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How to protect your company’s nonconformists

June 17, 2015, 4:05 PM UTC
different chess piece
Chess game, red pawn makes opening move
Photograph by Dimitri Otis—Getty Images

Mavericks. Activists. Nonconformists. We all know one of these types. They’re the people who question everything and chime in during meetings with the opposite point of view when the rest of the team agrees. They may seem like obstacles to group harmony, but every team needs at least one, says M. Carl Johnson, executive vice president of marketing and chief growth officer at Big Heart Pet Brands.

“On some of my leadership teams, there’s a natural critic who always speaks the truth, which can be extremely annoying to other people,” he says. “But it’s an incredibly valuable role. It’s up to the leader to protect and support that person—and let the other team members know you’re supporting that person and to encourage them to value his or her ideas and views.”

Too often in the competitive corporate world, mavericks, whose divergent points of view often lead to innovation, get shut down—silenced by social pressure from peers and even managers, Johnson says. But unlike many senior executives, Johnson goes out of his way to ensure that such nonconformists get to speak their minds. This also encourages others to voice disagreement and be more candid.

Johnson, who oversees the Northern California-based company’s pet food and treats brands, including Meow Mix and Milk-Bone, starts by identifying the nonconformists on his teams and sits down with each one to discuss the importance of their contributions. Then, he brings up the subject in an open forum, telling employees, “We know who the different thinkers are here, and human nature is often to shut those people down, right? That’s how people are. But in today’s world, no one has a premium on what the right answer is—or even the right question. So, therefore, I want all voices to be equally valued.”

“Fundamentally, every fiber of our bodies is arrayed to resist change or even any outside influences,” he says, noting that he believes bringing people with different ideas together creates a climate in which the best ideas can be nurtured and developed.

Research suggests that Big Heart’s Johnson is onto something. For his 2011 book, Where Good Ideas Come From, author Steven Johnson set out to identify and understand the types of environments where unusual levels of innovation occur. He found that the traditional view of the “Eureka” moment in which a lone scientist makes a discovery while poring over a microscope is far less common than we might assume. Instead, Johnson found that innovation often derives from chaotic environments, like a coffee shop or tavern, where there are “unpredictable collisions of ideas from people of different backgrounds.” He encourages businesses to bring people together in spaces where those kinds of collisions can happen.

Big Heart’s Johnson agrees. “Innovation is inherently messy and chaotic. We talk about it as the essential paradox, reflecting the intersection of art and science.” When one of his teams lacks a member who routinely challenges the status quo, he will try to develop the trait by appointing someone to play the role of the critic at meetings. He also gives out what he calls “Change the Channel” awards to employees who voice contrary opinions and act on their beliefs.

As for Johnson himself, he readily acknowledges his own maverick tendencies. “I’ve had many experiences where I had a strong passion for exploring a particular avenue based on experience and instinct, even though there’s evidence against it.”

“We all come from our individual points of view. We need the sharp stick of outside reason to make us think,” he says.


Big Heart Pet Brands’ M. Carl Johnson encourages team leaders to follow these steps to embolden their nonconformists to speak up:

1. Identify the nonconformists on your team.

2. Let your team know how important it is to hear everyone’s ideas and that you will make sure all voices are heard.

3. Reward people who candidly speak their minds, especially when others have a divergent point of view.

Keith Ferrazzi is the CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, a research-based strategic consulting firm, and the author of Never Eat Alone and Who’s Got Your Back?. David Wilkie is the CEO of World 50, a private community for senior executives to share ideas.