They change their mindsets.

It’s not easy to change our mindsets—and by extension our behaviors. We’re biased toward the status quo, many of us fear dissent and confrontation, and we worry that inquiry and curiosity will convey vulnerability, rather than strength. Are there any behavioral interventions that companies or other rebel leaders have used to overcome some of these mental roadblocks?

In one study, we asked the employers at a call center to revise their welcome session for new employees, prompting them to think about their uniqueness, strengths, and how they could use those traits at work more often. That was sufficient to raise their authenticity level [editor’s note: feeling inauthentic at work can reduce motivation] in a way that allowed the employees to feel better, perform better, and stay on the job for longer. This simple intervention created a moment of reflection; we didn’t need to restructure the organization.

Similarly, I’m doing some interventions where professionals receive reminders designed to raise their curiosity levels during their day at work. We’re asking them to ask questions like, “I wonder if …” We find that such interventions increase curiosity in a way that is beneficial not only to work engagement but also to the way we reach out to other people. It can make our networks more diverse, which means we get more support later in our careers.

Toward the end of your book, you list the eight principles of rebel leadership—for instance, encouraging constructive dissent, seeking the new, and staying curious. Which of the principles you lay out has been the most challenging for you to adopt?

Making sure that there are happy accidents and being thoughtful about creating them. It’s a powerful principle for two reasons: Often when something happens by accident, we are more likely to be focused on the fact that it was a mistake rather than focusing on the opportunities. I love the story of when Italian chef Massimo Bottura’s sous chef dropped a lemon tart in his kitchen. It’s an accident that you could imagine other leaders criticizing. Instead, when Chef Bottura saw the broken lemon tart, he used it as inspiration to create a new dessert item called “Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart.” It’s good to be reminded that failures and mistakes can turn into something positive.

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The Vanishing Elephant: A Talent for Curiosity

By Francesca Gino
(Excerpted from Rebel Talent)

The way that we typically think about the effect of asking questions—especially when we are in leadership positions—is just plain wrong.  We fear that others will judge us negatively for not having all the answers, when in truth it’s just the opposite. When we interact with others by asking questions, our relationships grow stronger, because we are showing genuine interest in learning about them, hearing their ideas, and getting to know them more personally. As a result, we gain their trust, and our relationship becomes more interesting and intimate. If you are worried that by asking a question you may come across as incompetent, you have that wrong also: People think of us as being smarter when we ask questions than when we don’t.

To demonstrate the value of asking questions, my colleagues and I recruited a group of 170 students. We sat them down in front of computers and told them that they would be matched with another person taking the study, who would remain anonymous. What they did not know was that their partner was a computer-simulated actor. As a cover story, participants were told that the study was about understanding how instant messaging influences performance on a brain teaser. Participants then had to solve the task under time pressure, and they learned that their partner would also be completing it later in the study. They were told that their performance mattered, as they would be paid a bonus for each of the five problems in the brain teaser that they solved correctly.

To make sure the participants had no doubts that their partner was a real person, we gave them the opportunity to send an instant message to their partner at the beginning of the study. The computer-simulated actor did not provide a direct response to the message but simply sent one to them that said: “Hey, good luck.” Once they had completed the brain teaser, the participants received another message from their partner. Depending on the condition they had been randomly assigned to, they received one of two messages: “I hope it went well” or “I hope it went well. Do you have any advice?” Participants could respond to this message after they received it knowing they would not hear back. They then evaluated how competent they thought their partner was and reported on how likely they would be to ask their partner for advice on a similar task in the future.

The way that we typically think about the effect of asking questions—especially when we are in leadership positions—is just plain wrong.

Participants who had a partner who asked them for advice rated the advice seeker higher on competence. They also indicated that they would be more likely to turn to their partner for advice. Thus, contrary to what we tend to believe, asking for advice increases rather than decreases how competent we are perceived to be. We underestimate how flattering it is to be asked for advice. By asking questions, we give others the opportunity to share their personal experience and wisdom, thus stroking their ego. Curiosity is a way of being rebellious in the world. Rebels fight their fears and are willing to push past the discomfort of showing others that they need their help. It may feel scary, but it brings about all sorts of benefits.

Curiosity is related to both greater positive emotions and greater closeness when we interact with strangers for the first time. In one study my colleagues and I conducted, we had college students engage in conversations with a peer where they were instructed to ask many questions or just a few.

Students liked their partner more when they received more questions, we found, simply because that gave them the opportunity to talk and disclose information about themselves. People who ask more questions are better liked, our research shows, and speed daters who ask more questions get more second dates. In another study, undergraduates who didn’t know each other were instructed to either engage in a conversation with a peer designed to generate intimacy, asking questions like “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?” or they engaged in casual small talk. Those who had an intimate conversation reported feeling closer to their partner and happier than those who engaged in small talk. Yet we are usually reluctant to ask more probing questions like this, believing we’re getting too personal and that we should mind our own business instead.

Research has also found curiosity to be associated with greater satisfaction and a greater sense of social support in existing relationships. When arriving home after a day of work, you’ll feel more connected to your partner if you show you are curious about how their day went. In a newer relationship, you’ll have a more enjoyable date, and you’ll be more excited to have another, if your partner asks questions that lead you to share more about yourself. When you show curiosity by asking questions, others share more, and they return the favor, asking questions of you. This sets up a spiral of give and take that fosters intimacy.

Contrary to what we tend to believe, asking for advice increases rather than decreases how competent we are perceived to be.

When we open ourselves to curiosity, we are more apt to reframe situations in a positive way. Curiosity makes us much more likely to view a tough problem at work as an interesting challenge to take on.

A stressful meeting with our boss becomes an opportunity to learn. A nerve-racking first date becomes an exciting night out with a new person. A colander becomes a hat. In general, curiosity motivates us to view stressful situations as challenges rather than threats, to talk about difficulties more openly and to try new approaches to solving problems. In fact, curiosity is associated with a less defensive reaction to stress and, as a result, less aggression when we respond to a provocation.

In a diary study conducted each day over four weeks, people who had higher tolerance for uncertainty indicated that they had conflicts with friends less often, fewer passive-aggressive reactions, and were more willing to excuse transgressions.

Curiosity, in short, translates into greater engagement with others and with the world, thanks to the exploratory behavior and learning that it inspires.

Excerpted from Rebel Talent by Francesca Gino, Dey Street Books. Copyright 2018, Francesca Gino. All rights reserved.

Disclosure: Francesca Gino is on the Behavioral Scientist’s advisory board.


Elizabeth Weingarten

Elizabeth Weingarten is an editor at the Behavioral Scientist, as well as director of the Global Gender Parity Initiative at the think tank New America and senior fellow in its Better Life Lab. She previously worked on the editorial staffs of SlateThe Atlantic, and Qatar Today Magazine. She graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

Behavioral Scientist

This piece was published in partnership with The Behavioral Scientist, a collaboration between BSPA, ideas42 and the Center for Decision Research. The Behavioral Scientist is a non-profit online magazine that offers readers original, thought-provoking reports from the front lines of behavioral science. Visit us at