The risks posed by mavericks in the workplace

Dr Elliroma Gardiner
Organisational psychologist Dr Elliroma Gardiner

Entrepreneurs are often seen as mavericks who take risks and win, but a Griffith University researcher has also uncovered a dark side to this dynamic human behaviour.

Dr Elliroma Gardiner, Lecturer in Griffith’s School of Applied Psychology, has found a disturbing link between some mavericks and their capacity to engage in unethical behaviour, particularly in the workplace.

Her research has also revealed that often no one in the workplace is aware of the unethical behaviour due to the ‘political’ skills of some mavericks.

“In other words, they are excellent networkers and really good at influencing others,” said Dr Gardiner.

“I think we expect that mavericks are not going to hold to any rules. But when it is in combination with being very skilled politically, they seem to be more likely to engage in unethical decision making.

Checks and balances

“People love the idea of being a maverick in the business world. It’s an appealing topic, and while I think there is a place for them in business, it has to be the right place. There also have to be checks and balances in place.”

Dr Gardiner said mavericks in the workplace could be difficult to identify, although a common trait is disagreeableness.

“Everyone thinks they are a maverick because there are very few people who will admit that they don’t have a knack for doing things differently,” she said.

“Someone who’s a maverick is risk-taking and unconventional, although someone who is dysfunctional in the workplace could have exactly the same profile.

“You will always pick up on the maverick who doesn’t have any friends, or who isn’t a good communicator. Those people would likely be out of the organisation straight away.

Unethical behaviour

“However, people who are really good operators appear to be able to remain in an organisation, and they are likely to be the ones acting unethically.”

Dr Gardiner has found that these mavericks can easily manipulate the opinions of co-workers by inspiring trust and offering an impression of authenticity. It is when these mavericks are in positions of power that problems may arise.

Dr Gardiner said her research had significant implications for the workplace, particularly as it highlighted that managers aren’t necessarily the most ethical employees.

“Individuals who are supervisors and high in maverickism have a heightened potential to be unethical,” said Dr Gardiner.

“When we think about managers, they are the ones in control and they are the ones employees report to if they see any issue.

“They’re supposed to be the ones who regulate and make sure the organisation is on track. But if those people are actually the ones with their hand in the till, that’s something that people need to be concerned about. If supervisors are more unethical than their employees, then that is worrying.”

Dr Gardiner’s research focused on the interactive effects of maverickism and political skill on unethical decision making and examined the responses of 517 full-time workers in Australia and the UK.