Professor Chris Jackson

How you answer the phone may influence your chance of a pay rise, your promotion and even your overall career prospects. Here at UNSW we have recently conducted a study which has analysed the personality traits and biological and environmental factors that predict so-called “career maverickism”.

Workers who lift the receiver to their left ear are more likely to be mavericks that bend the rules and foster new ideas, impressing their bosses, and moving up the career ladder much faster. It is important to foster better ways of working in organisations; working smarter, not harder, by doing things in a more efficient way. Those who break the rules and ‘just get things done’ are much better people to have working for you, if you are interested in the bottom line.

The study, based on 458 workers, found that managers can spot “mavericks” simply by assessing how they answered the phone. It details how those who hold the receiver to their left ear denote a preference for using the right side of the brain, which is associated with creative, problem-solving activities.

I’ve noticed that the GFC means that businesses are increasingly reliant on the skills of internal rule-breakers. Australia may have sailed through the global downturn, but there are still firms out there doing it tough. Firms need to be aggressive and competitive in the global market place. They want workers who don’t do it the same way ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it’. They don’t want people who are cautious, safe or conservative. Maverick employees have been popularly described as independent thinkers, creative problem solvers, quick decision makers, and goal-oriented individuals. It’s all about avoiding ‘group-think’, encouraging workers to be creative and giving them just an extra bit of room to take measured risks.

The research also shows there is a drawback for people who can’t stop breaking the rules. They tend to be poor team players and are generally unpopular. They rub people up the wrong way. You need a manager with vision who can pick up on their insights, and not be put off by the way they do things. In some jobs what may be seen as dysfunctional behaviour, like risk-taking, is crucial.

Interestingly, men are more prone to “maverickism” than women – which I think suggests a further area for productive study.

There are several icons in the business world who don’t follow the rules – and who make great role models.

Just think of people like Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, or Michael Crouch, who has established a Chair in Innovation at the Australian School of Business. He started Zip Industries because he thought that instead of selling what everybody else sold – because it was much easier to sell – he came up with a new product that actually did what people wanted – give instant hot water. Mavericks are good at perseverance and overcoming hurdles.

They are good for businesses and good for Australia.

Chris Jackson is a Professor of Business Psychology in the School of Organisation and Management.